Greek myths have been around for thousands of years, but you’ve never seen the story of Orpheus told as it’s being told at New York Theatre Workshop. Hadestown, the new musical based on the concept album by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, brings American folk and New Orleans jazz into the love story of Eurydice and Orpheus and the result is an evening of rich music, dynamic performances, innovative staging and a cast who infuse life into every moment, both quiet and roof-raising. We caught up with Nabiyah Be and Damon Daunno to talk about the importance of new theatre and how this show has broadened the horizons of their art.
Were you a fan of the 2010 concept album by Anaïs Mitchell before becoming a part of this production and if so, did that recording influence what you’re doing on stage?
Nabiyah: I didn’t know the album before, neither did I know Anaïs’ music, but it was not hard to fall in love with it and let it help me do my job. Anais’ music is so rich in imagery that it really lends a hand when depicting your own world of it. I did, however, have to detach myself from a lot of what I had created during workshop stages of the show since it was preventing me from discoveries that I would only be able to have if I were 100% present and open, particularly to what my cast mates were so vibrantly offering.
Damon: I didn’t know the album when it came out but in the last few years, it’s become a deeply personal favorite. As for the show I think authenticity is of the utmost importance and though the template is there and undeniably gorgeous, I found it important to let go of personal relationships to song or recorded performance to organically discover what our piece was all about. There were loads of new material generated and a room of exceptional collaborators.
What surprised you about the process of putting the show together?
Damon: This process has seen some interesting changes and unexpected turns along its way creatively and practically. Rolling with the punches and committing to the story has been a mantra at times. The beauty and poignancy of the words and themes seem to shine through regardless of the circumstance which is lovely to notice.
Nabiyah: I’m very interested in observing how the minds of our creative heads come to action. Rachel [Chavkin, the director] is very good at testing the worthiness of an idea before moving on from it. That pushed me to learn how to do the same. Anaïs too, was so gracious in the way she dealt with how new dramaturgical discoveries asked for rewrites. To me, to be so close to the birth of an idea and watch it grow is surprising and fascinating and inspiring all at the same time. Because you learn so much about your craft and yourself in the process! It is like: “Wow, I would have never thought about that! This person is so smart, or so brave or so whatever wonderful thing they are.”
How has Hadestown challenged you as an actor?
Nabiyah Be: This is my first professional musical theater run in New York. That in itself has been teaching me a lot about self-care so I can maintain consistency and vital energy for shows. As an actor, I’ve really been learning how to trust. Since it is such a new experience for me, it is very easy to become attached to technical aspects such as: Am I doing my job right? Or, is my voice healthy? Trusting the moment, my cast members and the exchange between us and the audience brings me back to what’s important: how significant it is to tell this story both in our collective and in my personal life.
Damon Daunno: Hadestown has challenged me as an actor in several ways, one of which being stillness. There is a heightened element to its retelling that requires a trust and simplicity that can be scary at times. Also I’ve never sang a whole show in this particular register so it’s been great sorting some of that technique out.
Hadestown is a nontraditional piece of theatre but audiences are flocking to it. Why are shows like this important?
Nabiyah: Hadestown is not traditional musical theater, so when someone breaks the rules and when they do it well, people will want to know how. Not to mention the timelessness of what is being told: values, status, social-political justice, love. If we were to put Orpheus and Eurydice in today’s secular world, their home might as well be a Syria and Hadestown might as well be a Europe. Having been born and raised in Brazil, I know that there is no way one can live without meeting or knowing a Eurydice. Our music is infused with Orpheuses that could only fight against dictatorship using the metaphors and euphemisms of their lyrics, the cries of their voices and their ideologies on the streets. I think times are changing and what we call nontraditional might as well be on its way to tradition.
Damon: It reminds us that this medium is live, powerful, can reach people in meaningful ways and address the deepest and most relevant issues humanistically and politically.
What has been the biggest takeaway from the experience so far?
Damon: The biggest take away so far has been a deep reminder of how import it is to speak up and speak out. That truth sometimes has to be won and in a world of modern distraction and heartbreaking acts of violence and oppression, standing for something is the only way progress can occur.
Nabiyah: I cherish the cast and crew so much. I really think our bond reflects positively on stage. But I also cherish the little epiphanies I’ve had during the process. The story we tell puts a magnifying glass on how we live our lives, how we treat the people we love but specially the people we don’t understand. It puts us in sheer confrontation with our judgments and our hypocrisy as people. Or least it does so for me, like giving a close look on why we fail to have faith. And to get to do that every week is so gratifying.
For tickets to this must-see show, head over to www.nytw.org!