For someone with such a self-deprecating sense of humour, Robert Tripolino is one of the humblest and hardest working young actors I’ve come across. I spoke to him during the rehearsal period of Jesus Christ Superstar, which opened this week at the Barbican in London. He shared his journey with me, from his first principal role in Australia in Aladdin to working with Steven Schwartz on new work and taking to the stage as Jesus, all in a few short years, all the steps that brought him here.
“It was during Aladdin that a friend of mine got the youth visa and came over to London, and I had always wanted to do it. But then I booked the Disney gig, so I saw that out – it was my first principle role and it was a very nice career step for me, I did that for two years and it was a great gig to set up my eventual move”, Tripolino explained on his decision to move to the UK.
“But during that two years I met partner, Hiba Elchikhe, who played Princess Jasmine, and she was flown from the UK to play the role in Australia, and that was a strong incentive to make the decision. I’m batting way above my average… you can print that”, he laughed.
We laugh about how that would have been a very different twist to Aladdin – Princess Jasmine ends up with one of the three dudes who are playing the friends, who are part of the musical in the place of Abu in the movie.
“The monkey cuts Aladdin’s lunch” he laughs.
He arrived in London in August 2018, knowing he had no real networks here.
“I decided to finish up with Aladdin in the middle of the tour, and took a plane over – it was a bit of a leap of faith. I knew that I had no networks here, and I hit the ground running – it was very much a start from scratch scenario where I had to get everything from my personal life sorted, but then I had started looking for agencies to represent me here. It took a large part of three months, a lot of emails saying books are full, and then one agency picked up the phone and called me back, and they’re now the agency I’m with”, he said.
His first job was in a panto, which aren’t a big thing in Australia.
“I had the joy of auditioning, and I was going for a Prince, and I don’t know how, (because I brought in musical theatre songs not knowing it was pop songs they wanted), but I booked the gig! I took it because I’d never ventured into that world before, because it’s so non-existent back home, and so I did that over Christmas”, he said.
“Then I was very fortunate to do a show after that called Rags up in Manchester, and that was fun, I got to workshop it with Stephen Schwartz, he flew over, and then during that process the Jesus Christ Superstar auditions had started – it all kind of came snowballing. I was very fortunate, but I was also very determined, I think it was that little bit of fire in the belly that made sure I was working hard”.
He’s fairly early in his career but the calibre of the shows he works on has only grown. When he first auditioned for Jesus Christ Superstar, he was just happy to be in the room, and just wanted to be seen for ‘the guy on the left’.
“My goal for the first year (I’m a big goal setter), was just to get in front of as many casting directors, whether or not I book gigs or not, just to get in the room. I didn’t put expectation on me booking any gigs, it was more about just being seen”, Tripolino said.
“I think I was really fortunate that this particular production is very musician based, and very much musician informed, so a lot of the actors do play instruments, so I had to bring in my guitar. I have quite a strong guitar background; it’s one of the first things I ever picked up. I think it was one of those things where all the stars aligned and it was meant to be. And it was a great audition process, workshopping with the musical supervisor Tom Deering, and there was a session with our director Tim Sheader and he would work through the material with me, and then we had to put it to the top dogs, to the writers, and waiting for them to say yes or no”.
Finding out he had scored the role of Jesus was pretty surreal and not something he was expecting.
“There was a lot of jumping for joy. By the fifth or sixth meeting, you’re always you’re worst enemy, you start falling in love with the piece even though you haven’t gotten the part, because you’re singing it so much. You always want to lower the stakes and not be too hard done by if you don’t get it, but it does get to a point where you’re invested in it, by singing the songs so much and investing so much of your time into it. It was exciting that I got to book it and I had the material quite strongly in my body by then”, he said.
This production of Jesus Christ Superstar is now into its third run, as it ran at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for two sell out runs, and won the Oliver Award for Best Musical Revival. Fans are hoping that the electric energy from the outdoor performance transfers to the new indoor setting at the Barbican, and so far, reviews have been good.
“From the get go, Tim Sheader said to us it really is about the music, and that every musician in the band is just as important as Jesus and Judas in the telling of this story. It’s really cool to explore, it’s not like we’re putting the narrative at the forefront, or the band is sitting in the pit: there’s a story behind that opening riff, there’s intentions in that… its musical and it connects all the dots and for me as a musician it’s even more fun to explore because you let the music inform the acting”, Tripolino said about this particular production.
I spoke to him at the start of the rehearsal process in mid-June, and the show has now opened at the Barbican, with rave reviews on his performance and the production.
“It’s been exciting and also full on – there’s no other way to jump into this score except to dive in head first. It’s so huge. The expression behind the vocals, the wailing guitars, the ensemble choral moments, everyone is just sweating when they’re singing because it’s so powerful. You’re building stamina for when we get to the theatre – when we get to The Barbican it’s going to be a powerhouse”, he said.
“We’ve already had a few band-calls in rehearsals, which has been exciting, because part of this show has been to get the band in earlier, because they want it to inform early on. In terms of a sitzprobe, we’ll still have that, but we’ll already have an idea of what the rhythm section will sound like, which you don’t usually get in traditional musical theatre shows”.
While he’s working hard here, he also has a show he’s written with fellow Aussie in London, Hugo Chiarella, being staged at Chapel Off Chapel on the 12th and 13th of July called Guilty Pleasures.
“It’s been one of those scenarios where we haven’t had to do much to the show, we’ve signed off on a few changes here or there, but we haven’t written a whole catalogue of new songs and it hasn’t needed revamping. It’s exciting that that’s a show of ours that is being put on and played. We’re literally not going to be in the country for it, which is unheard of for us – I’m usually in the band! There’s a sadness to that, but also an excitement – this is a good problem – we’ve planted seeds and you can see them come into fruition”, he said about the show being performed.
He’s also working on a show being staged at the Camden Fringe Festival, also while he will be treading the boards as Jesus. He’s working another VCA grad, and yet even more Australian performers and artists now based in London, Sam Hooper and Gabrielle Scawthorn.
“I’m composing again, Sam has written the lyrics and Gab is the director. For me its another opportunity to flex the composer muscles, cause I don’t want to let that go amongst everything else I’m doing over here, in my performance side, I do want to make sure my composition side is still pumping, and I do feel that one day the two will intertwine wholeheartedly”, Tripolino said about Death Becomes You (hyperlink).
“So we’re putting that on in the Camden Fringe Festival, it will be the week of closing of Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s exciting, it’s another of those scenarios where I will get to be on the sidelines, but the good thing is there’s a strong creative team there, it’s exciting that there will be something else happening. I’m a big believer that you have to have versatility, and hopefully these things will lead to other things”, he said.
Given he has been here for nearly a year now, I asked about what differences he’s found in working in Australia to the UK, and what’s he’s missing most about home.
“To be honest, in terms of auditions, hands down there’s far more to be had over here. And there’s far more opportunity for not just major commercial, successful, Tony award winning shows that come to town, like in Australia, it’s very common we’ll get the Aladdin and the Chicago revivals and anything that’s a proven commercial success. Whereas over here there are shows that may not be award winning shows…you get to see shows develop and grow, which is something we don’t have back home. It’s exciting for performers too, there’s more new work and new workshops coming down, it’s not the revival city that Australia can be guilty of at times”, he said on the differences he’s found working here.
“At the end of the day it’s risk taking as well, our choreographer Drew McOnie said when they first discovered the ideas of what they wanted to do with this show they were like this probably weren’t work, this will be scary, they were frightened it would just fall on it’s head. I like that even though they thought that, they still had the support to take those risks – it’s one of those things that I don’t see back home – everything is very safe and there’s very little opportunity for anyone to make a living and to take risks in their craft, and I do believe that’s where you start expanding and becoming more masterful and building your skills. That was my goal, to build my skill set, both physically and intellectually, all aspects”, he said.
He shared insight into why he thinks performers leave Australia to seek international stages.
“For me personally, its a skillset thing, (and it can be anywhere in the world, big fish, small pond), where you might think you’re at the top of your game but you go somewhere else and you find the bar is set so incredibly high, you’re not prepared for that. I think from the people that have come over, a lot of people are in the same boat. I don’t see any negativity to it. I have a vision that I want to be able to get to a point I can cross and work between the UK and Australia, that’s my grand goal”, Tripolino reflected.
“But I know some people might think differently, they might be escaping the same thing that happens, a lot of people say there’s only five auditions a year in Australia, and that its tough, but to be honest it’s still just as tough here, you still have to have to be able to deliver, but there’s definitely a lot more opportunity for new work and building your craft from that rather than dancing the steps that have been danced already or singing the songs that have been sung”.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Barbican in London until 24 August. Tickets and more info.
Guilty Pleasures plays at Chapel off Chapel on 12 and 13 July. Tickets and more info.