Shaq Taylor stars in ‘Hamilton’

Hamilton is nearly here. Ahead of the Founding Fathers finding their feet at Bristol Hippodrome next month, Melissa Blease speaks to leading man Shaq Taylor, who takes on the iconic role of titular character Alexander Hamilton.

A musical set in the late 18th/early 19th century telling the story of the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, his involvement in the American Revolution and the political history of the early United States, played out against a backdrop of largely rap/hip-hop/pop/soul: on paper, that doesn’t sound like a pitch for sure-fire success. But American songwriter, actor, singer, filmmaker and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda had a dream.

Having read American writer Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton on holiday in 2008, Miranda saw something in it that most people would have missed: a story from way back in the past, wholly pertinent to the right here, right now generation.
Miranda wrote a rap about Hamilton that he performed for the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and Spoken Word in May 2009. By 2012, he was performing an extended set of pieces based on the life of Hamilton, specifically focusing on the great man’s innate intellect (The Hamilton Mixtape). Three years later, Miranda’s own Hamilton (starring Miranda himself as Hamilton and featuring non-white actors in the majority of the leading roles) premiered off-Broadway to sell-out audiences, massive acclaim and a clutch of illustrious gongs. Miranda describes Hamilton as about “America then, as told by America now” – and the rest is, quite literally, modern day history.

Getting under Hamilton’s skin
“I would have loved to have seen Hamilton when I was 8,10,12 years old,” says actor Shaq Taylor, talking to me from Manchester towards the end of Hamilton’s four-month, sold out (of course) run at the Palace Theatre. “To see people that looked like me, doing those things and telling amazing stories like this musical does – like, wow!” So it must be an even bigger wow for Shaq to be able to say that, right now, he is Hamilton?

“It honestly, really is amazing to be in this iconic role,” he concurs. “I’m constantly going through so many different emotions with it; it’s really, really exciting. The whole musical has impacted on so many people around the world – I guess because it’s such a new, vibrant take on a historic story. And it brings together so many genres that are of today – live music, soul, pop, rap; contemporary elements and references – while still telling that major, world-changing story. It’s literally one of a kind.”

Indeed. But surely it can’t have been easy for Shaq to get himself under the skin of a man who died 220 years ago (the loser in a duel with fellow Founding Father Aaron Burr) and is today widely acknowledged as being the foremost champion of a strong central government for the ‘new’ United States? “Actually, it wasn’t difficult at all,” says Shaq. “I immediately became really interested in where Alexander came from: a small island in the Caribbean, which was really a down-and-out country at the time. Prisoners were sent there as punishment – and that’s where he grew up. It was Alexander’s intelligence and far-reaching view of the world that got him out of that situation; he wrote a pamphlet about the effects, on poverty-stricken families, of a hurricane he witnessed, and his prosperous merchant guardian [Hamilton was born out of wedlock and orphaned as a child] saw him worthy of sending off to America to get an education. That part of his story in itself is so interesting: to see this person who obviously is so not in a privileged situation get himself out of that situation. It parallels with the backstory of many rappers, and people who live in the projects and underprivileged areas, who use their talents to get out, and use their skill set to do something with their lives.”

Photo Credit: Danny Kaan

Journey to the stage
In a far less dramatic way, perhaps, Hamilton’s story has personal resonance for Shaq too. “Both my parents are of Jamaican descent – my grandparents were first-generation immigrants to the UK”, he explains. “I’m the first in our family to go into theatre – and that in itself is quite a unique story. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I did a drama class in primary school and it rocked my world – I thought, what is this art form that will allow me to really express myself, and tell stories in exciting ways? My mum sent me to Stagecoach Theatre School and that’s where it all started, for me. Then one day I got this letter that said my application for this young people’s thing at the Young Vic in London had been accepted – I had no idea who sent the application off for me! But I went to the audition, and I got it, and that was my first taste of being on stage. To this day, I don’t know who wrote that letter; I’ve had inklings of who it might have been, but nothing’s ever been confirmed. It’s a proper mystery, but I kind of like that!”

Whoever sent that letter off must be very proud of Shaq today; his glittering CV is littered with illustrious roles including Beast in Beauty and the Beast at the London Palladium (and the national tour), Javert in Les Misérables at the Queen’s Theatre, Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre… oh, and the ‘Show Off Your Savvy’ guy in the latest Ikea TV ad campaign. Ah, Shaq: we love it when you offer us a peep into your (very neat!) fridge! Do people recognise you from the ad?

“All the time! I can’t get away from it!”, he laughs. “I said to my mum, ‘people keep recognising me in the street from the IKEA ad – it’s a bit overwhelming!’ And she was like, ‘do you realise how much joy you give to people? They’re seeing the guy who they keep seeing in their living room, in real life!’ To be honest, it’s really nice – it’s a very human thing.”

Shaq Taylor as Alexander Hamilton

And Shaq’s modest, ego-free attitude to both where he is with Hamilton and where he’s been in order to get here is very human too. “I haven’t done too bad so far in my career, but there’s still a way to go!”, he says. “I always try to take something with me from job-to-job, because each one of them brings benefits in different ways. Right now, I’m still very focused on the job at hand, as Hamilton – there’s an infinite amount to explore within this role. Obviously, the play book has been set by the original creators and that never changes. But in terms of acting and intention, it can change all the time, and other actors bring something different that makes you react in a different way; you kind of have to be on your feet with it, and I do like to keep it fresh. But portraying my character and telling his story: that’s entirely my responsibility. It’s not simple, and that’s the fun thing about it – I don’t think I’d love what I do as much as I do if it wasn’t as complicated as it is.”

Complicated – and, surely, exhausting? By the time Hamilton lands in at the Bristol Hippodrome, for no less than eight weeks from the end of April, Shaq will have been with this, the musical’s first tour of the UK, since last autumn.
“The thing is, though, because we set down in cities for so long it doesn’t feel like a tour,” says Shaq. “When you only get one or two week weeks in a city you don’t really have time to settle in, or explore. Right now, we’ve been in Manchester for four months and it’s a luxury, to be honest, to get to know the city you’re in. I visited Bristol for a period of time with Beauty and the Beast, so I do know it a bit, and I’m very excited to be back – there’s so much art, so much culture going on in Bristol. And I’m definitely going to try to get to know Bath this time around too – it’s high on my list!”

“Just you wait”
Before I let Shaq go back to his iconic role as a man realising his own potential as he strives to do the same for his country, I have one more question for him, focusing not on Alexander Hamilton, or the journey that led to him and Shaq coming together as one… or even the IKEA man! Here we go: who is Shaq Taylor, in just three words?

“Ha, that’s is the toughest question I’ve ever been asked in an interview!” he laughs. “You’ve put me on the spot! It’s like a dating app! But okay, here we go: I guess I’m calm – and down-to-earth. And active! I reckon I’m active. That’s me!”

So, that’s Shaq’s summary of himself. But to quote one of Alexander Hamilton/Shaq Taylor’s lines in the phenomenally successful musical itself, “there’s a million things I haven’t done, just you wait” – and Shaq Taylor is a calm, down-to-earth, active superstar-in-waiting, “passionately smashin’ every expectation.” Go, Hamilton!

Hamilton arrives at Bristol Hippodrome from Tuesday 30 April and runs until Saturday 22 June;