$1b global phenomenon arrives in Australia
Lin-Manuel Miranda thinks of Australia and the United States as being like family who grew up on different sides of the world.
"America and Australia are cousins in many ways," the creator of acclaimed stage musical Hamilton told news.com.au. "We're both 200-odd years old, we're both former British colonies.
"So, we have the same laugh lines, and we have a lot of resemblances, and then a lot of differences."
Hamilton is opening in Sydney this week, the first Australian staging of the musical phenomenon that Miranda first mounted in New York City in 2015. The show captured the American Zeitgeist in unimaginable ways - including its record box office, an impressive award hauls and glowing praise from fans including President Barack Obama.
Perhaps it's not surprising the story of American founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, dynamically told through a smash-up of musical genres both traditional and contemporary, found an audience at home.
But how does that very American story translate in Australia, where despite the similarities with the US in part of its history, took a divergent path of nation building? And where the tales of Hamilton and Burr's rivalry and fatal duel is less known - unless, of course, you're a West Wing fanatic like Miranda.
Miranda said he can't begin to predict what Australian reactions might be, but he has some experience in putting Hamilton in front of a different audience than the one it was written for.
"I remember the first time I saw the UK production and King George came out and starts singing to the audience," he explained. "A few things happening simultaneously. One, I go, 'Oh, sh*t'. It's implicit he's singing to Americans and we're not in America. He's singing to this colony that is trying to break up with him, it's a break-up song. How are they going to react to this?
"Because here comes the King of England walking out on a stage and we're in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. But then something really interesting happened, which was at the lyric where he goes, 'Don't change the subject because you're my favourite subject'. The audience started roaring with laughter because they realised, 'Oh, we're playing Americans, we're now playing a role'.
"I'm very curious as to how that moment repeats itself in Australia, and with your own history and perspective on that."
Even though Hamilton is so deeply rooted in American history - and Miranda said specific American geographical references to Weehawken and Potomac that were taken out for the British production will also be cut from the Australian one - there is a universal story at its core that transcends borders.
"The secret sauce of the show are the deeper themes of what are we meant to do with our time on Earth?" Miranda explained. "If we have any awareness of the ticking clock that is our mortality, how do we deal with that? How do we act in a way that determines how we're remembered?
"Our two main characters, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, have very fundamentally different approaches to the same ticking clock. Hamilton can't stop being reckless and he can't stop moving. And Burr's terrified of moving for fear of making a mistake. I think all of us fall somewhere between those two poles.
"And then, of course, Eliza's extraordinary life and legacy that in some ways outmatches her husband's. That's the stuff that stays with people and knows no nationality. How do we live and how do we live in the world?"
For years, Australians visiting New York, Chicago or London, have scrambled to secure tickets to the sold-out production.
Reviews of the show's ambitious genre-busting styles, its sweeping historical story and its energetic performances had reached these antipodean shores.
But unless Australian travellers were very organised well in advance of their trips, they were hard out of luck.
A filmed version of a 2015 show with the original Broadway cast premiered on Disney+ in July, and it was clear from social media reactions that first weekend there was a lot of pent-up demand for it in Australia. Disney does not release viewership figures for its streaming platform.
When Hamilton opens at Sydney's Lyric Theatre this week, it will be the only Hamilton production being staged anywhere in the world with New York City's famous Broadway precinct and London's West End still shuttered due to the COVID pandemic.
For Australian audiences, it's an enormous opportunity to not just be part of something but also see Hamilton's local cast, culturally diverse performers drawn from all over Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, led by WA actor Jason Arrow who is taking on the title role of Alexander Hamilton, a role Miranda originated.
The issue of cultural representation on stage came to a head in the Australian stage community in August when the musical theatre $50,000 Rob Guest Endowment fund announced 30 semi-finalists for the year's professional development program.
The fund first sought to deflect responsibility by arguing that it was limited by the candidate pool and then later said it was cancelling the program because the 30 semi-finalists had been bullied. The semi-finalists denied the bullying claims and said they had planned to, as a group, withdraw from consideration in support of their diverse fellow performers.
It was an ugly episode, but it highlighted the challenges and lack of opportunities faced by culturally diverse performers in an industry that didn't always represent them.
Miranda didn't doubt that Australia would have the talent that could do justice to his show, which was groundbreaking for casting diverse performers to play historically caucasian figures as part of its meta-commentary on inclusion.
"We took it on faith that the diversity would exist [in Australia]," Miranda said. "We spent over a year casting the show, which is par for the course, that's how long it took us to cast the UK company as well.
"We were thrilled with the applicant pool and the breadth of diversity and different kinds of diversity that you wouldn't see in the United States. You wouldn't see incredible Aboriginal talent necessarily in the US in such numbers as we saw in Australia.
"In conversations with (promoter) Michael Cassel and our Australian counterparts and our presenters, we knew how important casting locally was to the performing arts community in Australia. There was incredible pride in mounting this, of making sure this company felt a real sense of ownership over their production."
While Miranda didn't want to predict whether the Australian Hamilton cast might usher in a new era of inclusion and diversity on the Australian stage, he did compare original casts in a production to breaking the four-minute mile.
"For years, no one could run a mile in under four minutes. And then the moment someone broke it, everyone started breaking it. Like it was this weird kind of common phenomenon. I think that happens with original casts.
"No one could've imagined matching the incredible company of Rent and that amazing diversity and those unique talents. And then the show itself becomes a beacon to artists who say, 'I can do this' or 'I wasn't necessarily interested in musical theatre, but I know I could play Mimi or I could play Angel'.
"I think Hamilton has a similar effect, in that the original cast is the four-minute mile and then you build it, and it begins to attract like-minded artists. And I've seen that over and over, with both our companies in the States and in the UK. That's thrilling."
With the original Hamilton Broadway cast such as Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr and Phillipa Soo now household names, there's every hope that the Australian cast will have big things ahead of them too.
Hamilton opens at the Sydney Lyric Theatre on March 17
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Originally published as $1b global phenomenon arrives in Australia