One of the biggest shows on Broadway this season has also had the longest, most public evolution. Hadestown, the hit musical that reimagines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as an anti-capitalist parable, has 14 Tony nominations. That’s the most of any show this season, and it includes one nod for Best Musical and nominations in three of the four acting categories.
Hadestown began life as a song cycle that composer and lyricist Anaïs Mitchell toured around Vermont concert halls in 2006, meaning that it’s been slowly finding its shape for more than a decade. And as the show changed shape, the cast changed with it. The Tony-nominated cast currently living it up on Broadway — including Amber Gray as Persephone, André De Shields as Hermes, and Eva Noblezada as Eurydice — came together through a long, drawn-out process that took place over six years.
To learn a little about that journey from then to now, I went to the Casting Society of America to speak to Hadestown casting directors Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley. They’re Broadway vets who have put together casts for some of the most acclaimed shows of the past few decades. For the past 11 years, they’ve worked on Chicago, currently the second-longest-running show on Broadway. They put together the cast of the much-lauded 2013 revival of Pippin, and they handled the cult favorite of 2016 Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (directed by Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin).
Over the phone, we discussed the evolution of Hadestown, how to cast a performer who can stick it out eight performances a week, and why when your director asks for blue, you should try giving them a “fucked-up aubergine” instead. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
To start off, I wanted to talk about casting for theater more generally. I wonder if you could tell me what you look for when you’re casting, and what the big signs are for you that someone is right for a part?
One of the biggest things in casting a Broadway musical that is imperative [to look for,] beyond talent, is a professional skill set that looks like it can last eight performances a week and a long run. When people get hired for TV and movies, and even for regional theaters that have limited engagements, there isn’t quite the same kind of scrutiny and necessity of really making sure the person has the stamina and the mindset and professionalism to be able to execute a story eight times a week, six days a week.
We not only are searching for people with “it” factors and incredibly high skill sets and talents, but we also are searching for people who have incredibly high levels of work ethic, professionalism, and maturity. Physically fit people, frankly; mentally fit people, frankly, that are just required to keep a machine like Hadestown running eight times a week.
So how do you judge that in an audition? How do you test someone’s work ethic?
You can see a lot of that when they walk into the room. Then you put them through the process, and you can see the dancers that, oh, my gosh, they can’t last the first round, or the singers that can’t last the first round. And then when you start to get to know these people through the whole process, you start to see, like, “Wow, she’s going to be a great company member.” Or, “Huh, this is interesting. He has the it-factor, but, boy oh boy, his energy in the room is a little off-putting. Can he work with [theater director] Diane Paulus? Can he work with John Rando or Walter Bobbie or [Hadestown director] Rachel Chavkin?”
The entire audition process allows us some time to assess that. Don’t you agree, Benton?
Yeah, absolutely, and especially with a show like Hadestown that’s been in the incubation period for many years. We’ve been involved with it since Rachel Chavkin came on board six years ago. So that would be 2013, with the first table read that Rachel did with Anaïs [Mitchell].
One of the benefits of the show having such a long incubation period before ever really getting into the full groove of eight performances a week is that we get the opportunity to really explore talent, and try different talent on the material, through workshops, readings, dance labs, regional theater productions, out-of-town productions. It gives us a really long time to get to know the actors, and try out actors, and see what they bring to the table both onstage and offstage.
It’s not like a one-chance opportunity where we’re casting a show for Broadway right from the ground up. That’s really rare, and it definitely wasn’t the case with Hadestown. So by the time we got to the Broadway production, there were many actors who had been on the journey with us since that very first table read six years ago. Specifically, Amber Gray and Patrick Page, the two actors that play Hades and Persephone, have been with it from the very beginning. That gives us an opportunity as casting directors to really see what they’re like in action before we get it to Broadway.
A lot of times when you sit down with a director, they may have a vague vision of their show. But quite often — I always make an analogy of a person who paints paintings. The painter may say to the person who mixes paints, i.e., the director to the casting director, “This is our vision. Think of a painting with primary colors.”
So we go away, and we think, “Okay, got it, primary colors.”
But! Along the way, through prescreens and things like that, we start to think about stuff that’s out of the box. We don’t just want the reds, the yellows, the blues. We start to think about the weird, fucked-up auberginey color, or the weird greeny gray, or the rust colors.
So when you have these out-of-the-box, unique ideas that the director was not expecting, we may have actors who walk in the room, and the director is just like a painter who may have a weird aubergine shoved at them. They say, “What is this?”
And we say, “Just paint with it a little bit. Just trust us. Explore him or her.” And out of those new explorations, new colors that we have put in front of the director, surprises happen.
Our Fates, for instance. Those three Fates needed to be individual, their own unique colors, their own unique creatures, in a way. That was sort of, “Let’s put these three different colors in front of you and see how you respond, Rachel.”
That’s the sort of thinking we had with Pippin on Broadway [as a revival in 2013]. When we started to look at the role of Berthe [the main character’s grandmother]: “Well, why does she need to be an 80-year-old grandmother who hobbles out with a cane? Why can’t we have a funky cougar Berthe?” And thus Andrea Martin — we brought her in, she successfully nailed it, and she won the Tony Award.
The same thing happened with Rachel Bay Jones playing Katherine [the main love interest]. [We said,] “Well, yes, I know we’re looking for a 19-year-old ingenue female to be with our 19-year-old ingenue Pippin, but what if you have a slightly older woman like Rachel Bay Jones?” It just sets up a different energy, and thus the script was changed.
I think for us, yes, we look at a script and we see what’s possible, but then we start saying, “What else can we bring? What flavors, what unique unicorns, can we bring to the table that nobody may ever be thinking of?” I really believe those become our jewels in the crown, as it were.
I think a great example of that specific to Hadestown is the role of Hermes, who is played by André De Shields. Hermes in the early table reads and I believe the New York Theatre production downtown, which also then consequently had a cast recording, was played by Chris Sullivan. And Chris Sullivan is a completely different type of human and actor and storyteller than André De Shields.
The obvious big, huge difference between them is, one is in their early 40s and is a white guy, and the other is an African American man who is many decades older. But the texture that each of those men brought to the story is incredibly different. It tells a very different story, having a middle-aged, white, blue-collar Hermes narrating the story, versus having an African American, regal, otherwordly man in his 70s playing the role.
That is one of our favorite things about working with Rachel Chavkin, is that Rachel is fearless in that sense. She doesn’t think in the beginning that if she finds one way of doing it that it must continue to be played that way. Each step of the way with Hadestown, we got to experiment and try completely new ideas on many of the roles.
Where the role of Hermes ended up with in the Broadway production is with André De Shields, and it’s such a unique way of telling the story that I, frankly, think we’d never seen onstage in the same way that André does it every night for us.
And what’s interesting is that with Chris Sullivan, you’ve got a jovial, earthy everyman, and what you get in André De Shields is this wise, ancient sage who’s seen it all and then some. Equally valid ideas, equally special, but I have to say that I’m so thrilled for the reception that André’s been receiving, because he deserves it. He’s fantastic in the part.
I actually wanted to ask about one of the other characterization changes, which has evolved pretty dramatically from the New York Theatre Workshop production. I remember thatwhen I saw it there, Orpheus was played as a kind of rock star, and now he’s much more of a dreamy awkward introvert. How did that change come about, and what work did you do to bring it around?
Just like Rachel was so game to try something completely different from Chris Sullivan to André De Shields, she felt the same way here. When we were going back into the audition room for Orpheus, we didn’t just say, “We’re only going to see rock stars for this; we’re only going to see the way that this role has been played before.” She was open to different ages, different ethnicities, different types, different vocal qualities. When we landed on Reeve Carney — he has been playing it since the Canadian Edmonton production, which was two years ago — every time he played it, the role evolved.
In the beginning, he was playing more of a stencil of what the role was [when played by other actors]. I think with each production, from Canada to London and now on Broadway, it’s gone further and further in the direction that Reeve Carney is in, as a human being and as a storyteller onstage. With each production, he’s been given permission, and everybody has embraced, him bringing more and more of himself to the role, and that’s the version you’re seeing now. And I think it’s the most successful version of it, because now he isn’t playing at being Orpheus. I think Reeve Carney is just baring his soul to us onstage.
Even in London, Reeve Carney’s portrayal of Orpheus was not what we saw on Broadway. That’s a credit to Rachel, I think. She still was trying to figure out Reeve’s Orpheus, and he has this sort of indie artist-ness to him. He’s got this built-in ethereal awkwardness. So when she got back to New York and got back to the rehearsal hall with him, she started playing to those strengths that weren’t necessarily included in this portrayal before. We saw a change even over previews. That’s where some of this awkwardness came in, this sort of insecure but brilliant wunderkind of a poet. And then she encouraged him to go further and further in that. They were crafting Reeve Carney’s Orpheus basically up until opening night.
I do agree with that — that is one of the biggest changes you see, and it’s a cast change, but I think it’s what Rachel does best. She brings into her world storytellers she wants to work with and wants to represent onstage.
I don’t think André De Shields is up on that stage “playing” Hermes, or that Amber Gray is up on that stage “playing” Persephone. They’re bringing so much of their natural instincts and talents to the role, and that is why I think the musical works so well, and why people are responding to it so well. It’s because it’s all so vivid and detailed and feels incredibly sincere, because all five of the principles are just bringing themselves to what they’re doing.
I wanted to ask a little bit about the ensemble members. One of the company members has become kind of a meme on social media, because people think he is very, very handsome.
And very, very tall!
Yes! So when you’re casting an ensemble, are you thinking about whether you want people whose personality and appearances will be distinctive like that, or are you going for more of the Chorus Line, “One Singular Sensation” kind of an idea? Or does it depend on the show?
It completely depends on the show, and it also completely depends on what the director wants. We’ve worked with some directors before who are like, “No, no, he’s too tall, she’s too short, they all have to be uniform in size.” Or, “No, we’re doing a version of a fairy tale, we can’t mess with diversity, it all has to be Caucasian.” We’ve worked with directors like that. But Rachel wants to create, especially in her ensembles, a world full of unicorns, of different types.
Timothy Hughes was — correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he was one of the last pieces, the kind of “putting the buttons on” of the ensemble.
He was one of the last people we hired, yeah.
And when we brought him into the room, there was a little bit of, “Wow, he’s tall, he’s going to stick out.” And Benton and I kept saying, “Yeah, but why is that bad?”
We started to talk a little bit about how these workers are being oppressed in Hadestown . So how great is it that you have a 6-foot-7 giant who can take everybody out with one swift punch in the head, who somehow has become mentally burdened to the point where he’s a broken worker like the rest of them?
Once we got out over the fact that he was so tall, it was like, “Wow, the guy’s special, he can really, really dance. We should absolutely have him in this upside-down world of Hadestown.”
Were there any auditions for this show where you saw the person come in and you were like, “Oh, absolutely, immediately, that’s that?” Or did they sort of reveal themselves over time?
I think it was a little of both. There definitely were some people that came into the room and pretty immediately we knew. I think André De Shields is a really great example of that. When we were searching for a new Hermes, we did not see all men of André De Shields’s type for the role, and we did not see all men of Chris Sullivan’s type for the role. We saw all kinds of men, all ages, all ethnicities. But when André walked out, everyone turned to each other and was like, “I think this is the new way we want to tell the story. This is our Hermes.” I think his placement in the show then informed a lot of the tone and storytelling that came thereafter.
And to add to that, Benton, when you and I were looking at our Eurydices and Eva Noblezadacame into the room, she was very still much entrenched in the world of Miss Saigon. She was in [the 2017 Broadway revival], she was the lead, and we were doing auditions just pre- or post- the Tony Awards, and she was nominated, so her schedule was insane.
When we first brought her in, she sang every song like a power ballad, and I know that Anaïs and Rachel were sort of like, “I don’t know if she can sing our material.”
And Benton and I were like, “No, you have to trust us. This woman can sing, she’s just in Miss Saigon mode right now. Get her into your world, Anaïs, she’s an artist, and Rachel, you’ll love working with her. This is the woman, for thousands of reasons, to play Eurydice.”
She had to go through the process, and then people were like, “Oh, my god, you’re right, guys.”
It took many auditions and many work sessions of exploring her. Because she is quite a big departure from the way the role was played previously, and the vocal quality, the look, was quite different before as well. They had to retrain their ear and eye to see, “What would this role be like, and this world be like, with Eva at the center of it?”
Duncan and I have been huge fans of Eva’s since we met her five years ago, and we always felt she was a perfect fit for this world. It took some conversations, but ultimately we’re super pleased. Everyone is, obviously. She’s fucking fantastic.
And that brings us to Amber Gray, who along with Eva and André is the third actor in this cast who was nominated for a Tony this season. If my timeline is right, you cast Amber for The Great Comet with Rachel before you cast her in Hadestown. Was that a case where, because you’d already worked with her, you knew instantly that she was right for the part, or was that a more drawn-out casting process?
Before Great Comet, both of us knew about Amber Gray because she is a phenomenal talent and is on many of our lists for many of our projects. Rachel Chavkin was already a personal fan of Amber, so it truly was a meeting of minds. Is there anything Amber cannot do?
So for both Comet and Hadestown, it was anything but a drawn-out process. Amber was Hélène in Comet and she is and always was essentially our Persephone in Hadestown.