Hamilton’s Australian producers say social distancing will be a ‘deal-breaker’

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The Broadway hit is set for its Australian debut in March, with rehearsals in January – but organisers are hopeful restrictions will lift by then.

For musical theatre fans, the recent update that a waitlist for pre-sale tickets to Hamilton in Sydney would open from Monday 23 August is about the most exciting thing to happen in months.

People are losing their minds over these tickets. Not since The Book of Mormon opened in Australia in 2017 has there been a more hotly anticipated show.

Hamilton wrote the Guardian’s venerable stage critic Michael Billington, “is the kind of transformative theatrical experience that has only happened a few times in the history of American musicals. It joins the likes of Show Boat, Oklahoma! and West Side Story as game changers, innovative productions that forever redefined what came after them”.

And with a filmed production featuring the original 2016 cast now streaming on Disney+, fanaticism has been renewed – as have complicated discussions about the show’s cultural legacy.

Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the rap and R&B-infused musical – an ethnically diverse retelling of the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton – is slated to preview in Sydney’s 2,000-seat Lyric Theatre from 17 March 2021.

The show’s stars have yet to be locked down, though casting is said to be nearly complete, having commenced in October 2019.

Interviewed by the ABC’s Leigh Sales in April, Miranda said they were “luckily … ahead of the ball” before the pandemic hit Australia. “We did two rounds of casting sessions last year. They’ve been doing workshops and auditions and boot camps with Australians. Our goal is to cast an incredibly diverse, all-Australian cast for this production.”

But before a finalised cast can be announced, there are big questions to be answered.

How, for example, can a show that organisers say needs a full house to break even proceed while current health guidelines mandate four square metres for every seated patron?

How can Hamilton be rehearsed within those same guidelines yet still faithfully represent the Broadway production, which won a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations in 2016?

And how can the schedules of international and interstate creatives – including original director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler – be arranged around regulations that require a 14-day minimum period of quarantine?

In short, says the production’s producer Michael Cassel, if the rules around social distancing don’t lift, Hamilton can’t happen.

“We need people sitting in the Lyric Theatre side by side,” Cassel told the Guardian. Social distancing would be “a deal-breaker”.

“We made a commitment five years ago to bring this show here, it’s been a long time coming, and we are doing everything within our means to make sure the show is delivered and that the audience can enjoy it in that auditorium as they expect,” Cassel said.

“We hope the same protocols that apply to air travel can apply to us. Air travel is very similar to the theatre in many ways, with people seated side by side, facing in the same direction in an even more confined space, and that seems to be operating fine.”

Health advice around physical contact, projected voices, and singing also impacts what can be done in a rehearsal room. NSW Health is advising against anyone singing in a group, and all solo singers must be three metres away from anyone else in the vicinity, including other performers. Wind instruments are discouraged or must be three metres apart if essential, and all orchestral members must be 1.5m apart.

Hamilton rehearsals, expected to begin in Sydney in January, cannot proceed until that advice changes, added Cassel – who stressed that no changes would be made to the original Broadway staging to accommodate social distancing. That’s another dealbreaker.

Border closures have already impacted on Hamilton’s pre-production phase.

In pre-pandemic times, interstate cast members would be flown in multiple times for costume and wig fittings. Now the plan is to fly them in just once and have each performer isolate for the 14-day minimum prior to their fittings.

Border closures may impact box office to some extent, Cassel adds, but he believes there is sufficient demand in Sydney and New South Wales alone to fill the auditorium.

“We have a huge A-Z list of all the COVID-safe contingencies, and logistics and those things change every day. Some of those things include checking the health of performers before they enter the room or bringing in extra understudies if someone is off. Everything is being considered. We can take a financial risk but we will never risk the health of the performers or the audience.”

While waiting for regulations to change, Cassel will be watching what happens for two other big shows scheduled to open in Sydney: a new production of Pippin opening in the Lyric Theatre from 24 November; and Disney’s Frozen, slated to play at the Capitol Theatre from 1 December.

“Things will evolve quickly and we’ll be watching and learning,” said Cassel. “If we can effectively communicate to audiences the ways in which we’ll be looking after them during this pandemic, then I expect people will flock to the show. After all these months, we’re all ready to share in these experiences and I think they will bring great joy.”

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