Hamilton's Morgan Marcell on "Going with Your Gut," Pursuing Film and Sonya Tayeh's New Show
For many performers, dancing in the original cast of the phenomenally popular Hamilton is the epitome of "making it." For film and history buffs, contributing a documentary to the Smithsonian's collection might be a bucket-list item. And for those with a heart for giving back, creating an organization that leads arts workshops for youth is a powerful accomplishment.
Morgan Marcell has done all those things, proving that dancers needn't limit themselves to one passion. We caught up with the former swing and co-dance captain of Hamilton to chat about The Eliza Project, her budding film career and her next Broadway-bound show.
Jon Rua, Morgan Marcell and Austin Smith in costume for Hamilton. Photo by Jayme Thornton.
How did The Eliza Project get started?
When I was in Hamilton with Phillipa Soo, we decided that we should do something to benefit the students at Graham Windham, which is the orphanage that Eliza Hamilton originally started and still exists today. We came up with this workshop concept where we would raise funds through Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and they would give a portion to The Eliza Project every time Hamilton collected for donations. Any participant in Hamilton could take that money and create a project to benefit the students and broaden their horizons through art.
We've done three projects so far, and the last one we decided to film for a documentary—I am an aspiring filmmaker, and the Smithsonian asked for a donation for their Giving in America exhibit on philanthropy. [Editor's note: Later this month, a portrait of Eliza Hamilton and a costume from the musical will be on display as part of the exhibit.] I decided to create something digital, instead of a T-shirt or a photo. They're going to put it in their archives eventually.
Right now, we have the 10-minute documentary, which I'm submitting to film festivals. This is my first go-round at directing. I have a real passion for it. Hamilton gave me a platform, and so did The Eliza Project, to create a piece of film that made a statement and hopefully betters the world a little bit.
How did you become interested in filmmaking?
It was something I was always interested in from a very young age. I wore out the VHS, yes, VHS, of The Wizard of Oz and Brave Little Toaster, some of the classic films. I was so enthralled with how they could possibly make that. As I got older, I was really interested in drama and storytelling. I had a huge connection to Martin Luther King, Jr., and what he did in the civil rights movement. I think I was really interested in people that were creating change, whether that was through art and filmmaking or marching and activism. I always wanted to combine the two but I didn't really know how. So I decided to just start somewhere, and hopefully this is the beginning of a journey.
What are some of The Eliza Project workshops you've done so far?
The last project, we rented out Avatar Studios where they record all the Broadway soundtracks. The idea is as the funds grow, they're available to the artists to change these kids' lives in a very small way. Phillipa and I did the first one together, and that one was a singing, dancing and improv workshop. The second one was the art of storytelling around a campfire. It was designed around this eco workshop. We took these kids into a forest and taught them how to make a fire and shelter and how to be green, more aware. Anything can fall under the umbrella, and we're excited about that.
So as long as there's an arts tie-in it seems pretty open?
An arts tie and letting the kids own their own story. We really love that we're not the doctors and the advisors and the council members that are at Graham Windham because they've read the files and know exactly what these kids have gone through. When the kids come in, they're surprised by the fact that we don't know who they are, and they have to kind of define themselves through art.
What's your involvement with musical theater now?
I just did Chess at the Kennedy Center, and that was part of their new concert series. They're aiming for it to go to Broadway. And then I'm also going back there to do the concert series of In the Heights, which will be fun because I did the tour. And then Moulin Rouge! in Boston and then Broadway in 2019.
Have you started working with Sonya Tayeh on the choreography for Moulin Rouge! yet?
We had a six-week lab at the end of last year, so I spent a long chunk of time with her. And we're doing some pre-production for the show coming up. She's a beast and a force and has a vision.
Do you have any advice for dancers who also have multiple interests on how to juggle them and stay open to possibilities?
So many people told me to go with your heart, but I think it's also about going with your gut and not falling into what you think you should be doing. I did that for a long time: I didn't admit that I loved musical theater. I didn't really admit that film was my number-one priority or my number-one passion. But I think if I had honed in on that and accepted that earlier, it would have been maybe easier—I wanted to go to Stanford and be an academic because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. There's a part of me that had a passion for that, but I leaned in so far to the image that I had created and that my parents had created for me, that I think I lost sight of what I was really passionate about.
The other thing is use any platform and opportunity that you have to link your other passions. Whichever one rises the fastest will help you, and then you've also developed these other skills.
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextets (AKA "the mattress dance") hasn't been revived since it premiered in 1965. Nor has Rainer had any wish to do it again, to ask performers to heave 10 mattresses around while carrying out 31 tasks that changed every 30 seconds. It was an unwieldy, difficult dance. (Even the title is unwieldy.) But Emily Coates, who has danced in Rainer's work for 20 years, became curious about this piece and was determined to see it again—and to dance in it. She will get her wish November 15–17, when the mattress dance will be performed as part of the Performa 19 Biennial.
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.