On Sunday morning in Dubai, a small group of Year 12 students strut around stage to ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ from ‘Hamilton’, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway rap musical about the founding fathers of America. Tarinn Callender, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the West End production, stands before them, towel around his neck, sweat glistening on his forehead as he calls out enthusiastic instructions and demonstrates the choreography himself.
When Jodie Quirke won a Zoom quiz in the middle of the pandemic, she didn’t expect to have a West End star flying in to coach her students for four days.
But that’s exactly what happened after the Acting and Production Arts Programme Manager at GEMS Wellington Academy, Silicon Oasis (WSO), aced the online quiz organised by ArtSed International in London, one of the school’s university partners.
“They said, ‘Do you want to know your prize?’ I was literally expecting, like, a box of chocolates or something — I was gonna be quite pleased with that! They said, ‘You’ve won a West End star. You’ve got Tarinn Callender from ‘Hamilton’ for a whole week.’”
Side-stage, the ever-enthusiastic Callender takes a break to get candid with Gulf News about being in ‘Hamilton’ for two years, from first show nerves to final show emotions. Plus, why it would mean everything to the five-year-old version of himself.
Do you enjoy this kind of thing, working with young people who are interested in the arts?
Absolutely. We say the cliche line that they are our future, but it’s so true. You start to ask yourself the question, ‘Gosh, did I work that hard at that age?’ If these are the kids of the future, I better step up my game. [laughs]
Do you remember Tarinn when he was around that age? What were you up to?
Mischief! Not working as hard as these guys, for sure. It’s a full circle of inspiration.
When did you kind of figure out: ‘This is what I want to get into’?
I remember being really young, watching ‘The Lion King’ on the West End, and saying, ‘I want to be that guy.’ Not only because he’s really cool and he can sing, but he looks just like me. I had seen ‘Annie’ and ‘Oliver’ before. But I’d never seen anyone who looks like me. That was the moment I said, ‘This career, for me, is viable.’ When kids go to theatre or watch a film, and they see themselves represented, they say: ’I can do that, because I can see me.’
‘Hamilton’ is also huge for that.
Absolutely. It definitely broke that barrier and broke that door, saying, ‘Anyone can tell that story.’
How did you end up on ‘Hamilton’, and in the roles of Madison and Mulligan?
In the beginning, I was up for all the cover roles. A cover is someone who goes on in case of emergency, they’re our lifesavers and I would argue the backbone of all shows. I was up for cover Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, and cover Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.
You had a lot of lines...
Right, and I was lucky! I was lucky enough to learn both roles and audition for them. I did about two, three auditions. I had a lot of information in my head, but they were raps. They were cool!
My mind is blown...
I bet you could do them right now.
I could do half of them safely.
[Laughs] I had all of that to learn. All of that to do. And after a while, they called me in for just Hercules Mulligan — the actual role, the principal role. I was shocked for two reasons. My age, and also they’d been auditioning for a long time, so I thought, ‘Wow, they must have someone [already].’ Eventually, over a period of about six auditions in total, I got the call. They wanted me to be Hercules Mulligan.
What was the feeling?
There were so many emotions, you couldn’t even put it into one. So then you just cry. That’s what we do, right? When there’s an overload of emotions. You just cry. Because you can’t articulate it. You can’t rationalise what is happening. And so there was a short moment of just cry, cry, cry, but then a moment of, ‘Okay, this is a massive responsibility. And I have to honour that.’
Why did it mean so much to you?
Because I wanted to be that person for the five-year-old me.
I know you can’t pick favourites, but I’m gonna ask you to. Between Mulligan and Madison, who’s your pick?
Oh, okay! You’re gonna do it to me. In the show? Hercules Mulligan. I think he’s closer to my energy, closer to my character. He’s got big, big moments. He’s hype … James Madison was such a huge role in America … But for me, if I had to pick a favourite part, it would have to be Hercules Mulligan — in the show.
What was the most challenging part for you, playing these characters?
Making sure that the person coming to see it for the first time is getting the first time experience. For a lot of us, we do eight shows a week, sometimes nine. And sometimes it is difficult, as human beings, when we’re going through things, not only offstage, but things on stage — you might be vocally fatigued, you might be physically tired. And it’s hard. It’s so difficult to ask of us to produce the same level of high expectancy every single night. That was probably the hardest thing and the most challenging thing, because we wanted to make sure that, whoever was in that audience, having the worst day, saying, ‘I don’t want to go to the theatre today’ — that they left with a different emotion than when they sat in that chair. We had a circle before every show, where we came together, and we said something that we were grateful for. Whether it’s for being on the stage, for something back home, for a friend or family member who might be in [the audience]. We always knew every single day, that we had so much responsibility to create a beautiful piece on that stage.
And the American accent...
[Laughs] It’s always been a part of me. I don’t know. I’ve always watched American films, I’ve always listened to hip hop, R‘n’B. So, American rap was no stranger to me. So when the accent came, it just came. A lot of people ask me about that. I think just because I listen to America, and then every time asks, ‘Can you do an American accent?’ [switches to an American accent] ‘Yeah, I can. Anytime!’
Going back to ‘Hamilton’, one of the things that blows people’s minds is the rap aspect. Was it like muscle memory, at some point?
It became muscle memory. You could almost do it in your sleep, but you didn’t want to fall asleep on it. When I was in primary school, we used to rap and do ciphers outside the school gates before we went inside. Rap has always been a part of my life. I used to be the beatboxer, funnily enough. When I hear rap, the first thing I want to do is learn it. If it’s fast, I want to learn it and try and get my mouth around those words. That’s why ‘Hamilton’ was so amazing for me, because I never thought musical theatre, hip hop, R‘n’B, could mesh together so well, and two of my worlds could come together.
When you originated the roles of Mulligan and Madison in London, did you look at the Broadway version, too?
I’d never seen it, because I didn’t go out to the States. The only thing I saw was all stuff online, either Tony Awards related, or when they performed at the Grammys one time...
Lin-Manuel Miranda likes to keep a really tight lid on the show…
Yeah, no one can see it! And I kind of liked that. Because I had a very, very small foundation, but I created my own thing. It was more sustainable. I wasn’t doing anyone else’s thing. It was my thing. It was less draining. It was more authentic.
What did those two years teach you about yourself, about theatre?
About myself, I have a bigger voice than I knew. About theatre, it has a bigger voice than we understand … ‘Hamilton’ definitely was the educator for me. It taught me how to use my voice in the right way, how to stand up for good, how to ask questions about things I don’t really understand.
Do you remember your first performance versus your last performance? How different they were?
I do. I remember feeling really, really nervous when I first went on. I was 21 or 22. And I was scared. I was like, ‘Maybe they made a mistake. Am I too young?’ You hear the audience. They’re so excited. When lights go down, they’re cheering already. They haven’t even seen anything yet — all they’ve seen is the set! You go, ‘What if they don’t like me?’ ‘Hamilton’ came with such a precedent. Everyone had listened to the soundtrack. Everyone was talking about it. It was huge. And then, I had to do it. You felt that energy of, ‘Okay, ‘Hamilton’s’ that good? Come on, then. Prove it.’ That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Once you know that, you’re doing a good job internally, not externally, then you can go on … And I remember my last performance, just looking out, saying, ‘Wow. No matter what, I was here. I did this.’
Finally — favourite song to perform in ‘Hamilton’?
‘Yorktown’. Hercules Mulligan — it’s everyone’s dream, you burst out, you’re centre stage, and you got everyone hyping you up, incredible dancers behind you just making you look great, spotlight’s on you, and it’s just fire!