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Great Comet star Amber Gray on her three-year journey with Hadestown
Although the new Broadway musical Hadestown has been in development for more than a decade, creator Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin agree that it really started to gel three years ago when they staged an immersive concert-style incarnation Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop. That's when Amber Gray joined the cast, and she's been with the show ever since. A bluesy folk opera retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada), Hadestown juxtaposes their nascent love with the deliciously jaded marriage of Hades (Patrick Page) and Persephone (Gray), who threaten to undermine the young couple's happiness. Reminded of her own long-dormant passions, Gray's goddess of spring begs her husband, god of the underworld, to show mercy. "Hades, my light, Hades, my darkness," Gray sings, "If you had heard how he sang tonight, you'd pity poor Orpheus!"
You'd need a heart of stone to resist Gray. With her seductive moves and graveling belt, she nearly stops the show when she takes center stage for her big Act I number, "Livin' It Up on Top." The song's title is also an apt description of her career of late. Although she's worked steadily since earning her MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, the last five years have been particularly fruitful, with leading roles in critically acclaimed productions such as Branden Jacob-Jenkins' An Octoroon, Daniel Fish's dark reimagining of Oklahoma! when it originated at Bard SummerScape and Dave Molloy's musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which marked Gray's Broadway debut. "I love every story that I've been telling," she says. "I pretty much just don't go into things if I don't like the material, because it's my life."
It's an approach that's clearly paying off with Hadestown, which reunites Gray with one of her most frequent collaborators, director Chavkin. Gray is a longtime member of Chavkin's company, The TEAM, and Hadestown is their sixth production together, and their second Broadway musical after The Great Comet. "Every show I've done with her, they've all been new and they've all had many, many iterations," Gray says. She's not kidding. She's played Persephone in four stagings of Hadestown -- after New York Theatre Workshop, Chavkin restaged it in Edmonton, Canada, at London's National Theatre and now on Broadway. But that's nothing: One of Chavkin's earlier shows was remounted 11 times, and Gray was in every production.
"She's a great shepherd of new material; she has a great dramaturgical brain," Gray says of Chavkin. "I always know that I'm going to be in for a really collaborative process. The creative team's going to need a lot of input from the actors to find that connective tissue where the holes are."
While Gray is grateful for her journey with Hadestown, she admits it's a bit unexpected. "If you'd told me I would be a musical theatre gal, I would've thought you were insane," she says. "I had singing teachers and I grew up singing, but I never thought I would do mostly musicals. I trained, undergrad and grad, for straight acting." Initially, she started off in plays. But The Great Comet (which she performed on and off for four years) and Hadestown (on and off for three) have dominated her recent life, along with becoming a mom -- twice.
Gray was aware that having kids could have a chilling effect on her career, and, as a woman of color, she was already wary of being pigeonholed. But like Persephone escaping the Underworld, she's transcended those limiting stereotypes. "I have played lots of roles where my background never comes up, which I appreciate -- I'm just an actor doing my work," she says. "I feel very grateful, because lots of my friends can't say that. I love that about Rachel specifically: She makes a huge effort for inclusivity in her casts, and it's never commented on, which is beautiful."
Despite her busy professional and personal schedule, Gray carves out time to stay connected to her indie roots. She's still singing with Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, a politically minded performance artivist group. "I've been with the choir for 14 years," Gray says. "That's hands down the most diverse community I have in New York City -- way more than the theatre scene." The group has performed across the U.S. and internationally, and taken on numerous corporate entities including British Petroleum and Monsanto (Persephone would approve). "We have a grant that we get every year to bail people out of jail," says Gray, although she promises to avoid getting arrested during the Broadway run of Hadestown.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Amber Gray and the Broadway cast of Hadestown. Photos by Matthew Murphy.
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