Last night, blockbuster musical Hamilton was seen by paying audiences in Australia for the first time.
It’s the only company in the world performing the show, in one of the only countries where theatres have reopened.
And a few hours before curtains rose, its star Jason Arrow – a relative newcomer – was understandably pumped.
“The energy tonight is going to be indescribable and we’re absolutely going to feed off it,” he told Guardian Australia, in costume and backstage at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney. “I’m so excited for people to see this … Bring it on!”
After a performance on Tuesday for friends and family, Wednesday was the show’s first preview leading up to the official opening on 27 March – the first night critics are invited to review.
Original producer Jeffrey Seller is among those who have spent two weeks in hotel quarantine for it – but its creator and original lead, Lin-Manuel Miranda, couldn’t make it work.
It’s a bittersweet moment, Miranda says; Broadway has been completely shut down for more than a year. An opening night would have been nice.
“I’m both envious and just incredibly hopeful that live theatre is happening somewhere,” he tells Guardian Australia over Zoom from his home in New York. “And, like, kudos to you for doing all the work necessary for that to happen.”
Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Hamilton tells the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton through hip-hop-infused music and a cast made up predominantly of people of colour. It has won 11 Tonys, a Pulitzer and a Grammy since it opened off Broadway in 2015, breaking numerous records for ticket sales and soundtrack streams before breaking another last year, when the original cast production landed on Disney+ and everyone watched it immediately.
Touring shows have travelled through North America and Puerto Rico, with productions setting up shop in Chicago and London – but Sydney is its newest venture, and its only active one. Although casting began a few years ago, the show was delayed by Covid-19 and rehearsals only kicked off in January. Miranda has Zoomed in to offer advice and encouragement, as have much of the original creative team.
“I know how seriously the Australian company is taking it,” Miranda says. “It’s sort of a badge of honour that they’re the only ones performing Hamilton in the world right now.”
Lyndon Watts, who will play Aaron Burr, echoes the sentiment: “It actually becomes kind of sacred,” he said at a media call this week. “We’re representing globally the artists and actors who can’t find their way to the stage right now.”
That’s not all they’re representing. The November cast announcement arrived amid an urgent conversation about cultural diversity in the industry. Australia’s most lucrative musical theatre scholarship had been literally cancelled after revealing an all-white longlist – and a movement known as the Quarter was campaigning for structural change.
Miranda knew of the tensions that his show was stepping into; he had met the Australian creative team in 2019, at a Christmas party. “They’d been in New York soaking [the Broadway show] up, watching the backstage traffic, learning what they could learn. And I got to talk to them about all of that stuff. We were about halfway through casting at that point,” he says.
“We also knew from talking to [Australian producer] Michael Cassel and the folks on the ground in Australia that the other big conversation – in addition to [diverse casts] – was finding local talent,” he says. In October, for instance, the Australian production of Pippin controversially cast a Broadway performer in the role of the Leading Player rather than a local actor of colour.
“It’s never been our ethos to sort of fly in members from other companies to bring the show to you. We want to take the time and find an incredible Australian company, with all of the diversity that is baked into the initial impulse of the show itself.”
Arrow, who is South African-Australian, leads a principal cast of people of colour from Australia and New Zealand. (As always, an exception is made for King George III, played in Australia by white actor Brent Hill.) Chloé Zuel stars as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler, with Akina Edmonds and Elandrah Eramiha as her sisters Angelica and Peggy. Matu Ngaropo stars as George Washington; Victory Ndukwe is playing Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; and Innawonga actor Shaka Cook will play Hercules Mulligan and James Madison.
Miranda was involved in the casting, and has said Arrow “ate [his audition] like he was starving”; to the Guardian, he remembers being struck by Ngaropo too. “To have this incredible audition for George Washington be from an actor of Indigenous descent – and then to have everything that reverberates from that decision,” he enthuses.
“It was very late at night in the States when the Australian cast announcement video went out and: it woke me up. The excitement from that video in Australia woke. Me. Up.”
The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement brought with it renewed criticism of the musical, which has been called out for side-stepping around the fact that most of its heroes, including Hamilton himself, either owned slaves, benefited from slavery or were silent on the system that allowed it.
“I’ve been open throughout the process of how much I struggled with that. Slavery is the original sin of our country, and every character in our show is complicit,” Miranda says. “It’s a valid criticism because it’s not a history book. It’s as much of the guy’s life that I could fit into two and a half hours.”
Speaking to Guardian Australia last month, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler admitted he’d be “curious if Lin gets itchy” to tinker with the show. “So much has changed in the world this year, it will be interesting to see if little things change here and there.” But when asked directly, Miranda’s answer is resolute: “No. It took me six years to write what you got!”
Diehard fans who think they know all the words will have a few disorienting moments, though. One occurs in the song Your Obedient Servant, when Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel: “Stand, Alexander / Weehawken, dawn / Guns drawn.”
Miranda remembers taking a poll of the UK company to see if anyone knew what “Weehawken” was.
“They were like, ‘Does it mean, like, we’re about to fight? Like, ‘We hawkin!’?’” Miranda laughs. “I was like, ‘Uh, no … look, I’m changing it to Jersey.’” (He removed a reference to the Potomac too: Australians wouldn’t know what it means, he says, “unless you’re a West Wing fan.”)
Miranda has celebrated art as an essential means of escape and catharsis during the pandemic. To get through his own lockdown, he found himself turning to books. “One of the first books I read [during the pandemic] was a history of Shakespeare. That phrase was going around like, ‘Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague’,” he says, in a voice which embodies the snootiness of a person who would say that. “I was like, ‘Did he? Is that what we’re supposed to be doing right now?’ Because I’m just trying to work out how to leave my house and come back and wash my hands.”
But the book which brought him “enormous sustenance” this year, he says, is Mark Harris’ biography of American producer, director and actor Mike Nichols. “Mike Nichols changed Broadway and then broke up with his partner – and that was like his first act. He had a nine-act life!
“It was incredibly inspiring to read about someone who had these successes, these massive failures, and then bounced back,” he says. “In moments where it feels like everything’s stuck forever, it’s very important to be reminded that life is long.”