Swansea native Aaron Lee Lambert is living his dream, but it didn’t happen until he moved far away from home, to the United Kingdom.
A performing triple threat, Lambert, 33, is currently a principal standby for George Washington, Hercules Mulligan/James Madison and King George III in the London West End production of “Hamilton.” A standby is hired specifically to replace a lead and is not otherwise in the show.
“When I cover George Washington, it’s an absolute beast of a role that I’m so lucky to get to play from time to time,” he said.
Being part of the landmark musical achievement — with 11 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album — has been an honor, he said.
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“Working with the original creative team has been and continues to be such an amazing learning experience. ‘Hamilton’ was created by a group of people who truly understand collaboration, and that’s what you see on the stage: a true synthesis of music, word, movement, design, light and sound,” he said.
The creative team included writer Lin-Manuel Miranda; director Thomas Kail; musical supervisor Alex Lacamoire; choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler; associate choreographer Stephanie Klemons; designers David Korins (set), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Howell Binkley (lighting) and Nevin Steinberg (sound).
“And the fandom is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I’ve done some big shows with some big names, but never have I seen a musical speak so profoundly to so many people of so many backgrounds,” Lambert said.
So how did the Belleville East alumnus wind up in the hottest ticket in town?
“I had heard of ‘Hamilton’ and its huge cultural impact stateside, but I hadn’t listened to too much of the music before being sent material for the initial audition for the West End production,” he said.
“I was in tech for the UK/Ireland tour of ‘Sister Act’ in Leicester, I was playing Curtis in the third production I’ve done of the musical, and I traveled back to London a few times over the course of a weekend that the American team was in town. I was off on tour before being called back just under a year later,” he said. “I was sent even more material — 19 songs in total — and had a couple working sessions with the creative team. I was eventually offered the job.”
Besides “Hamilton,” he has appeared in professional touring shows, regional, off-Broadway and London musical productions.
Among his favorite roles are “Show Boat” at Carnegie Hall, “Urinetown” in the West End, “Sweeney Todd” alongside Emma Thompson, “Sunset Boulevard” with Glenn Close and being in the original London cast of “Hamilton.”
His career achievements across the pond include seven West End shows, a No. 1 UK/Ireland tour, a TV singing competition judge — Sky One’s “Sing: Ultimate A Cappella,” concerts with world-famous orchestras (BBC Concert Orchestra, John Wilson Orchestra, English National Opera Orchestra), multiple performances at the Olivier Awards, commercials and voice-over campaigns.
“I even wrote a musical, 'From Up Here,' which is available on iTunes and digitaltheatre.com,” he said.
Moving away to pursue his dream
At 17, he moved away to attend Yale University, graduating magna cum laude in 2006, and has lived far from home ever since.
“I had always planned on going to a conservatory and studying theater as an undergraduate. I applied to a handful of Ivy League universities on a whim, just to see how I’d stack up, and I was accepted to all of them. I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get an Ivy League education,” he said. “Of all the Ivies I visited, Yale just felt right. It has a huge extracurricular arts scene and was the perfect place for me to be creative and performative while pushing myself academically."
His first professional role was as a walking understudy for a little Off-Broadway family show called “Brundibar/But the Giraffe,” while he was still at Yale.
After graduation, he left New Haven, Conn., to move to New York City.
He earned his Equity card performing in a new musical, “Meet John Doe” at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.
Lambert traveled to Scotland to continue his education, receiving a master’s degree with distinction in 2009 from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now called the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow.
“I loved my time there. It was quite an intensive course, but was exactly what I needed,” he said.
He stayed in England after moving down to London with a fellow American classmate.
“We wanted to ride out the last few months of our student visas, and within a few months, I booked my first West End show ‘Sister Act’ at the London Palladium. I was in the cast when Whoopi Goldberg came over to play Mother Superior for a limited run, which was a treat,” he said.
After that, he booked “Shrek.”
“I decided to stay in London for as long as the work kept coming in. I’ve been so fortunate to have had such a varied career in the UK thus far,” he said.
He covered the role of John in “Miss Saigon” in the West End, playing him more than 75 times.
“He had always been on my list of dream roles. ‘Miss Saigon’ was the first show I saw on Broadway on my first trip to NYC, so it’s always held a special place in my heart,” he said.
Another role he enjoyed was playing Anthony in “Sweeney Todd.”
“I have so much admiration for the work of Sondheim, both as a writer and a performer, so to get to sing that music on the stage of the London Coliseum was a blessing,” he said.
His new and old worlds collided during a 2014 original London production of “Urinetown,” in which he played Billy Boy Bill.
“Belleville East actually made its way to London in the strangest of coincidences. At Press Night, I had a lovely chat with Mark Hollmann, who wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics. He was over from the States for the occasion, and we discovered in that conversation that we both went to Belleville East,” he said.
Hollmann, of Fairview Heights, is a 1981 graduate of Belleville East, and won a Tony Award in 2002 and an Obie Award in 2001 for “Urinetown.”
“I absolutely adored our original London production of ‘Urinetown.’ It was such a special show and such a special group of people, so that one always winds up on my list of favorites,” Lambert said.
Finding his calling
He said he has always marched to the beat of his own drum. What would he tell his younger self now?
“Just continue to do you. You’ve explored pathways unknown with wild abandon. Never stop. It’s when you’re your most authentic self that you will find the most happiness and success,” he said.
Musically inclined, Lambert was in choir all through middle and high schools. He took a few private singing/piano lessons in Belleville, but it wasn’t until Yale that he started taking proper voice lessons through the school of music.
“I’m definitely a singing actor who moves, so I didn’t take a dance class until those required for my master’s degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland,” he said.
Lambert became interested in performing while a fifth-grader at Wolf Branch School. He auditioned for the spring musical “Annie,” initially to get closer to a schoolboy crush — the girl played one of the orphans.
“I ended up playing a ventriloquist dummy — like the actual puppet. I guess you can say that after that initial bite, I was hooked,” he said.
He credits his middle school and high school teachers with being encouraging and helping him hone his craft.
“Michael Logan and Lora Partney, the band and choir directors respectively, helped to introduce music to me at a young age, and without them I don’t think I’d be the musician I am today,” he said about his Wolf Branch teachers.
“We did two plays per year at Wolf Branch, a fall melodrama and a spring musical, and those first few productions helped lay the groundwork for my love of the theater,” he said.
“It’s around that time I became obsessed with browsing the musical theater CDs. Remember those? At Borders — remember bookstores?” he said. “The cast recording collection residing in my parents’ basement is quite extensive."
Belleville East teachers inspire him
“The performing arts were a huge part of my experience at Belleville East. There were some amazingly creative and inspiring teachers that really helped me develop as a performer during my time there: Jennifer Svehla, Kimberly Richey, Margot Belt and Charles Zeller, to name a few,” he said.
“Between the theater department and the forensics team, I was able to explore, challenge and grow my unique set of skills.”
Jennifer Svehla, his speech coach, said Lambert excelled in forensics competition. He was in Original Comedy and Dramatic Duet Acting his freshman year, Special Occasion Speaking his sophomore year, Humorous Interpretation — fourth in state and either 12 or 13 at nationals — and Humorous Duet Acting his junior year. Senior year, he did HAD with Natalie Hemmer Schultz, and just missed qualifying for state. He was the speech team captain junior and senior years.
“As far as his drive was concerned, he was fierce at everything he did. He started off in debate but really wanted to do speech as well. Once he found himself successful in both his sophomore year, he felt he had to choose between the two since they both took up so much time. I think because it was closer to his first love, musical theater, he chose speech and I think it helped him out immensely,” Svehla said.
Among his play roles, he was the lead, Pseudolus, in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” his senior year and Schroeder in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” his junior year, and in the ensembles in “My Fair Lady” and “Cinderella” his first two years.
“He was never shy about auditioning or trying new things, but speech just made him willing to take more chances if it meant he would get a better performance. Without a doubt, he worked tirelessly at all things performance,” Svehla said.
Honing his craft
“I always told him he had the triple threat of being able to dance, sing and act. And his gift for comic timing was impeccable. You cannot teach that. He was always honing his craft by taking vocal lessons, extra coaching times, coaching his peers as well as cutting pieces for his team mates. He really was a leader even when he wasn't trying to be,” Svehla said.
But she had advice for him, like all students, along the way.
“I tell students that their talent isn't the first thing that anyone will notice — it's who they know where they are. Being with the right people in the right place at the right time. That's what gets them in the door. How they treat others, take direction and adapt to their ‘audience’ is the next important thing. At that point, what they know is important, but the person probably already has a good idea,” she said.
“It takes a lot of heartache of rejection and to keep going, a lot of tough skin to getting better, knowing what parts you can and cannot play, knowing how to adapt to your audience and what the directors want, some kissing butt and the willingness to not have a lot of personal relationships because theater work means going where the job takes you and lots of times others don't understand that,” she said.
Svehla said she knew Lambert would be successful.
“I can count on one hand, in 23 years of teaching, the number of students I have said could do it. Aaron is one of them. It's just a matter of time before he will grace the U.S. with his talent on Broadway or in films,” she said.
He is also grateful for the encouragement of his parents, Tony and Tracie Lee-Lambert.
“My parents have been so incredibly supportive of my career, even when it seemed like I was jumping into the deep end. I’m really very lucky,” he said.
In the 10 years he has lived in the UK, he has been home five times.
“Two weddings, two Christmases and one random Memorial Day weekend. That’s mostly because I have worked pretty consistently, and I get limited holiday time when I’m in a show,” he said. “I highly value my upbringing and where I grew up because they’ve had a profound effect on who I am today. I love my family and where we’re from,” he said.
He heard from school chums during the St. Louis run of “Hamilton,” he said.
“We were in rehearsals for our Olivier Awards performance earlier this year and Tommy Kail, the director of ‘Hamilton,’ mentioned to me how well the tour was being received in St. Louis,” he said. “Then I started noticing Facebook posts from childhood friends, ‘Hamilton’ Playbills in hand, describing their experiences witnessing it at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.”
His “Hamilton” experience has been unforgettable, he said.
"Admittedly, I didn’t immediately jump on the ‘Hamilton’ train, per se. I tend to steer clear of things that are accompanied by huge amounts of hype,” he said. “Every now and again, a piece of work enters the popular culture off the back of its own merit alone and captures the zeitgeist of the current cultural climate. ‘Hamilton’ is and did just that.”
Living abroad has given him a unique perspective on what it means to be American, and how America fits into the world at large, he said.
“Especially in these trying times. What I love about living in the UK, and London in particular, is its diversity. The people, the culture, the art — London is a true representation of everything that is wonderful about globalization,” he said.
British audiences tend to be a bit more reserved than American audiences, Lambert said, but they are more alike than different.
“The United Kingdom and the United States of America have way more in common than differences. The biggest advantage of making a life here as opposed to the States is the proximity to mainland Europe. I love taking advantage of the fact that so many countries and cultures are a short — and cheap — flight away.”
What has a life in theater taught him?
“This is going to sound cheesy, but I’m okay with that...Being fortunate enough to make a career out of theater has taught me the true power of storytelling. Theater has the capacity to move people like no other medium,” Lambert said. "For two-plus hours, in theaters around the world, a group of people sit down to collectively experience a story being told by a troupe of performers. What those people, audience and performers alike, experience in that room for that period only happens once."
“Every audience is different, every performance unique. What happens in that room is a living, breathing thing that only those people that night have shared — and then it’s gone," he said. "There’s something so magical about that. Whether it’s escapism, catharsis or unabashed comedy you’re after, theater has the capacity to change those people in that room for the better.”