The buzz began during previews. Online and over postshow cocktails, fans and industry insiders were talking about a standout in one of the season’s most celebrated new musicals. But it wasn’t one of the four stars of “Hadestown” who was a sudden focus of admiration, though all of them would eventually receive Tony nominations. It was the 6-foot-7 actor in the show’s five-person ensemble, Timothy Hughes.
“My dresser told me, ‘Check the message boards, check Twitter; there's a lot of chatter,’ ” Hughes said of when he caught wind of the attention. ”People at the stage door were telling me, ‘I've never seen so much discussion about one individual ensemble member, and you totally met all my expectations!’ ”
Hughes, who like many actors includes his social media handle in the program bio, has seen his Instagram following jump 20% to about 23,000 since “Hadestown” began performances March 22. He said audience members started sending him messages on the platform immediately after the show — and even during intermission.
“It's mostly all wonderfully positive and funny and kind of ridiculous,” said the Wisconsin native, whose previous viral fame came when he snatched away a Trump sign from an audience member while appearing in “Frozen.” He said he’s been humbled by the adoration.
“I don't take any of it for granted. I've tried to respond to everybody who reaches out to me,” he said, adding that every heart emoji he sends is 100% genuine. He’s also conscious of not wanting to pull focus from “Hadestown” as a whole, which features an unusually eclectic cast.
“In a traditional musical, there may be concern about uniformity,” said Benton Whitley, one of the casting directors for the show, an imaginative retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. “But that is not the world of ‘Hadestown,’ ” which singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell developed from a concept album for the stage with director Rachel Chavkin. In fact, Whitley and his casting partner, Duncan Stewart, who also worked with Chavkin on “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” purposefully sought to cast an ensemble with vividly different looks.
“We want unique personalities on the stage,” Stewart said. “Then you want your jewels in the crown that just pop, and that's what Timothy is.”
"It's mostly all wonderfully positive and funny and kind of ridiculous,” Hughes says of the attention.
Hughes isn’t the first nonprincipal player to generate heat. A cottage industry for thirsting after uptown’s finest includes the yearly list from Time Out New York of “The 10 Hottest Chorus Boys and Girls on Broadway” (the 2019 ranking, of course, includes Hughes) and Broadway Bares, an annual striptease benefit that has raised millions of dollars for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. On social media, actors such as Adam Perry, Charlie Williams and much of the original castof Broadway’s “Newsies” have generated substantial followings that they treat to a combination of revealing personal and corporal content.
Women are part of this equation too, but Broadway’s fan demographics mean the men inspire more admirers. “It is young girls and gay men who set the tone,” said casting director Allison Estrin, who’s worked on dozens of Broadway productions. For a woman to receive similarly devoted attention would be a different kind of story. “I think the world would be really kind of freaked out for her,” Estrin said.
Through the years, there have been those who stood out for physical feats, like Orion Griffiths, an acrobat featured in the 2013 revival of Pippin, also cast by Stewart and Whitley, whom they described being greeted like “a demigod” at the stage door. Or Terry Lavell, whom Stewart cast in a 2010 revival of “La Cage aux Folles” (“6-foot-11 in heels and a blond wig with a beach ball and a bikini — he doesn't have to utter a note and already he’s stolen hearts.”)
But it’s not just about a look; actors who stand out do so because they’re given the chance.
“Usually they have a featured moment,” Estrin said. “It’s a combination of a talent that comes through” and, in technical terms, “the hotness factor.” Estrin and others pointed to the example of Nick Adams, who turned heads with virtuosic dancing in the 2006 revival of “A Chorus Line” before graduating to larger principal roles. (Adams starred as Whizzer in the “Falsettos” tour that played the Ahmanson Theatre last month.) Seth Stewart, who appears in midair on the Broadway poster for “In the Heights,” generated similar buzz in the ensemble of “Hamilton” before succeeding Daveed Diggs in the roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.
The Instagram following that can form around an “‘it” chorus boy can be leveraged. All three casting directors said popularity on social media can help get actors in the room, though it’s still talent that will have to get them the job. Hughes considers social media uniquely positioned to help the art form thrive.
“Theater is one of the very few shared experiences we have left,” he said. “With all the negative possible aspects of social media that don’t feel real, if it helps to connect audiences to actors onstage, that’s an incredible thing.”