Amber Gray had been simmering Off and Off Off Broadway for about a decade when, in 2016, she appeared to arrive fully-formed – to Broadway audiences, anyway – as some sort of next-generation diva, a new force in the world of musical theater, landing a knock-out performance as Countess Hélène Bezukhova in the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. “Charming,” her spotlight number from the musical, seemed (still does) destined to secure an early place in a lasting personal repertoire, sure to be shout-requested in untold numbers of concerts to come.
So in a way, Great Comet was both a culmination and a first act. Now Gray has been Tony-nominated (Best Featured Actress/musical) for her current performance as Persephone in Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown (directed, like Comet, by Rachel Chavkin). A hit critically and with sell-out crowds, Hadestown is Mitchell’s uncannily prescient re-do of the Orpheus myth, with Hades and Eurydice and Hermes and Persephone gathering in some netherworld French Quarter to sing of perseverance and failure and saving grace and, yes, a Wall to keep out all those unwanted others, a nasty, and stirring, ode that predated Trump’s folly by at least several years.
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Deadline recently spoke to Gray about her involvement in Hadestown, Comet, a pre-Broadway turn in Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! and her longtime devotion to the guerrilla theater of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, a mock-pious pop-up troupe of theater activists whose targets have included Disney stores, Monsanto, Trump Tower and ICE. All in all, a terrific first act.
Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, directed by Rachel Chavkin, starring Reeve Carney, André De Shields, Amber Gray, Eva Noblezada and Patrick Page, is playing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: I saw a story about your Hadestown audition from hell. True or just a good headline?
Amber Gray: Well, it was a headline that had nothing to do with the story.
Deadline: Good – the story was behind a paywall. So what happened?
Gray: Hadestown first came into my life because I’d had a long professional relationship with Rachel Chavkin, and when they were initially doing that first stage reading workshop under Rachel’s direction – it was New York Theatre Workshop with a two-week residency up at Dartmouth – she called me, and I went and properly auditioned. The “from hell” thing came because I learned the music by ear from the Ani DiFranco version of “Our Lady From The Underground” [on the original concept album], which is not necessarily Anaïs’ version. Lots of people on that [concept] album got to play around with rhythms and melodies, but for my audition they wanted the Anaïs version. That’s all.
Deadline: That doesn’t sound too awful. Speaking of Anaïs’ music, Rachel Chavkin said something interesting about this musical, and about how music composed by a woman might actually be written in a way that makes it more comfortable, vocally, for female singers. Am I expressing that correctly?
Gray: Yeah, I was the one who first brought that up to Rachel a couple of years ago. I loved singing this music because it’s right in my pocket. From the high stuff to the low stuff Anaïs just knows a woman’s voice – because she is a woman. Lots of men who write the musicals that typically make it to Broadway don’t understand a woman’s instrument so they write things that are slightly out of our range. They have women singing in the rafters a lot, which is cool for a moment but after three minutes it makes your ears start to hurt. I don’t understand why we find that impressive. Anaïs now jokes that she’s the reason Patrick [Page] does the bass and Reeve [Carney] is a high tenor, like she doesn’t necessarily understand their ranges either. I guess it works both ways.
Deadline: Hadestown has gone through a lot of changes since that audition. Can you describe its evolution as you’ve experienced it?
Gray: When I joined it was pretty much just a concept album still, and Rachel and Anaïs had already chatted several times about where new songs needed to be in order to make connective tissue, to make the story clearer. In that first workshop, two of those new songs were introduced – the two Chants, where we really hear the workers’ songs and realize that there’s this labor world down below.
In every [version] Hadestown has gotten more and more flushed out and cleaned out and trimmed back, the fat taken out. We’re now at the clearest version and it’s been pretty magical to see it get to this point. We’ve been quite lucky that we’ve had three full productions before bringing it to Broadway.
Deadline: Have you been surprised at the reaction to the show? Even people who saw earlier productions and loved it might not have been able to imagine how Hadestown could fit into the commercial Broadway scene.
Gray: I’m not surprised that it ended up on Broadway nor am I surprised by the reception. People who didn’t think of Hadestown as Broadway don’t have the imagination – and it’s not their job to have the imagination, you know what I mean? That’s why there are people like Rachel Chavkin, who have the vision.
I think the music has always been so sensational that everybody who listens to that original album gets addicted to it for a while. That is the thing I knew really could survive on Broadway. We haven’t really heard those sorts of sounds on Broadway before, but I definitely thought it could have a wonderful commercial life.
And with the political moment that we’re in right now, the show is just resonating with people. To be honest with you, if Hadestown had happened five years earlier, who knows what the response would’ve been? I think it’s so special right now because it’s so deeply what we’re going through. I find the show quite hopeful, and with a simple message that people desperately need right now in our culture.
Deadline: There are certain moments – obviously the Wall song [“Why We Build The Wall”] but others as well – when the audience kind of takes this breath, like a sort of gasp of recognition. Can you feel that from the stage?
Gray: I can. I can feel it. I typically can’t see faces during the Wall number because of the lighting and where I’m blocked, it’s just like a bright blast of light, but towards the end of the song the lighting shifts a bit and I can start to see faces up in the mezzanine, and it blows my mind every night because people have every extreme reaction to it. Lots of people cry during it, lots of people who know it will sing along – and that feels very creepy. Patrick [Page] has said that he has noticed people walk out during that song, and he always wonders if they are supporters of – not to name him – the orange man in the White House. He wonders if they’re supporters and are offended by it. He’s not sure why they walk out, but he has seen people walk out during that moment.
There is a lot of laughing and supportive noises throughout the show, but there are a couple of moments where the bottom drops out and I can feel the room go very quiet. You could hear a pin drop. It’s really amazing.
Deadline: Do you have a favorite moment in the musical?
Gray: In general, as an actor I’m more a fan of the moments that I get to observe, more so even than the moments when I’m generating energy. I really love watching “Flowers” every night, where I’m just sitting against the piano staring at Eva Noblezada. I’ve always loved that moment and I’ve seen three different women play Eurydice and it’s just very special to watch them navigate the emotions of that song, and the sounds of that song. I just adore “Flowers” a lot and when I’m walking around Brooklyn, I sing it to myself – and it’s really hard to sing. It’s deceiving, because it seems like a really sweet, gentle song, almost a lullaby, so you think it would be easier to sing, but it’s not. I practice it a lot just out of curiosity, so I love, love, love watching that moment every night.
Deadline: You have a history with Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!, which is also currently playing on Broadway. I’m wondering what it’s like seeing these shows sharing a Broadway season, from the perspective of someone who has been involved with each at one time or another.
Gray: I went to the [Oklahoma!] opening and I was nervous that I might get sad or something, and I didn’t at all. It felt very celebratory. I also have sort of a crap memory and the last time I did the production of that Oklahoma! was 2015, so I don’t have muscle memory of the show anymore. I was able to just watch it very cleanly. And I was very giddy because a lot of those kids I trained with at NYU Grad and some of them went to Juilliard, which is the sister school, so we share all the same teachers. They’re my brothers and sisters, and I was just so tickled at how much the roles have deepened. I did an earlier version and this production is way more sexual than it was then. Which is just tickling me to death because they’re my friends and I was just cracking up. I had a great time.
And it’s funny – Rebecca [Naomi Jones, who stars as Oklahoma!‘s Laurey, the role Gray played in the Bard SummerScape production] and I we’re born two days apart in the same year, and there have been several times with workshops where we replace each other, and we always joke about it. She’s lovely.
Deadline: Different subject – tell me about Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping.
Gray: Absolutely. They are true activists, and have fought to change laws over the years, to get the message out to the layman, if you will. Their current focus is on fighting ICE and working with a group called the New Sanctuary Collision. They go and bare witness to people who are checking in at their ICE appointments. The sad reality is, if a white man shows up to one of those check-ins, that migrant is more likely to be able to stay here for a little longer.
The thing about activism is it’s not unlike what we say in Hadestown – you’re probably going to fail but you should try anyway. Like Orpheus, you know that you’re probably going to fail but you try anyway because the next person who comes to Hadestown might not. Move the needle, that’s how activism works. You might not see the change in your lifetime – and you have to spiritually be okay with that – but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
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