Originally published on CafeMom
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Lexi Lawson may be a newcomer to Broadway, but she has stepped into the role of Eliza in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton with short notice and apparent ease. With the hit Broadway musical becoming a cultural and political touchstone throughout the country, playing the wife of the titular Founding Father is no small task on stage — and Lawson is enjoying the opportunity to nurture her role outside of the theater, as well, by actually immersing herself in the legacy of her character.
One of the final lines of Hamilton describes how, after Alexander’s death, his widow (Elizabeth Hamilton, or Eliza) helps to found the first private orphanage in New York City, honoring the memory of her late husband, who was an orphan. That orphanage has since evolved into what is today Graham Windham — an expansive family services agency that helps more than 4,500 children and families each year through 20 educational and social service programs at 11 locations across New York. One of its programs is The Graham School, a public K through 12 school for 300 at-risk residential and day students — and that’s where we joined Lawson on October 24, as she paid a visit to the Hastings-on-Hudson campus to see the impact Eliza continues to make today.
As Lawson walked the halls, she paused to talk with everyone she met, noticing the details in the decorations of the children’s rooms and asking them about their favorite classes and activities. When she came upon an engraved tribute to Eliza in the hallway, she paused for a long moment to study the image before asking for a photo of herself standing next to it.
“It’s hard for me to get through, but I love playing that scene,” Lawson said of the emotional finale when Eliza’s orphanage is first mentioned. “They don’t necessarily say it, but I feel like Eliza’s connection with children — she loved children, obviously, she had so many of them! When Philip [her son] passed, I think that she felt like it was her duty to make sure that she could give to children and maybe even make up for her loss that she wasn’t able to finish out her motherhood to Phillip …. For Eliza to become a mother to these hundreds of children is like a dream come true.”
Playing Alexander Hamilton’s wife presents new kinds of challenges for Lawson, who portrays several decades Eliza’s life in the span of three hours. Audiences first meet her as a teenager — a devoted daughter, a loving sister, and a newlywed giddy about falling in love during the American Revolution. They are invited inside her home, watching her struggle for her husband’s attention and endure devastating heartbreak as both a wife and mother — unique undertakings for Lawson, who is making her Broadway debut in the show, following stints in the first national tour of In the Heights (also by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) and the Broadway tour of Rent.
“I feel the motherhood in Act Two,” Lawson said. “I feel the shift in the acting. The way I walk is different, the way I talk to my son and Alexander is different. I’m grateful I get to do that.”
Motherhood is not a part of Lawson’s life yet –- it’s hard to juggle that while starring in a three-hour musical every night –- but she says she plans on it in the future (and in the meantime is mom to Seven, a small, energetic Yorkshire she brought along with her to The Graham School). The delight that “Auntie Lexi,” as she is known to her friends’ kids, felt around children was apparent as we walked through the grounds of the campus, meeting the individuals who live, go to school there, or both.
Engaging and attentive, she remembered each of their names and asked them questions about their lives. When a 14-year-old girl shared that she wants to be a chef when she grows up, Lawson immediately asked, “Can you teach me how to cook? I don’t know how!”
It was clear that some of the people at The Graham School were naturally starstruck by Lawson’s presence, but the actress seemed unaware of the effect she had on them. Perhaps that’s because her journey to stardom in the biggest Broadway show in years (taking over the part of Eliza from original cast member Phillipa Soo) was unexpected and fast-paced, to say the least.
Before she was center stage, Lawson had watched Hamilton from the standing room area in the back of the theater and became determined to audition for the musical, which had announced a national tour as well as a production in Chicago. Before her audition was even booked, she had learned the music for the three principal female roles and used the app Acapella to create a video of herself singing the backup as well as the solos. When Lawson got the call that she was going to join the New York cast, she screamed into the phone, “Is Broadway even an option?” Three days later, she was in Manhattan.
Of course, starring in the now iconic show has come with some great perks, with an excursion to The Graham School — where students and residents receive individual instruction and treatment — among the more meaningful ones.
“I feel like I belong there,” Lawson said of the campus while driving back to the city, pausing for a moment before adding, “I love kids. I’ve always been really connected. I get really emotional when I talk to kids. I’ve always, since I was little, wanted to inspire children, and I want children to feel that they can be anything and do anything and feel support from someone. If not their parents, then someone.”
While Lawson doesn’t often talk politics, she has more often since joining Hamilton, sharing that “being able to now step into Eliza’s shoes has felt like it’s even more acceptable for me to voice my opinions.” Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast aren’t shy about using the stage and their celebrity as a forum to engage viewers to vote and to address their fears (during a November 18 performance with Vice President-Elect Mike Pence in the audience) about representation for all in Donald Trump’s America.
And, as far as policy is concerned, she does care greatly about child care in America, saying, “It’s important our funding and our taxes go to the right thing. I wish our government was fair. It frustrates me that there are a lot of things we don’t know.” Until she is a mother in real life, Lawson will continue to play one on stage, a natural extension for her — and continue to hold the well-being of all children, including those she just met, close to her heart.
“I think that’s something that’s always been a part of me,” she said of motherhood and Eliza’s motivation to help start the orphanage that became the foundation for Graham Windham. “To hear Eliza say, ‘I helped raise hundreds of children’ added more fuel to the fire. [Eliza] thought these same things that I thought. How inspiring is that? Years and years ago, these same thoughts were going through her head. You can learn so much from children if you just give them a chance. I understand why that was important for Eliza to do that.”