Before we start, let me make a disclaimer: I am not a musical person.
I have taken up three different instruments in my life and yet currently know how to play none of them. I have no musical expertise besides the remnants of the music theory my piano teacher taught me ages ago and what I got from watching the movie “Tár.” I’m the type of person whose entire music taste consists of songs I’ve listened to and responded with “Hm. Sounds good.”
Despite that, once upon a time, I was a Broadway fan. It’s not an era I tend to look back fondly on, but it makes me nostalgic nonetheless.
So, this past August, when I saw the Eastman Instagram account announce that Renée Elise Goldsberry, who originated the role of Angelica Schuyler in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” was going to perform as a headliner for Meliora Weekend, I couldn’t help but get excited.
The performance, “An Evening with Renée Elise Goldsberry,” took place on Friday, Oct. 6, in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Eastman’s own Empire Film and Media Ensemble (EFAME) opened the show with an overture dedicated to “our favorite neighboring suburb, New York City,” conducted by Mark Watters.
The current director of the Beal Institute for Film Music and Contemporary Media, Watters is a six-time Emmy Award-winning composer and conductor best known for his work composing for various projects, including film, television, and two Olympics. However, the composition of the medley itself was done by the students of EFAME, who supposedly put the whole thing together in one hour. With my closest experience hearing a live orchestra being my brother’s high school band, I was blown away by the harmony and talent of the orchestra playing before me.
After the overture — and an introduction by Watters — Goldsberry took the stage, greeted by thunderous applause. Her following performance was nothing short of extraordinary.
Although I wasn’t familiar with most of the songs she decided to sing that evening, I was hooked by both her amazing voice and her compelling stage presence. She not only sang, she performed. She told stories. She danced along. She hyped up her band, her background vocalists, and the orchestra.
Goldsberry was a fluid, active presence; serving both as the star of the show and the key component that brought all the different parts of the stage together. Her voice blended with the orchestra to create a sound that was an out-of-this-world experience to my ears.
It was her stories and anecdotes that she told in between some of her songs that brought her down to Earth and made the performance more engaging. Some of them were funny, like when Aretha Franklin left Lin-Manuel Miranda a voicemail asking for Hamilton tickets, then never responded when they called her back, much to Goldsberry’s dismay. Yet some of them were more personal, more vulnerable.
She told us about her emotional audition for “The Lion King” on Broadway, which was her first major audition after years of trying to hit it big. It happened not long after 9/11, and she recounted her deeply emotional experience when she was asked to sing the ballad “Shadowland” from the soundtrack.
“I never imagined that singing a song like [Shadowland] would land me here, in Kodak Hall,” she said, as if she was the one who was privileged to get to perform for us.
While much of her setlist was upbeat, I genuinely got chills during her performances of songs like “Shadowland” and “Satisfied” from “Hamilton.” As Goldsberry did not have a whole ensemble of performers supporting her as she did during her time on “Hamilton,” it was especially unreal when members of the audience took the ensemble’s place during “Satisfied,” singing the parts of “To the groom!” and “To the bride!” in between the appropriate lines, like in the original song. (They were probably Eastman students. They were all on the left side of the balcony. I swear they even harmonized.)
After her last song, a “Rent” medley as a tribute to her time portraying Mimi Marquez in the closing cast of the acclaimed musical, Goldsberry closed the evening with an encore, in which she sang an original song that she wrote for her daughter. This song will be a part of her debut solo album releasing in 2024. As she sang this slower song, it felt as if she was singing to each of us.
“This show is a blatant attempt to manipulate you into falling in love… with love,” she mentioned at one point in the middle of her show. To each member of the audience, this message could be interpreted in a different way. To me, with my memories as a former “Hamilton” fan arising during the show, her words reminded me to not be so harsh to my younger self. If anything, my younger self has gotten me to where I am today, and surely that’s no small feat, even if it involved a Broadway phase along the way.
Does that mean I should thank my younger self for my ability to still recall the lyrics to some “Hamilton” songs five years later? I’m not so sure. But at the same time, I should thank her — as well as Goldsberry — for reminding me that it’s okay to love music solely for the purpose of loving music, no matter the genre.