Lyndon Watts is causing quite a stir with his role in Hamilton the Musical, which wound up in Sydney in February and has now arrived in Melbourne. He sits down with editor-at-large Gary Nunn to reflect on the intense buzz that has been building around him.
Anyone who saw Sydney’s eventful run of Hamilton the Musical may have spotted the emergence of an extraordinary rising star on stage.
The entire Hamilton cast is undoubtedly strong, but one exceptional actor, night after night, brought the house down with his standout performance.
As the production progressed doggedly through the pandemic’s various restrictions, buzz began building around actor Lyndon Watts’ spin on Aaron Burr as reason alone to see the cult show, which finished its Sydney run on 27 February, after dominating Sydney’s Lyric Theatre for just shy of a year.
Online, breathless accolades appeared.
One tweet, posted on the first performance back after Sydney’s longest lockdown, simply read: “Lyndon Watts. That’s it. That’s the TWEET.”
Comedian Em Rusciano confessed to being “obsessed with him”, stating he was “offensively talented for someone so young”.
Meanwhile, writer Benjamin Law tweeted: “Lyndon Watts: HELLO.”
The praise reached a formal crescendo recently when the young actor won the prestigious Sydney Theatre Award for Best Performance in a Leading Role in a Musical.
An “absolutely harrowing” year
The morning he meets with The Sentinel, Watts, who is wearing a stylish Tommy Hilfiger bomber jacket (if he wasn’t an actor, he’d be in fashion or “anything creative”, he says), had a typically big day ahead: two performances await of the juggernaut show, which contains 20,520 words.
He has already had breakfast with a friend and, immediately after this, has to dash for his midday call time ahead of a matinee performance.
Such socialising is something the WAAPA graduate – who has previously been in productions including A Chorus Line and Sweet Charity – initially closed down upon being cast in his dream role.
“At first, it wasn’t top of my priority list, because there was so much else grabbing my attention,” he tells The Sentinel.
“But I quickly realised that without friends and family time, you just end up living in your head. That’s part of my wellness; it’s what fills my cup and enables me to then bring my full self to work.”
Major musical theatre performers have a notoriously heroic stamina and discipline. What keeps him bringing such magic eight shows a week?
“It’s whatever I wake up that day needing, which is one of the most exhausting parts; it’s a constant negotiation of managing my body and my wellbeing,” Watts says.
The ongoing monitoring of that equilibrium involves “a lot of juggling” to protect that all important thing: the voice.
“When it comes down to it, my voice is just two little vocal chords. Two tiny little muscles. And it takes a change in temperature for it to shift,” he says. “Nutrition, sleep, rest, recovery all have to flow; it takes a lot of management.”
The glittering praise he’s received juxtaposes with some of the toughest times ever for the Australian arts community, no thanks to Covid-19. In acknowledging his award, he described the past year as “absolutely harrowing.”
Whilst full of gratitude at both his win and being a working actor, Watts is very conscious of what his peers have been – and are still – going through.
“A lot of people have gone without work for a really long time; the pandemic has stunted a lot of people’s ability to practise, leading some to even question their identity as an artist, without an outlet or a job. It’s been very challenging,” he says.
Lockdown was also tough for Hamilton cast members who had to ride the staccato wave of sudden unexpected closures, then re-openings.
During the last lockdown, Watts returned to his home state of Victoria.
“We were rehearsing in our lounge rooms over Zoom once a week to try to keep it in our bodies,” he says.
“Actors are very adaptable. We deal with lots of rejection and curve balls. But this was a whole new level of adaptability. It really tested our resilience.”
Getting the job done
One of the reasons Watts has received so much praise for his depiction of Aaron Burr – the show’s nuanced antagonist – is because he makes the role his own to a degree that makes die-hard ‘Hamilfans’ sit up and notice the differences he has imposed on the character.
He has form here; understudying the role of Jafar in Aladdin the Musical afforded him the opportunity to put his own spin on a villain.
“Jafar pushed me out of my comfort zone because I’m not a natural baritone or bass, which that role usually requires,” he says. “So you find different ways of making your voice, your instrument, work with the role, and that way, you get to know your artistry better.”
Once cast as Burr, Watts began a strict process of shutting out everything Hamilton.
He stopped listening to the soundtrack. He didn’t watch the Disney+ screened performance or anything online related to his character. Then, an act of pure creation could begin.
“The least helpful thing for an actor is to replicate someone’s performance,” he says. “You’re essentially creating this human being in your head. So everything you let in will influence you in rehearsals.”
He describes his creative process as “an exercise in trusting myself”.
“I haven’t had an opportunity to put so much of myself into a role before,” he says.
And it’s an ever-evolving process, something he has come to appreciate.
“There’s something we were told very early on in the run that I didn’t come to appreciate until halfway through last year: opening night is just a date. The role isn’t completed then; it grows from then,” he says.
“Especially for a show this long; the emotional arc the characters travel on covers an entire lifetime. It takes the marriage of careful planning, spontaneity and instinct to bring the role to life.”
Tips for aspiring actors
Watts left Sydney the toast of the town and the obsession of fellow celebrities, walking away with a coveted trophy for his acting prowess, to continue a highly sought-after role in one of the world’s most popular and innovative musicals.
What advice does Lyndon Watts have for aspiring actors?
He pauses, inhales.
“There’s a saying in my family,” he says, “that you can do anything in life if you have fire in your belly. You need that. This industry is very difficult. You have to have an impenetrable pilot light of hope that, no matter what you’ve gone through, whatever rejection joy, sadness, sorrow or challenge has been flung your way, that if you can still at end the end of the day say that you want to do this more than it’s hurting or costing you.”
He stresses that being able to be paid to practice your art form isn’t the only way to be an artist. “You can practice your art on your own terms in your own way.”
He also says you must either get used to rejection, or leave the industry to protect your mental health.
“Only you can know if this is what you actually want to do, because if the rejection is stronger than your spirit, then it might not be healthy for you to pursue this.”
He does encourage up and coming actors to follow their dreams, but with an important caveat.
“Not at the expense of your wellness and your heart – especially after the last year,” he says.
“Wellness and happiness and joy has to be the sacred goal. So that’s first.”
Hamilton the Musical is playing Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne through to Sunday, 18 September, 2022. For tickets and further information, visit https://hamiltonmusical.com.au.