Newly minted Hamilton star Jason Arrow is winding down in a Sydney wine bar over a couple of glasses of cabernet sauvignon. It’s three weeks before the curtain rises on the first previews of his performance as the ambitious United States founding father Alexander Hamilton.
Arrow, sporting a goatee, an army-green T-shirt and black stud earrings, says he knows that his portrayal will be greeted with high expectations of matching the everyman connection the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, personally stamped on the role.
Hamilton is “turning into a cult, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show – only a lot better,” says Arrow. “That sort of cult following that’s got the world wrapped around its finger.”
Arrow, 31, has watched the 2016 video recording of the Broadway production a couple of times, but hasn’t seen the show performed live, and is fully aware that people will want to see and hear things done in a certain way. “That expectation comes with almost any [Broadway] show you do that comes to Australia, which will have a cast recording and people who have already seen it,” he says. “That’s okay, it’s part of the gig. Offer what you can offer and receive what you receive.”
He’s trying to “unlearn” some of the inflections in Miranda’s voice, which Rolling Stone called idiosyncratically “weird”, relatable in its “saltiness” rather than booming or belting in the Broadway manner. Arrow’s greatest challenge has been getting his head around all the narrative time jumps in the musical’s second half.
His casting in the title role for the Australian production was announced last November, but Arrow met Miranda, 41, for the first time via Zoom the day before our interview.
Does Arrow know if Miranda had a say in his casting? “From what I’ve been told, yeah,” he says. “I think that’s the way it went down. He’s quite familiar with [the cast’s] faces, so I think he had quite a heavy say.”
Miranda, who was born to parents of Puerto Rican origin in Washington Heights, a Hispanic neighbourhood in northern Manhattan, insisted on racially diverse casting for most of the musical’s main characters, including presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
This casting ethos carries into the Australian production, which arrives after last year’s international flourishing of the Black Lives Matter movement and wide criticism of white performers being favoured on Australian stages and for theatre scholarships. Arrow’s Instagram page carries his own pledge to “create an anti-racist and decolonised Australian theatre industry”.
Born in Durban, South Africa, the youngest of three children – in a family designated “coloured” in the dying days of the apartheid regime – Arrow was five when his family moved to Perth. It gives him an insight into the immigrant experience of Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the British West Indies and rose to political prominence as the then General Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War.
Curiously, both Arrow and Miranda were diffident about taking on the lead role, for similar reasons. Miranda has revealed in interviews that he was initially torn between playing Hamilton, who came from the Caribbean island of Nevis, and New Jersey-born Aaron Burr, who during his tenure as the third US vice-president killed Hamilton in a duel.
Miranda felt an affinity for both Hamilton and Burr, and Arrow feels the same way. Arrow initially auditioned for Burr, believing Burr had the stronger songs, which would allow Arrow to better use his high tenor range.
The character of Burr is “more like me on a regular basis”, he says, citing Burr’s song Wait for It as a favourite – “I am the one thing in life I can control / Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it / I am inimitable / I am an original”.
“I’m not very pushy, especially with my career,” Arrow explains. “It’s going to happen when it happens. If I get caught up in wanting it to happen faster, it probably won’t ...
“I’m the person who will just wait for my turn, as opposed to constantly pursuing it. For example, I didn’t think I would get a lead character, let alone the lead character in the show. I thought at this point, being early in my career, I thought it would be a cover [understudy].”
Playing Hamilton himself “sits quite low in my voice, which I have to adjust so that it feels like I’m doing something,” he says. “It’s not that it’s too low and I feel like I can’t be heard, it’s just sometimes I feel like I’m speaking – which is probably a good thing, actually.”
In contrast with Wait for It, another of Arrow’s favourite songs from the musical is Hamilton’s rap My Shot – “I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwin’ away my shot”. “That’s the idea that once I do get the chance to show what I can do, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure it’s the best possible version of what I can give. And I won’t throw it away.”
Earle and Anthea Arrow escaped apartheid in South Africa with their children Stacey, Lauren and Jason. “I think my dad had seen a few of his friends die due to racially charged aggressions,” says Arrow. “There’s only so many times you want to see things like that before you’d want to leave.”
Anthea’s brothers already lived on Australia’s west coast so that’s where the family headed. Arrow went back to South Africa for a couple of weeks when he was 16.
“In Australia it’s a taboo word, but in South Africa the term ‘coloured’ would refer to my people, because we’re of many colours, so there’s a lot of different races within that group,” he says. “Both my parents are coloured. The term is not necessarily disrespectful to us, in the sense that’s who we are.
“Generally, my parents would be sort of ostracised from the black community, because the idea was the lighter you are, the more benefits you’re getting – which wasn’t necessarily the case – so coloured people had to create their own community.”
The family settled in Rockingham, a city south of Perth. “A lot of South African people settle in Perth. There are so many coloured people that my parents know in Perth, it’s insane.”
Earle, who first worked as a panelbeater, would often take Jason to Warnbro Beach to fish for tailor, a kind of bluefish. Anthea works at the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle. When Arrow rehearses as Alexander Hamilton, he tries to “clock what were my parents feeling” in their new country.
He says Australia “seemed like a more accepting nation, and it was in comparison at the time. Not to say that Australia is no longer accepting – it has its problems, which we’re finally starting to address.” The racially tiered past would sometimes frame the family’s new life, however. “My mum would sometimes say, ‘You’re lucky that you have lighter skin,’ ” Arrow says.
“I didn’t know what that meant until later. But I always had the conflict growing up – I’d be like, ‘I’m coloured’, and people wouldn’t know what that was, and I’d be like ‘I’m black and I’m white’ because I didn’t at the time know the full spread of my races, which I do now, and only recently learnt.
“For me, that was an identity crisis; I was like, ‘I don’t know what I am.’ People at school were saying I’m white and I’d go home and my mum would say, ‘No, no, you’re coloured.’ I didn’t know just where I sat. That’s my personal experience with racism and microaggressions, but when it comes to my parents, I really don’t know. It’s not really something we spoke about too much.”
Arrow went to the local Star of the Sea Catholic Primary School and Kolbe Catholic College. The latter had a drama program that confirmed his acting and singing potential, which his parents always encouraged. The family were believers, attending church each Sunday.
“As I got older I found religion in my own way, not in man-made institutions. I found it more spiritually. I would say that I am Catholic but I am not practising in the sense of going to church every Sunday, but I am spiritual.”
What took him away from the institutionalised setting of church? “I think to have a God or whatever religion you believe in, you don’t necessarily have to go to a place every Sunday and pay your dues. You can have a connection with whoever that is, spiritually on your own in your actions and how you live your life.”
The whole family constantly played music. Arrow’s love of singing came from his parents’ funk, soul and pop record collection: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Luther Vandross. Singing along with high-pitched vocalists moulded his voice. He taught himself to play piano and guitar as a child, though he would only learn to read music much later when he went to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) to study a bachelor of arts in music theatre.
His eldest sister, Stacey, introduced Arrow to the hip-hop of Salt-N-Pepa and 2Pac. “She absolutely moulded my modern appreciation for music, and then I went on my own tangents, listening to acid jazz: Jamiroquai, Dirty Loops. I listened to Limp Bizkit for a while, which is more a heavy metal. Nine Inch Nails. I’ve always had a bit of an eclectic taste in music.
“Then as my skills improved through playing with musical friends I started listening to classical, opera. I’ve had a lot of influences in my life, mostly because of a lot of people. Not necessarily because of myself.”
Arrow graduated from WAAPA in 2016, where he met his partner, actor and Pilates instructor Alexandra Cornish, with whom he now lives in Sydney. He went on to perform in the Australian productions of Aladdin for Disney and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical for Michael Cassel Group, which is producing Hamilton in Australia.
Given last year’s cancellation of the Rob Guest Endowment competition for theatre scholarships, after it produced a semi-finalist list widely criticised for being blindingly white, does Arrow think the theatre industry can overcome its systemic issues with racism?
“If the people at the top want to listen and change, then it will happen,” he says. “If you have more producers like Michael Cassel, it will change, it will happen. If you talk about it, it will change, it will happen. It’s necessary for all three things to happen.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, meanwhile, has acknowledged that Hamilton barely deals with slavery, when most of the real-life characters were “slavers”, a word only passingly applied to Thomas Jefferson in the show.
Research suggests Hamilton may have also owned slaves. He helped set up the New York Manumission Society, which aimed to have slave owners voluntarily set slaves free rather than abolish the practice through government jurisdiction.
“I understand [the criticism] wholeheartedly, I totally get it,” says Arrow. “Especially last year, with Black Lives Matter and all these things getting talked about finally – our history, and statues erected of people who were slave owners.
“My view is that it’s such a big subject and it’s so, so sensitive for varying, different reasons, that I don’t think there’s enough time to say it in a show that’s already two-and-a-half hours long, and to pay it the right respect.
“Because slavery deserves to be talked about with respect, and musicals have a tendency generally speaking to be a little more lighthearted. That deserves to be its own show.
“Whoever’s going to write that, I don’t know. Maybe Lin. It’s definitely a story on its own.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 13, 2021 as "Shooting at fame".
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