Lyndon Watts as Aaron Burr in Hamilton dress rehearsals
Photograph: Supplied/Lisa Maree Williams

History has its eyes on Hamilton stars Lyndon Watts and Victory Ndukwe

Landing lead roles in Lin Manuel Miranda's award-winning show as it opens in Sydney is a dream come true

Stephen A Russell

Household name Lin-Manuel Miranda played the titular role in juggernaut musical Hamilton, which some 3 million people watched when it appeared on Disney+ last year. Those are pretty enormous shoes that South African-born, Perth-raised actor Jason Arrow will be filling when the all-the-awards-winning show lights up Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. And Lyndon Watts will be standing right next to him in the room where it happens as the soon-to-be vice president of the United States Aaron Burr.

They studied together at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, with Watts the year below Arrow. “Jason is one of the most overwhelmingly talented people I’ve ever come across in my life,” Watts beams. “He’s exceptional and has such a kind heart. It’s joyful, and it’s playful. Having the company of another mixed-race man of colour in the lead is something that I haven’t had before, and to have that with my fellow actors makes me feel so comfortable and safe and supported.”

Watts is taking time out from the thick of final dress rehearsals when we speak, but he is currently donning his daggiest trackies and worn-out runners. Pulling on the Hamilton frock coats helps him transport himself back to New York in 1776. “Stepping into a beautiful tailor-made suit jacket and vests and all this the finery adds an element of reality,” he says. “You can’t slouch in these costumes. Your shoulders naturally sit in a certain way.”

History hangs on those shoulders. Watts wanted to come to Burr on his own terms, largely avoiding the Disney+ version and the original cast album featuring Leslie Odom Jr in the role. Instead, he read intently about the real figure. “Aaron had a lot of flaws on the page, he had his wins and losses, and that really informed my understanding of the world this person lived in.”

The show is important to so many people, and its impact is even greater right now, Watts notes. “We’re the only production of Hamilton in the world at the moment, making what is normally a beautiful, amazing opportunity now sacred, because there aren’t many people able to tell stories on stage at the moment.”

Once I realised that I have something to say and that I have a place on stage alongside people like me, I started to fix my gaze slightly higher

Acting opposite an almost entirely non-white cast from across Australia and New Zealand is powerful. Watts has carved out a successful musical career in everything from fellow Disney show Aladdin to West Side Story and A Chorus Line, but he says this is next level. “All I wanted, as a young person, was to be in musicals,” he says. “I didn’t see a lot of men of colour playing lead roles. I didn’t see a lot of musicals with people of colour in them. But as I got older and trained, once I realised that I have something to say and that I have a place on stage alongside people like me, I started to fix my gaze slightly higher.”

He says Miranda’s music matters. “When Lin approached this story, he saw it as writing oneself out of your given circumstances you are born into, so using your gifts to rise above your station and to achieve acclaim,” Watts says. “It’s a hip-hop story, R'n'B and soul, and these styles originated with and have been perfected by Black people and people of colour globally. So to tell that story authentically, he needed people of colour and Black people and Indigenous people to take up space on stage.”

Towering co-star Victory Ndukwe is taking on the role of president Thomas Jefferson and Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette, who fought in both the American and French revolutions. Ndukwe started out as a musician, then shifted into modelling. It was his agent who suggested he give acting a crack. Ndukwe scored a coveted spot in esteemed Melbourne drama school 16th Street Actors Studio on his first try. It wasn’t quite a straight road to Hamilton, however, starting out doing free shows in tiny theatres. Even when calls came in, they weren’t necessarily what he was looking for.

“I noticed that I would only ever get auditions when they wanted the Black or the ethnic guy, or the guy with cool hair,” he says. “It was never a case of ‘he’s just a good actor,’ and it kind of got a little bit icky for me after a while.”

Getting the call for Hamilton was transformative for Ndukwe. After ten auditions for the show, he almost gave up hope. “You would self-tape and send them to the States to look at it, and they would send you two pages of notes and say, ‘do it again’. You would do another one, and then they’ll send you another two pages of notes…  It got to a point where I was thinking, ‘Am I gonna make this? What else do they want? I’m giving them everything. There’s nothing left’.”

Laughing raucously, Ndukwe says the extended wait between the last audition and landing the role was particularly excruciating. “I had given up and forgotten about it,” he recalls. “So when I got the call, I was literally shocked. I was properly astonished.”

Black and brown kids are going to come to the show, sit down and see people who look like them doing it on the big stage, which is an amazing thing

It’s an astonishing role, made famous by Daveed Diggs. But like Watts, Ndukwe wanted to find his take on the character. “Daveed really made the role what it is. He made it fun and exciting and vibrant. But at the same time, if you go into it trying to emulate what Daveed did, you’re not gonna end up in a good spot.”

It’s been joyous finding the right spot alongside a powerful ensemble. “It’s an incredible experience, because other Black and brown kids are going to come to the show, sit down and see people who look like them doing it on the big stage, which is an amazing thing. I think it’s going to encourage a lot of other young actors who thought maybe they couldn't do it to take the step out there and give it a shot.”

The story tells itself. “When people come to see Hamilton maybe without reading a lot of the press, they go, ‘OK, so that’s a Black actor playing Thomas Jefferson. All right. Interesting.’ You know what I mean? There’s no mention of that in the show. It’s just about the history.”

He points to John David Washington leading Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet. “The character has nothing to do with his race. He’s just the badass agent. We’re kind of walking a tightrope at the moment where we’re trying to celebrate diversity, but also just recognise actors for being good actors.”

History is not what we are so often shown, Watts agrees. Too many non-white voices have been written out. Watts loves Greek mythology and was recently re-reading the story of beautiful Ethiopian princess Andromeda, wife of Perseus. “And typically in all the paintings and in film, she’s portrayed as a white woman,” he notes. “We have historically been taken out of the story and out of the picture. So this is Lin’s reclamation of our space. We might not have been the Founding Fathers. But that wasn’t our choice. So putting ourselves into pictures where we were subjugated is a really powerful way of taking space back and stepping into our power.”

Hamilton is at Sydney's Lyric Theatre now. Read our review here

Find out what shows are gracing Sydney's stages this month

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