With multi-award-winning musical Hamilton playing at Victoria Palace Theatre in the West End, Simon-Anthony Rhoden was cast as Aaron Burr at the end of 2019 and had been continuing his time in the production until the pandemic closed theatres around the world in March last year. Prior to his role in Hamilton, Simon-Anthony had appeared as Harpo in The Color Purple at Leicester Curve and made his professional debut as understudy Lola in Kinky Boots, before taking on the role full time. Previous work for Simon-Anthony has included appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe, writing and starring in his own play and recording for the BBC Radio 4 play Quartet for the End of Time. Speaking with us, Simon-Anthony talks about playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, appearing at Leicester Curve in The Color Purple and his time as Lola in Kinky Boots.
How has it been playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton in London’s Victoria Palace Theatre and what was it like joining the cast?
Being in Hamilton is a dream come true. As much as I really wanted to play this role, at first I was incredibly nervous and completely intimidated by the whole thing, from the show, to the role, to the insanely talented cast. Playing Aaron Burr is so satisfying as an actor, he is so complex and so measured. He is very stealthy and always keeps his cards close to his chest, so as an actor you have so much going on internally in order to pursue the thing you want, whether that is power, respect or even love. Aaron Burr is also a narrator in a way, so there is a challenge with both having to guide the audience through the story whilst being present and part of the narrative too. For me, it feels like a massive playground!
What was it like preparing for your opening performance and rehearsing in the role?
As I mentioned before, I was initially very intimidated by the role, there was so much to learn, and so much to understand. You can’t forget, although this is a theatrical piece, it is a true story. The creative team are so helpful and don’t accept anything but the truth, so rehearsals for me was really trying to discover why the story unfolds the way it does and what each scene does to help the plot. By the time it comes to the opening night, you’re almost desperate to have an audience, as I feel, for this show in particular, the audience is the missing piece of the puzzle.
Had you seen the show before being cast and what drew you to the production?
Yes, I had seen the show before and I remember being absolutely blown away by it. I had only ever heard great things about it, but I always like to form my own opinion, and it exceeded all expectations. It was love at first sight. I knew then I needed to play THAT role.
Do you have any favourite memories from the time you’ve had in the show so far?
As well as playing the role, the cast are truly fantastic and we made some great friendships. We all get on like a house on fire and I couldn’t ask for a more supportive, talented and crazy person to act opposite, night after night than Karl Queensborough. There isn’t one moment I can think of as a favourite memory but on the right night, or wrong night depending how you look at it, if Karl and I catch each other’s eye in a certain way, we know it’s going to be a crazy show FULL of mischief.
In 2019, you played Harpo in The Color Purple at Leicester Curve, how was this?
Harpo was my first role after playing a Drag Queen for nearly three years, so I was so nervous about being accepted into the role. Saying that, the role just spoke to me and, as a huge fan of The Color Purple, I jumped at the chance of doing it. Harpo is a misguided modern man, and it was a lot of fun exploring his navigation of life.
What was it like being part of the cast and working at the Curve?
The Curve is one of my favourite places to perform and rehearse. It exudes creativity and they truly love theatre there which inspires you as an actor to be free and play. Being amongst the cast of The Color Purple felt like being at home. It was my first experience of being in an all-black cast, I didn’t know it was something that I needed or that I was missing. Being in an environment where, on a cultural level, people understand you, you are not the odd one out and you don’t feel you need to apologise for your existence. I’m not saying that that is the way I feel on a regular basis, but joining the cast gave me an overwhelming sense of liberation. It was nice.
What was Lola like to play in Kinky Boots?
Joining the cast of Kinky Boots West End was a huge achievement for me, and watching Matt Henry do the role night after night was a blessing. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think a role like this would ever exist in my lifetime, nor did I think I would ever have the opportunity of playing it. Lola was a powerhouse and after doing that role I felt as though I could take on anything. She never stops! If she’s on stage, all eyes are on her, if she’s off stage, she is changing into her next outfit and putting on a new wig. It was a lot, but it was so much fun.
How was the experience going from understudying Lola to playing the role full time?
Going from covering the role of Lola to playing it full time was a physical SHOCK! I thought playing Lola every now and then was hard work, but playing the role night after night takes its toll on you mentally and physically. Because Lola is the life and soul of the party, she is always ON, and that is something that I quickly had to come to terms with. Even on the days I wasn’t feeling 100% happy or myself, Lola had to be, on the days where those heels had killed my feet or calves or back, Lola had to be fit as a fiddle. One of the hardest parts of the role was having to look invincible in front of 1,500 people night after night.
What did you enjoy most about being in the production and what do you miss about the show?
I enjoyed playing that character, Lola was so much fun to be, she is so different to me as a person, but sometimes it’s nice to be an unapologetic extrovert. And the songs… I loved singing those songs! Land of Lola and Hold Me In Your Heart were my favourites.
Can you tell us about some of the other productions you’ve been involved with?
I’ve been acting for a while now but Kinky Boots was my break into the professional acting world. Before that I had done Parade the Musical, which we performed at Edinburgh Fringe, that was so much fun. A friend Mark Finbow and I wrote and starred in a play that we brought to Brighton Fringe Festival which went down surprisingly well.
Lots of shows at drama school, Tommy the Musical (I played Cousin Kevin) and the play Vernon God Little which was such a great and wonderfully weird play.
Lots of pub theatre shows at Theatre503. I love having the opportunity to create!
Do you remember the first theatre show you watched and what are some of your favourites?
My first theatre show, I guess, was a pantomime when I was really little, at the Hackney Empire, it was Jack and the Giant Beanstalk and I was so enchanted with the simple but very effective way of how they achieved Jack climbing up the beanstalk. The Young Vic have put on some fantastic plays over the years, I love the way they are able to manipulate the space for a particular show. One of my favourite shows there was a show called Blackta by Nathaniel Martello-White and I recently saw the reimagined Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. At the Bristol Old Vic I had the opportunity of catching Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams and over the first lockdown I completely took advantage of the National Theatre’s YouTube broadcasting of some of their archived plays. I do love to see live theatre when I can, there is something so special about it.
You’ve also worked on screen, what is this like to do?
Screen is such a different way of performing and, for me, a big adjustment. The principles are the same in terms of telling the truth and intention, but getting there is very different. Screen is also chopped up into practicality of filming so sometimes you’ll film the end of the story before the beginning, which can feel odd. You have to stay focused all of the time as you stop and start a lot and you’ll also do lots of the same takes over the course of many hours which can be draining. But being on set is so much fun.
Is acting something you always wanted to do and how did you start?
Yes, I’ve always wanted to be an actor, but haven’t always known if it was possible. When I was little, a friend and I would often perform for friends and family until one day my mother paid for me to go to acting classes on the weekend. Then, when I was old enough, I went to Drama School to really work on my craft.
We understand you are part of Quartet for the End of Time on BBC Radio 4, can you tell us more about it?
Yes, just like any other job I got asked through my agent to read for a radio play which is something I had never done before. They sent over the script and I was completely drawn in by the enchanting nature of the story. When I first read the script, I could already hear the music, but hearing the finished piece was so special. It was also my first time working in Bristol, where I live, in a professional capacity which was so satisfying. I don’t often get to go back home after a day’s acting.
What do you enjoy doing away from your career?
I enjoy spending time with friends and family. Over the lockdown period, I have really appreciated being in my own home in Bristol for an extended period of time which is something I haven’t done in almost five years. I have also gotten into cooking and baking. Interior design is a new passion of mine too.
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