Hamilton is, unquestionably, the hottest ticket in London right now. It’s performed to a packed house every night of the week – and tickets are like gold dust. So, I was over the moon to be invited to a Q&A between its Associate Director Stephen Whitson and new cast member Stephenson Ardern-Sodje. Hosted by Create Victoria’s Secret Garden, we lounged on deckchairs on a balmy summer’s evening, soaking up a fascinating conversation.
Some context: Stephen Whitson, who is responsible for Hamilton’s “creative achievement”, started out as an actor and appeared in stage productions including ‘The Producers’, as well as in various TV roles. From here, he gradually evolved into casting and directing. In 2016 a chance encounter with the director-to-be of the UK production of ‘Hamilton’ led to Stephen flying to New York to study the American original. Back in London, he spent the next 12 months auditioning actors; the rest, as they say, is history.
For his part, Stephenson Ardern-Sodje plays no fewer than four roles, including the lead, Alexander Hamilton. His is an inspirational story: Stephenson studied creative writing at university, graduating in 2012. Whilst working for Sky One, he auditioned by video for ‘Hamilton’ and was asked to attend an in-person audition, for which he had to learn 12 songs. He did well, but there was one snag: Stevenson had no stage experience whatsoever.
Hearteningly, ‘Hamilton’ sponsored Stevenson to complete a Master’s in musical theatre, following which he re-auditioned – and was cast four months ago. Can you believe that he made his West End debut as Alexander Hamilton? What a great story.
As you can imagine, we were all agog to hear more: what does it feel like, stepping on to a West End stage, having never acted in public before. “Watching the other cast members, who are so experienced, gave me confidence”, he told us – “and so did the massive cheer from the audience when Alexander Hamilton’s name was announced.” He did a lot of research into all four of the characters that he plays, reading a series of “dualling” letters between Hamilton and Burke, plus a “glut” of other personal letters. These, he says, gave him a good sense of how those characters thought and behaved.
What is life like backstage? “Busy!” – at least one understudy for each role is present every night. This “helps keep things fresh”; Stephenson commenting that each actor has their own interpretation of a role. He watches the show from the audience once or twice a week and all of the cast are given regular notes about the production, to ensure its continual evolvement.
As for the show itself, Stephen described the nightly three-hour performance as the “tip of the iceberg”. The lighting and technical teams begin work early each day, with the actors, directors and producers arriving at the theatre around midday. All participate in a dress rehearsal several days a week. At 6pm, warm-up commences: a process unique to the UK (“Our American counterparts think we’re mad!”). It came as a relief, Stephenson told us, to see that his fellow cast members need to keep rehearsing and need reminders of their lines.
It’s incumbent upon the cast to maintain high levels of fitness for such a demanding show. As soon as Stevenson realised this he hired a personal trainer – not because of any pressure by the production team, who simply advised him to get into the best possible shape – but because a lack of fitness could hamper his performance or ability to learn lines.
Was there added pressure on the cast and crew because of Hamilton’s US success? “Absolutely”, replied Stephen, “the show was written for an American audience and no-one knew whether it would work in this country; the first night cheer from the audience was a surprise!” He thinks it has worked because the UK production remains true to the writer’s intentions, bringing out its humour. And the theme of a man fighting for what he believes in whilst overcoming adversity has a universal appeal.
There was time for one final question from the audience and it was addressed to Stephenson. Which role is his favourite to play – and which of the 50 songs is his favourite? Unsurprisingly, he cited Alexander Hamilton (“He plays to my strengths; I don’t have to do too much dancing!”); as for the song, he loves ‘Your Obedient Servant’, because of the “sexy, angry vocal” unique to that song.
I still haven’t seen ‘Hamilton’ but, having thoroughly enjoyed this conversation between cast and the crew, am now even more keen to do so. Wish me luck in the ballot!