Made in America, polished in Brisbane: Hamilton helps Callan claim place in history

Callan Purcell is taking on one of the most high-profile roles in musical theatre – as American early founder Aaron Burr – in the Brisbane season of worldwide stage hit Hamilton.

Jan 10, 2023, updated Jan 10, 2023
Northern NSW performer Callan Purcell will use his role in the smash musical Hamilton as a launch-pad for his career when the show arrives in Brisbane later this month, writes Nance Haxton

Northern NSW performer Callan Purcell will use his role in the smash musical Hamilton as a launch-pad for his career when the show arrives in Brisbane later this month, writes Nance Haxton

Aaron Burr is Hamilton’s nemesis in the show, and this young Indigenous performer is rising confidently to the challenge of fleshing out this pivotal character.

He has shown his performing chops for the past two years in a range of understudy and swing roles in Hamilton, overcoming covid disruptions to show his ability and now be given the responsibility of lead.

“I’ll be stepping into the role of Aaron Burr in Brisbane, and stepping up to the responsibility of leading that company for the final stop before we leave Australia,” Purcell said.

“We go to New Zealand from there and then there’s a myriad of dreams where that story could be told elsewhere.

“It’s exciting bringing it to Brisbane because there are new cast members coming in just for Brisbane. And so we’ll finish with a bang there, and it’s going to be a finale that only Brisbane will get, which is great.”

It’s a dream that’s come full circle for Purcell, being part of a show that is celebrated around the world for challenging culture stereotypes and minority representation through diverse casting.

Purcell is a proud Wiradjuri man, who was born on Darkinjung Country in Gosford and grew up at Newcastle on Awabakal country.

He’s shown his determination to succeed right from when he first snared standing room only tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway in 2019, emerging from the bright lights buzzing with belief that he would one day perform in the musical.

He even has the ticket from the show, with the promise he made to himself written on the back to prove it.

“By the time it got to interval, I knew that this was something that was totally different, from an audience perspective, but also an artist’s perspective,” Purcell said.

“And knowing that it was coming to Australia – it wasn’t just a possibility, it was a certainty that this was something I needed to be part of.

“So I grabbed a pen out of my bag and I scratched on the back of the ticket `You are going to perform in this’.”

Even though Purcell has performed the lead role of Alexander Hamilton in the Sydney run when he was acting as understudy for Jason Arrow, he’s excited now about the opportunity to make the character of Aaron Burr his own.

He said bringing his First Nations heritage to the role was also crucial.

“By being a First Nations person on this production, what it does, it certainly in the long game, tells producers and the people in power that we can be in stories beyond just our own personal experience,” he said.

“And by doing that, it empowers and inspires young people to understand that there is a life in the arts for them, not just for people of privilege or people who are related to other people in the arts industry.

“I think what it does, it brings a nuanced complexity to this show. Because if it didn’t, then I’m not doing my job and I’m not upholding my responsibility of what I’m putting back to the community. And I know as a lighter-skinned Aboriginal man, I have a privilege next to my darker-skinned brothers and sisters, so what can I do to make space when having this opportunity to be a leader in a production like this?

“It also gives fire power, because we know that this show started in the 1700s, as in the storyline, and it’s the same King George that was trying to occupy these lands where America was trying to begin, as the same King George who ordered the fleets to come over here and colonise this country.

“So it’s quite telling actually that we see that the same kinds of events were happening in different parts of the world.

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“But also the fact that – what are we doing right now, today, to make change and to rewrite the story or the destiny of where this country’s going right now?

“We can take a great deal of inspiration and go, we can make change, so who’s going to step up and take the pen, I guess, and rewrite that?”

He’s enjoying delving into Aaron Burr’s complexities.

“I think what I appreciate a lot with him is his ability to be steadfast and stoic and have this, he emulates integrity, which is also his downfall because there is that pride in him and that stubbornness,” he said.

“But we see that you can live a duality of truth where you can shine, but people next to you can shine just as bright and if not brighter, and you can learn from that. I don’t think Burr does, and that’s the tragedy of his story.”

Purcell’s years as understudy and standby playing a range of roles has stood him in good stead in preparation for the rigours of lead.

“During the shows of an evening, I would be in another room backstage rehearsing the show, learning different tracks, learning the choreography, the music, all of the scene work. And then the next night I might jump on for the role of the king, and then the next night I might be on for Hamilton,” Purcell said.

“But what is integral for all of those responsibilities, is that you have patience, you can work on your own, especially in a rehearsal room. And also, you know your worth before coming into a room because sometimes it can be a thankless task because the most important thing is getting the show up, so you just work away quietly on your own.”

While Hamilton has developed a worldwide cult following, Purcell encourages everyone to give the show a go even if they’re not familiar with the founding fathers story; which he says has surprising relevance in an Australian context.

“When I first saw it, I was interested in how it could appeal to the masses, but it does, and it’s testament that it’s not a historical musical,” he said.

“It’s a musical about moments in history which reflect moments of humanity through everyone. And I guess asking, what we are doing with ourselves on this planet? And we’ve got an opportunity to make change and inspire and be inspired, so what are we going to do with that?”

Hamilton will play at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre from January 27.

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