Reviewed by Harriet
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
If you’ve seen live or on film, or even just listened to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extraordinarily powerful ‘sung and rapped through’ musical about the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, you’ll recognise these as the opening lines. They tell you what the story is going to be about, and they are sung, or rather rapped, by the narrator, one-time vice President Aaron Burr. Burr started as Hamilton’s friend and supporter but ultimately, as he tells us later in the same scene, ‘I’m the damn fool that shot him’.
Hamilton: A American Musical, opened on Broadway in 2015. Its well-deserved success was immediate, and soon a London production was planned. In Hamilton and Me, Giles Terera tells the story of the planning, rehearsing and staging of this ambitious venture through the perspective of his own experience: after several auditions and much agonising waiting time, he was cast as Aaron Burr, a performance for which he won both the Olivier and the Broadway World UK Award. Although he’d been active in British theatre since 1999, this part was going to present new challenges, and was not always plain sailing; following his usual practice, he kept a diary throughout the whole process, and this forms the basis of his book:
WEDNESDAY 14 DECEMBER 2016
Today it’s my fortieth birthday and I was offered the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton.
Ten months go by until the day in October 2017 when rehearsals finally begin: ‘I’ve spent a year listening, learning, reading, thinking, watching, researching, searching, marvelling, hoping, preparing. Now it’s time to suck it up and do the thing’. The first two weeks will be spent learning the score, ‘two-and-three-quarter hours of continuous music’; Terera is shocked to discover that the London score differs from the Broadway cast recording he has memorised. Only after everyone has mastered the score do the director and the rest of the creative team arrive, and the next four weeks will be spent learning staging and rehearsing.
The sheer physical demands are huge: keeping your voice going, learning the choreography and the staging. But there are also what Terera calls the more demanding ‘inner commitments’. Learning to understand the man you are representing can be partly achieved by reading books, of course, but it’s also necessary to explore his inner life. This comes very much to the fore when thinking about the duel in which Burr shoots Hamilton:
What it is to point a gun at someone?
At someone you know.
At someone you care about.
What is it to kill someone?
In what state must someone be in order to murder?
What is murder?
He ponders on the strangeness of an eighteenth-century duel – meeting by arrangement, knowing that ‘you might walk away a murderer or not walk away at all’. Finally he concludes that to understand the duel he needs to understand the whole history of the two men’s relationship, which leads to more exploring.
And so the rehearsal process goes on, each stage bringing new challenges. Anyone who’s seen Hamilton will understand how huge these are, and how vitally important the roles of the creative team are. Here’s the first session with the associate choreographer, Stef Klemons, who, despite the fact that there’s a cast of thirty, ‘has the entire show in her head’:
Every single character’s moves and gestures. Her task is to go through each number and stage it, giving each actor their positions, traffic, choreography. Where you come on from, when you move, on what lyric, where you move to, who you pass, what prop you pick up, who you give it to, where you exit.
Another undertaking for the actors is to gain an understanding of American history. Terera is fascinated to learn about the diversity of the American colonies, which, he realises, is mirrored in the multi-ethnic casting choices, ‘Everyone from different backgrounds and beliefs and places, with one thing in common: the work’. He becomes extremely close to them all: ‘It moves me to think of all the struggles [their parents] endured, sacrifices they made, journeys they took, in order for us all to be in this room now’.
And so the weeks go by. Sometimes a whole day can be spent on one scene, other times a run through of a whole act, then a run-through of the whole show. Finally they move from the rehearsal space to the theatre, where they have to get used to the set, and the costumes; wearing Burr’s clothes turns out to change the way Terera moves and stands. And through it all, Terera is thinking, pondering, examining the meaning of every line, every interaction, a process which doesn’t stop even when the show has opened, which it finally does almost exactly a year after he first learned he’d got the part:
Rehearsals are just the beginning. You really learn about what a story is, who a character is, by performing night after night….In theatre, actor and character must meet. One cannot function without the other. One cannot be afraid of the other. They must challenge each other and dare each other to action. They must look each other in the eye.
The book ends with an account of a special performance of Hamilton, staged for young people from schools all over the UK. It was a massive success: ‘They breathed with us. They were utterly present and involved – and the story was theirs’.
This is an important book in so many ways. Lovers of Hamilton will be fascinated, of course, but it’s for anyone interested in how theatre, especially musical theatre, works. It shows multicultural Britain as it is today through the story of an immigrant performed by a company composed of children of immigrants. And it reveals much of the inner life of the author himself – thoughtful, sensitive, caring, intelligent, you’ll feel happy that you got to know him.
The book is illustrated with numerous photographs of the rehearsals and the finished production. If you haven’t seen the performance yet, it’s due to reopen next month in London. And as a taster, you could always watch the first scene, performed at the Olivier Awards by the London cast here.
Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and has been re-watching the film obsessively since she started reading the book.
Giles Terera, Hamilton and Me: An Actor’s Journal (NIck Hern Books, 2021). 978-1848429994, 224pp., hardback.
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