We flew into bold, brassy Sydney for the opening of the musical, Hamilton. The Broadway hit musical, in fact all shows, had been shut down all over the world during the 2020 pandemic. But finally Sydney had managed the the unimaginable – a full house opening of the Australian cast and crew in Hamilton. It was to be the only performance of Hamilton in the world in March 2021. There was such hype around this musical, written by and initially starring Lin-Manuel Miranda. Written in hip hop, about the founding of the American nation, about a little known Caribbean immigrant, Alexander Hamilton and starring a mostly mixed race cast, it seemed an unlikely subject for a musical. Who would have thought it would become a global phenomenon? And we, lucky us! – had opening night tickets per favour of our daughter, who was going to ‘call’ or direct the opening night performance.
We arrived early, masks at the ready, mixing with the rich and famous of Sydney. Sharing a lift with Stan Grant and Tracy Holmes was just the first buzz. As we lined up to receive our bespoke Hamilton masks, we spotted the ABC newsreader Jeremy Fernandez ahead of us. But soon, we were just carried away with the crowd. It was impossible to socially distance, no matter how hard we tried. And the excitement of the show overtook any neck craning to see other celebrities.
The show is superlative. The cast were on notice to show the world that the creative arts are back. They were performing for all their comrades who were still stuck in lockdown in New York, London and everywhere else. The two main characters of indigenous heritage played white men. And did they pull it off? A resounding yes! The dancing and the music carry the story of how orphaned Hamilton, who rose from penury came to be the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America, drafting part of the constitution and establishing the modern financial system. A flawed man, he fathered eight children but was unfaithful to his wife and finally died in a duel with his arch nemesis Aaron Burr. His life is summed up by his long-suffering wife, Eliza , who sings – who lives, who dies, who gets to tell your story. A standing ovation brought the American producer to the stage. His analysis – Sydney is our bright light and our rising sun – the best city in the world!
Hamilton is a story about history and who gets to write the stories of long ago. It gave me pause to think about the history of Sydney. It has been described as the Emerald City, the city featured in David Williamson’s play of the same name – a reference to the mythical Land of Oz. Williamson is quoted as saying everyone comes along the yellow brick road to find the city of their dreams only to face their demons instead. Certainly Sydney had a nefarious beginning. Named Warrane by the local Gadigal people, in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip named it Sydney Cove after the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. The unloading of over 1000 convicts into the pristine environment of the Gadigal certainly let loose many demons. Until recently, the Circular Quay terminal still disgorged thousands of people at the same landing site from huge cruise ships.
Phillip called Sydney Harbour one of the best and deepest natural harbours in the world. The two headlands called North and South Head were important spiritual landmarks for the First Nation people, the Gai-mariagel, who called North Head Car-reng gel and the Gadigal who called South Head Tarralbe. But the spirituality of the First Nations people was unrecognised by Phillip. The lighthouses on South Head guided the ever increasing ships which ploughed into the harbour disgorging both convicts and later settlers.
I grew up in Sydney in the north west on Gai-mariagel land, although I certainly had no knowledge that we had settled on their country. The suburb where I grew up was on the outskirts of the city so in the 1950’s there was plenty of bushland to explore, as well as the northern beaches and headlands. My family’s love of nature was ingrained from very early days. Later I lived on the foreshores of the harbour. I continue to visit family and friends who live there now. Slowly the history of the early city and its influence on early life is coming to light.
A book published this year by local Gai-mariegel Elder Dennis Foley and academic Peter Read, called What the Colonists Never Knew is providing new information about our city https://www.nma.gov.au/about/publications/what-the-colonists-never-knew. It outlines how even today we are disregarding First Nation culture. Dennis outlines how development continues to destroy critical sacred sites or leaves them to become derelict. He outlines how the local Sydney people were nearly destroyed by the white settlement and policies and in subsequent years had to hide their culture and language or risk internment. The First Nation people can tell a different story about this city, starting with the names given to significant places.
The famous Opera House stands on Bennelong Point, recognising one of the earliest First Nation diplomats, Bennelong. Hamilton is being performed at the Lyric Theatre at Barangaroo, named after Bennelong’s wife, who warned of too friendly relations with the white invaders. Fort Denison, a military base was originally called Mat-te-wan-ye by the Gadigal but Pinchgut by the convicts as it was used as a lynching pad to the horror of the Gadigal. It is now a national park, outlining its brutal history.
We have stopped killing the whales who make their pilgrimage north when the wattle blooms and celebrate them instead, shown below by a beautiful sculpture at a Sculpture by the Sea exhibition on the southern headlands of Sydney.
The early history of the penal settlement and the effect of the colonisation on the First Nation people is being acknowledged in museums such as the Hyde Park Barracks.
There is still much work to be done to acknowledge the culture and knowledge of the local Sydney clans of the First Nation people. So much has been lost. Despite this, Sydney remains a focus for art and culture.
Where else can one experience a Verdi Opera performed outdoors on a pontoon in this wonderful harbour. We were lucky to hear the wonderful Stacey Alleaume and Rame Lahaj perform La Traviata, at Mrs Macquarie’s point with views to two of Sydney’s icons, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. This part of the harbour foreshore is much the same as it would have been in 1788. The beautiful Sydney sandstone and Port Jackson figs tower over the manmade stage and the audience sees the flight of the fruit bats at dusk and the moon rise as the beautiful European music of Verdit wafts over the water. A bright light indeed.