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From left to right: George Henare and Gareth Reeves as Dumbledore and Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Matu Ngaropo as George Washington in Hamilton and Akina Edmonds as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. (Photos: Supplied, Image Design: Tina Tiller)
From left to right: George Henare and Gareth Reeves as Dumbledore and Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Matu Ngaropo as George Washington in Hamilton and Akina Edmonds as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. (Photos: Supplied, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureDecember 10, 2022

The NZ actors in two of the biggest stage shows on the planet

From left to right: George Henare and Gareth Reeves as Dumbledore and Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Matu Ngaropo as George Washington in Hamilton and Akina Edmonds as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. (Photos: Supplied, Image Design: Tina Tiller)
From left to right: George Henare and Gareth Reeves as Dumbledore and Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Matu Ngaropo as George Washington in Hamilton and Akina Edmonds as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. (Photos: Supplied, Image Design: Tina Tiller)

International stage shows Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child are making waves in Melbourne, with a number of New Zealand actors in leading roles. They tell Sam Brooks what it takes to star in productions of this scale.

In downtown Melbourne, eight times a week, thousands of audience members pour out of two theatres barely five minutes’ walk from each other. One of those theatres is playing host to Hamilton, the record-breaking Broadway hip hop musical that tells the story of United States founding father Alexander Hamilton. The other has been completely retrofitted for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the spectacular sequel to the novels that has also, yes, broken records on the West End and Broadway. 

The shows share more than a few things in common. One, they’re both deservedly critically acclaimed. Two, they’re spectacles quite unlike anything usually seen on this side of the Tasman (although Hamilton is coming to the less intimate Spark Arena next year). Three, both feature a bunch of New Zealand actors in key roles.

I spoke to four of those actors – Gareth Reeves and George Henare from Harry Potter, and Matu Ngaropo and Akina Edmonds from Hamilton – on their journey from the audition room to the stage, and what it feels like to be important cogs of such beloved, well-oiled machines.

Lyndon Watts, Chloe Zuel, Akina Edmonds and Elandrah Eramiha in the Melbourne production of Hamilton. (Photo: Daniel Boud)

The audition

George Henare has been working consistently for 50 years – a huge feat for an actor in any country, but especially in New Zealand – and so it’s no surprise to learn that he was touring Australia with another major stage show, Aladdin (he played the Sultan), when he got the call about Harry Potter.

“It didn’t really interest me,” he admits. “I started watching some of the movies when they started off and they didn’t interest me one bit. I’ve done so many movies that I know exactly how all the fantasy stuff and all the spooky stuff happens.”

The producers kept at him though, sending him scripts, and one of his co-stars pointed out that the characters he was being asked to read for, Dumbledore and Amos Diggory, were both really great roles, requiring an actor of Henare’s experience and gravitas to carry them off. 

He remembers reading the scripts and thinking, “Oh, I suppose…”

To his surprise, he was quickly cast as Dumbledore. The fact that he was a Māori man embodying a character previously played by very British actors Richard Harris and Michael Gambon rolled off him like water of a hippogriffin’s back, he says. “I’ve played Lear, I’ve played Lenin, we’re all human beings.”

It was a bit less of an easy ride for Gareth Reeves, the Christchurch-born, Australian-based actor who plays the title role. He got the casting brief like anyone else, and didn’t think he had a shot at Harry – until he sat down and read the script. “Then it was one of those strange things that happens very rarely, I just knew I could do it. I walked in knowing I could do it. If they didn’t want me it would be because I wasn’t good enough or right for it.”

In the audition scene, Harry presents his son with the blanket his mother had wrapped him in as a baby. Reeves was in the middle of a Sydney-to-Melbourne move so happened to have in his car a blanket his own stepmother had made him from his late father’s clothes. He used the blanket. He got the role.

For Akina Edmonds and Matu Ngaropo, who have key roles in the musical Hamilton, the audition process was more drawn out. Ngaropo missed the initial auditions because he was in the UK performing with the Modern Māori Quartet, but was flown over to audition when he got back home to New Zealand. Then they asked him what role he wanted. He’d seen the show in London, and knew where he would fit in. “Do I really have a choice, I’m pretty sure I don’t have a choice, right?”, he recalls thinking. The casting director stopped playing coy. He’d be coming in for the role of George Washington, first president of the United States of America. 

Meanwhile New Zealand-born and raised Akina Edmonds, now a mainstay of Australian musical theatre – she’s been in everything from Sister Act to the Lion King – auditioned for Eliza, the long-suffering wife of Alexander Hamilton, but was asked to come back for the headstrong Angelica Schuyler, Eliza’s sister. She says the whole process felt more like a rehearsal than a standard audition. “Their big thing was there was literally no right way of doing it. They were looking at whatever I made of what they were telling me.”

It’s an experience that Ngaropo also had – he spent a full hour in the audition room with the American team, who oversee the casting for every international production of the show. “I think at this point they know very, very quickly who they want and who they can invest in, because the show’s so specific,” he says. “I felt very instantly that we spoke a similar language.”

Gareth Reeves as Harry Potter in the Melbourne production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo: Supplied)

The rehearsals

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is undoubtedly the biggest show Reeves has ever been involved with. That’s saying something – he was in the seven hour epic Angels in America for Silo Theatre in 2013. “You have to box smart with this one, play the long game,” he says of Harry Potter. “You’re very much in service to the story, the production, the characters. There’s so many moving parts, backstage is even more complex.”

It’s one of the most tightly choreographed plays in recent years, each scene change accompanied with the kind of flourish that would be a show-stopping moment in most productions, and almost every movement timed to fit with the Imogen Heap-composed score.

Still, it didn’t phase George Henare, who’s been performing in plays, musicals and operas for half a century – including at Harry Potter’s Melbourne theatre during a 1960s run of Porgy and Bess. “It’s no different to the stuff that I’ve been doing for donkey’s years!” he says of his latest big international stage production.

He’s still awed by the technology involved in the multi-million-dollar production, however. He recalls going to pick up a prop during rehearsal – no spoilers, sorry – to see how it worked, and being sharply told by a stage manager to stand back: “It’s magic! Don’t touch.”

Says Henare of the show: “I often can’t tell how on earth they’re doing things, and they won’t tell me either!”

Rehearsals for Hamilton are famously collaborative, especially compared to most musicals’ extremely prescriptive staging and choreography: an actor needs to stand in the same spot as every other performer in the role, act in the same style, and follow the same steps. That sort of rigour ensures a consistency and continuity of performance, but it doesn’t work for a show that needs to feel as alive as Hamilton does.

At the start of rehearsals, the cast were told to offer as much of themselves as they could to their roles. “There’s an idea with the show that if you just turn up on the day, however you are, and however you feel, that’s enough to do the show,” Ngaropo says (and he’s there more often than not, missing only four shows out of over 100). 

Edmonds remembers raising an eyebrow when she heard that from the director. “They always say that, and they end up directing you into the same cue, cue, cue,” she says, “But then you would make offers, and none of them would get stamped on. Then you’d continue to make them, and get to the scary point where you’re bringing all of yourself. It’s quite exposing.”

For half Hamilton’s running time, George Washington is leading an army in the War of Independence against England. Ngaropo, who is ​​Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Rarawa, and Ngāti Porou, was able to bring a unique approach to the role of a military officer. “I understood from my own people’s perspective how we acknowledge war, physically,” he says. “I tried a few things, a few ways I would use the sword that referenced my culture, and the creatives were like, ‘What are you doing?’

“I explained it to them. They went, ‘We’re obsessed. Do whatever you want.’”

Jason Arrow and Matu Ngaropo in Hamilton rehearsals. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams)

The show

Both Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child run like machines. Hamilton alone has 16 understudies and swings, which on its own is a larger cast than you’re likely to see on any professional stage in New Zealand. For the actors, the biggest challenge is not the show itself. It’s having the stamina to keep doing the show, month in and month out – Hamilton has been running in Australia (first in Sydney, now in Melbourne, and soon to be in Brisbane) since March 2021, while Harry Potter has been running, with a break to retool the two-part show into one, since January 2021. Hamilton is a relatively brisk two hours and 20 minutes, while Harry Potter runs for three and a half hours. Both shows play eight times a week.

To keep up with Harry Potter’s demands, Henare utilised a lesson from playing the Sultan in Aladdin, still his longest stretch in a single show. “If you go scene by scene, then it’s no problem whatsoever,” he says. “Don’t think about what you did yesterday or something like that. You just do it as a fresh scene. 

“You just have to tune out and just stay in the moment.”

For Reeves, Harry Potter himself, the biggest takeaway has been learning how to manage his health in a long-running show where almost every scene has a stunt, a special effect, and several marks to hit. “The old ‘go-till-you-drop, recover, on to the next gig’ mentality just won’t work here,” he says.

Hamilton’s Ngaropo agrees that pushing yourself to the limit is the worst thing you can do in a production of this size. “We have that old-school creative-collaborative mentality from home, you muck in and you don’t call it off. You just get it done,” he says. That doesn’t work in a show like Hamilton – if you’re sick, you don’t do the show. You call off and get better as soon as you can.”

Another questionable lesson Hamilton has helped Ngaropo unlearn: “We’re taught all through our training, through the institutions at home, that we have to make the moment rather than allow it,” he says. “This has been a massive process in allowing things to happen.”

It’s the closest feeling that Ngaropo has ever got to being a vessel – a conduit for the show to meet the audience, rather than pushing the show out to the audience. “A lot of my process anyway is about making sure that the pathways are clear. Because the skill will be there, but the pathway has to be clear to allow what comes in to flow through and out to serve the moment,” he says. 

“It feels like true service.” 

Gareth Reeves (middle, with the scar) as Harry Potter in the Melbourne production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo: Supplied)

The response

The relationship between performer and audience in shows like these is something special. When people take their seats each night, they likely already know the songs word for word (Hamilton) and have a deep love for the characters (Harry Potter). They know when Angelica Schulyer’s going to hit the high note in ‘Satisfied’, and they know they’re going to see flames shoot out of wands in Harry Potter. The show is the drawcard; the actors are just there to deliver it. (Indeed, the funniest thing about seeing Harry Potter was witnessing George Henare stroll through the crowd afterwards, unrecognisable to fans once out of Dumbledore drag.)

Hamilton’s Edmonds says she hasn’t quite grasped the magnitude of the show, but understands that ultimately she’s just a small cog in a much larger machine. “I don’t really like doing photos at stage door,” she says.“I will stop and chat and sign, but I’ve learned that at the end of the day, the show is the star. If you’re not here to serve the show, then what are you doing?”

The Hamilton phenomenon comes with a sense of responsibility for Ngaropo, who is part of a predominantly POC cast including indigenous and First Nations people from across the Pacific and Australia. Famously, Hamilton features Black and brown actors play white historical figures, and uses hip hop to tell the story of the founding of the United States – making a political point about whose history counts in the process. For Ngaropo and his fellow cast members, the show represents an opportunity to play non-stereotypical, fully-realised lead roles, in a genre, musical theatre, that for decades was rarely open to them. 

“If you actually see yourself represented truthfully up there doing the thing that is the phenomenon, it’s so powerful. That’s our responsibility, to deliver that, and represent that, because that’s the actual magic.”

Hamilton plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, until January 15 2023, and will play a limited season at Spark Arena, Auckland, from May 26 to June 11 next year. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is currently  at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre (and will not be here anytime soon).

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