Sifiso Mazibuko
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Four roles, 41 songs and a few hours’ notice – meet the hidden star of Hamilton

“I am expected to know my stuff,” says principal standby Sifiso Mazibuko

When I went to see Hamilton a few weeks ago, I came out thinking: wow, by far and away the best actor on that stage was the one who played Aaron Burr, third vice-president of the United States and killer of the leading man, rendered into a complex R&B anti-hero by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s script – kind of Milton’s Satan meets R Kelly.

Who was that actor, and where did he come from? I asked myself. I tore through the programme – but saw a different face entirely under the name of Burr. The man I had seen – the best man in the show – was the understudy.

His name is Sifiso Mazibuko, “principal standby”. He is from South Africa – and he is not only required to play Aaron Burr if the other Burr gets sick: he is understudy for Alexander Hamilton, too. And for Thomas Jefferson. Oh, and Revolutionary War general the Marquis de Lafayette as well. He must deliver any one of these four principal roles with a few hours’ notice. They sing 41 songs between them, and the songs mostly feature two or more of the parts. “I am expected to know my stuff,” says Mazibuko.

At any point during a rehearsal of Hamilton you will see, around the auditorium, a clutch of “standbys” mirroring the movements from the stage, moving like shadows in the aisles, “trying not to get in the way, but trying to get as close to the action as possible”. The key to learning four big parts at once is in the muscle memory, says Mazibuko. And in colour-coding, too. Hamilton is green, he decided. Jefferson and Lafayette are purple. And Burr is orange – “because he is the story, the narrative, the whole theatre with that lush amber lighting”. Mazibuko’s wife, also an actor, helped him with the script, rapping the other parts. He learned 80 per cent of each role, starting with his favourite, then “fed in” the remaining information when he could almost make a decent fist of each. For songs such as “Non Stop”, where Burr and Hamilton perform in a kind of theatrical split-screen effect, he rapped one part out loud, while doing the other in his head.

One night in December, Mazibuko got a call from the company manager warning him, “You may have to be on tomorrow, I will confirm in the morning.” He hoots with laughter at the thought of the night that followed. In the morning it was confirmed. He told the manager, “I would maybe like to come in a little earlier to the theatre, and do some work on the part before the show, if that’s OK?” His wife packed his lunch.

Mazibuko comes from Kimberley in the Northern Cape and speaks five languages. He was originally going to study law until he heard about a musical theatre course at Pretoria University. His parents advised him to try it out. After a master’s in acting at Ohio State, he and his wife came to London, where the size of the burgers made more sense to them. He played Marvin Gaye in the West End.

Hamilton’s associate choreographer, Stephanie Klemons, told Mazibuko that in some mysterious way, the actors who play Burr are always similar. “They keep to themselves,” he says. “Burr waits for stuff. Doesn’t go full on. A guy on the outside looking in, saying, ‘No, that’s not how I do things’.”

The decision to shoulder the mighty part of quadruple understudy, which balances the luxury of not having to perform every night with the pressure of having to do so at short notice, was strategic. If he could play one role, just once, it would be worth it. He adds: “I was thinking, how do I get to be part of that room?” The character of Burr, political outsider, has permeated him. His signature song is “The Room Where it Happens”.

He hasn’t played Hamilton, Jefferson or Lafayette yet, but he’s done Burr 30 times. Every other theatre job will be simple now. The principal actor for Burr, Giles Terera, has just won an Olivier Award. But those of us who’ve seen the other one – whose pop-up appearances are, of course, entirely unpredictable – all assumed he was the star. On the average day, he comes to the theatre anyway, and is to be found up in the dressing room, watching TV, “eating food” and putting himself through his paces. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.