Just six years ago, Anthony Ramos made Broadway history as an original cast member of Lin-Manuel Miranda's runaway hit, "Hamilton."
He said, "When I'm rappin' and I'm doin' this verse: I'm past patiently waitin'. I'm passionately smashin' every expectation. Every action's an act of creation. I'm laughin' in the face of casualties and sorrow. For the first time, I'm thinkin' past tomorrow, and I'm not throwin' away my shot, I meant every word of that!"
He was 24, with dual roles: first, abolitionist John Laurens ("He's got that energy. So, I had to bring that out every day"); then, Alexander Hamilton's son, Philip Hamilton ("He's smooth, you know what I'm saying? He's got a little more swag than John. This kid grew up in money, which I didn't relate to personally!").
He's a Brooklyn guy. But this summer, in the film "In the Heights," he'll be seen singing and dancing in a different New York neighborhood: Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan.
"It was almost like I was home," he told correspondent Kelefa Sanneh. "We doing this, like, mad emotional scene. And this dude goes out his window. It had to be maybe, like, 2:00, 3:00 in the morning and we're all raising candles, and people crying. And they call, 'Cut!' And one guy goes, 'This better be the last take! This better be the last take!'"
It's a film version of. Ramos plays Usnavi, the local bodega owner: "He's the narrator of our story, like so many bodega owners are, right? These guys see everything. They hear everything."
Sanneh asked, "This is a word that if people don't know it already, they're gonna learn it if they watch 'In the Heights':."
"Yeah, bodega. The corner store."
"And this is a character that, you know, you see something in, right?"
"I felt like I relate to this guy."
Growing up, Ramos (whose family is Puerto Rican) says he noticed there weren't many Latino roles on Broadway. "We had half of 'West Side Story,' you know what I'm saying?" he laughed. "And then you got 'In the Heights,' maybe, like, 'Man of La Mancha,' maybe, you know, right? And that's it!
"I had teachers telling me, 'Change the way you speak so people don't really know where you're from.' And I was believing that that is what you had to do."
Anthony Ramos Martinez, along with his brother and sister, were raised by their mom in public housing in Bushwick, Brooklyn. "It was a lot of violence, it was a lot of drugs."
"Is that how you perceived your neighborhood and your world when you were a kid, as being kind of scary?" Sanneh asked.
"Yeah, yeah. Kids were getting jumped, stabbed. There was all types of crazy, it was wild, you know? You're just trying to walk home and I'm getting followed. So, that was, like, my motivation, too, growing up. I was, like, 'Yo, I gotta, like, I gotta work. I gotta work.'"
He had two obsessions: Baseball ("They used to call me Franchise – like, 'Yo, Franchise, Franchise' – because my dad played, my brother played, my cousin played") and music. Ramos and his cousins recorded their own songs using an old computer.
"We stay up all night writing these songs and trying to record them. And we had this little mic that extended, I mean, barely extended from the back of the screen. And, like, you had to, like, lean over to get your take in, and then you had to be mad quiet when you passed the mic to the other person! And then, like, it's one o'clock, my aunt's knocking on the door, bein' like, 'Yoooo, we almost had that take!'"
In high school, he found acting accidentally. He thought he was auditioning for a talent show, but wound up as the lead in the school musical. "I was playing the role of Zeus and I had this cardboard, like, Burger King-type crown with, like, a blanket for a royal cloak," he said. "And it was almost, like, a lightbulb moment in my life. I was on stage, and I felt so free."
Sanneh asked, "You were like, 'If I can get a slightly different costume –'?"
"I can get a slightly different costume and a different song, we in the mix!"
When he attended a two-year conservatory, the costumes did not improve: "They're like, 'Okay, you gotta put on these ballet tights and these tap shoes.' And I'm like – ?'"
"Record scratch sound!"
"I was like, 'What?' I was wearing basketball shorts for the first two semesters!"
After finishing school, he got by with small roles. But he remembers the moment when he got a call from the producers of a new show, initially called "The Hamilton Mixtape." "Any time you get a 212 number, you're like, 'Oh. Hold up. Something might be going down,' you know? That's Manhattan!"
"Hamilton" made Ramos a star. But he might never have gotten there if "In the Heights" hadn't hit Broadway first.
"'In the Heights' was, like, the show that kept me believing, 'cause I was like, 'Yo, I don't know where I fit in, in this musical theater world."
"Why? 'Cause that made you realize that there was a possibility that someone with your life, with your story could find a place?" asked Sanneh.
"Yeah. I mean, I'm sitting there watching this show about people singing, and dancing, and speaking about things that I grew up knowing, and they sound like me."
One of the main characters is Nina, who leaves the old neighborhood to find her own path:
They are all counting on me to succeed
I am the one who made it out
The one who always made the grade
But maybe I should've just stayed home.
When I was a child, I stayed wide awake,
climbed to the highest place
On every fire escape, restless to climb
For Ramos, it's a familiar journey.
Sanneh said, "She's also talking about the pressure that she feels."
"Do you feel that pressure?"
"For sure," Ramos replied. "Because any minute, you feel like you could lose it. You know, especially when you grow up feeling like one good thing happens and two bad things happen, you know, it's wild. Sometimes I feel like, you know, I'm the one who made it out. I'm a part of a group of people who can tell the stories."
At 29, Ramos has lots of stories to tell. He's a recording artist about to release his second album, "Love and Lies."
And he's a busy actor: if you didn't see him in "A Star Is Born" or "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," maybe you heard his voice in "Trolls World Tour." But right now, he says, it's good to be home.
"Are you happy to be Usnavi for this summer?" Sanneh asked.
"Yeah. Yeah. This is the dream role, man. This is my dream role."
"You might never have to pay for anything at a bodega ever again!"
"I'm not sure about that!" Ramos laughed. "New Yorkers, they like making they money. They're like, 'Yo, I loved you in that movie. $20.'"
To watch a trailer for "In the Heights" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "In the Heights," in theatres and streaming on HBO Max
- "Love and Lies" (album) by Anthony Ramos, available June 25
- Follow Anthony Ramos on Instagram
- Anthony Ramos performs "Blessings"
- American Musical and Dramatic Academy/College of the Performing Arts
- Our thanks to Negril BK, Brooklyn
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Steven Tyler.