A bustling red carpet of reporters, TV crews and photographers jostling for space, a celebrity who’s who in dress to impress couture, crowding into a theater foyer sipping champagne and happily chatting close together before entering a capacity theater of 2,000 to watch the opening night of one of the most awarded, praised and popular musicals of our time, “Hamilton.” A flashback to pre-COVID-19 times? No, this is Sydney, Australia, where the first “Hamilton” since COVID lockdowns had its gala opening night on Saturday in all its glory at the Sydney Lyric Theatre.
“I feel like we are reborn and we are back to the life we love and we’ll now appreciate it even more than we did before,” says “Hamilton’s” original producer Jeffrey Seller, speaking with Variety on the red carpet.
Seller traveled from New York, enduring the strict mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine required to enter Australia to be here. With COVID ravaging live theater around the world, Seller has seen his six other “Hamilton” productions, including Broadway and the West End, completely shuttered. So all eyes are on Sydney, as this opening is now the only “Hamilton” onstage in the world.
The show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, pre-COVID 19 had every intention of being at the Sydney premiere, even intending to take his family on a holiday there. But those plans were gutted several months ago and instead he has been Zooming in with supportive messages to the Australian cast.
Other key “Hamilton” creatives, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and music supervisor and orchestrations Alex Lacamoire, have been guiding the Australian production from afar, overseeing casting and rehearsals on large Zoom screens placed in the rehearsal spaces so they can interact with the cast. “They all wish they could be here,” says Seller. “They are sending their warmest wishes and eagerly awaiting videos and reports from the field.”
“It’s excruciating and sad that our company members have suffered so much, and it’s been 13 months since New York theaters closed,” continues Seller. “So it’s just completely energizing and inspiring to be here in Sydney. This is a new beginning when we can all look and say we get to be back in the room together not only for audiences tonight, but theater-goers from all over the world who have been yearning for this moment.”
Live theater has in fact been back for months in Australia with strict COVID-safe protocols in place, including mandatory mask wearing (souvenir “Hamilton” masks were handed out to the opening night audience), seats limited to 75% capacity, and all guests must register their attendance digitally on an app at the entrance to the venues.
A revival of “Pippin” by Australian impresario John Frost reopened the Sydney Lyric Theatre last November. Disney has a production of “Frozen” at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, which moves to Melbourne in June. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” returned in February to Melbourne’s Princess Theatre after a 49-week hiatus during Melbourne’s harsh lockdown. Other productions onstage include the 9/11 musical “Come From Away,” touring Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, and the stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s theater production of “Moulin Rouge” is set to open at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre in August. As well, many local theater companies are thriving. The prestigious Sydney Theatre Company is staging a sold out production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” starring Sam Worthington.
As Australia finds itself in an enviable position with cases of community transmission down to zero in many states, local governments are relaxing COVID restrictions even further. As of this week Sydney and the state of NSW where it’s located will no longer require mandatory masks in any setting, and all theaters, live and sporting venues and cinemas will all be able to operate at full capacity. “It’s joyous we’ve been able to return to our stages so quickly,” says “Hamilton’s” Australian producer, Michael Cassel (also the producer of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and an upcoming touring company of Disney’s “The Lion King,” premiering in Auckland in June). “We are going to see a hive of activity. We have an audience who are very keen to embrace live entertainment and theater in particular and we’ve got incredible talent and producers who want to deliver all that.”
“Hamilton” was given an early exemption by the State government to sell to 100% capacity, and to say box office has been robust would be an understatement; in fact it’s in record numbers, despite the fact that there are no international tourists to bolster numbers (the Sydney Lyric Theatre is housed inside Sydney Star Casino and Hotel, a pre-COVID Mecca for international tourists). It’s been estimated (but not directly confirmed by producers who are reluctant to give box office numbers) that “Hamilton” tickets since going on sale for the Sydney season have already racked up over 250,000 in advance ticket sales, (approximately A$40 million). Tickets have just been extended for sale through to November. “It’s been really overwhelming,” says Cassel. “I questioned back in September what will be the impact of COVID and it hasn’t had an impact at all. We couldn’t be happier.”
When it comes to comparing Australia’s success with the U.S.’s COVID-19 response, and the lessons it teaches, Seller is blunt in his response. “You succeeded, we failed,” he says. “We are able to do our work here because you were able to extinguish this virus through testing, contact tracing and quarantine. We failed to do that in the U.S. They failed to do that in the U.K., and in Western Europe. So we are never going to be able to adopt your system. We are now using an alternate system, which is vaccination. We are going to have to follow the science of vaccination and wait ‘til vaccination extinguishes or pushes down the virus far enough that it’s safe for us to get back in the room together.”
As well as COVID ravaging live productions in the past year, there has been a seismic shift in society with the Black Lives Matters movement, and “Hamilton” has not been immune. It’s been both praised for its content and quoted in BLM banners, and also targeted for side stepping its lead characters being slave owners. Manuel has stated previously that it’s unlikely he will change any of the content of his show in light of it.
“The content of the show will not change,” confirms Seller. “The BLM has affected us deeply and it has caused us as a company to make many structural changes towards more inclusivity, more racial sensitivity, and fighting racism in our ranks – so we have learnt lessons from it. We have dug deep and we have evolved and will continue to do so.”
But the movement has definitely given more resonance to the show particularly during the process of casting, as diverse casting in Australian productions has rapidly increased its very loud clarion call. “The very first conversation we had was that this show has to reflect Australian society,” says Cassel. “It’s what the show demands and what was thrilling especially when a lot of people were saying, ‘Are we ever going to be able to cast that caliber of talent? Do we have the population in Australia?’ So to have all those people assembled onstage is extraordinary and I hope it provides the impetus for others to follow suit. Going forward we will see our stages filled with talented diverse Australians.”
The 35-person cast includes performers of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds as well as Samoan, Maori, Filipino, Jamaican, South African, Nigerian, Egyptian, Japanese and Italian backgrounds.
South African born Jason Arrow, who plays Hamilton, agrees the Australian industry has never had a brighter spotlight. “I think post 2020 we will view casting very differently,” he says talking on the phone from backstage prior to going onstage. “There has been a massive change already in diversity of casting in the last three months. Shows like ‘Hamilton’ are showing that it should not be a rarity to have a diverse cast.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Jeffrey Seller’s last name.