NEW YORK, NY.-
Amber Gray spent eight years as a Greek goddess.
She joined Hadestown in 2014, back when songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin were still trying to figure out how to turn Mitchells Orpheus-and-Eurydice concept album into a stage show.
Gray had read lots of mythology as a classics-obsessed kid, and felt an immediate connection to Persephone, the split-level queen who spends half of each year in the underworld as Hades wife and half on Earth as a harbinger of spring.
I kind of knew, Oh, this is my job, which is not a feeling I have often, she said. I felt possessive of it that it belongs to me, and it was my baby to help raise.
Her Persephone, clad in green above ground and black below, is an ageless merrymaker with a taste for drink, toughened by time but still soft of heart. She created the role off-Broadway in 2016, refined it through a Canadian production in 2017 and a London production in 2018, and then was nominated for a Tony Award after originating the role on Broadway, where the show opened in 2019 (winning the Tony for best musical). Along with the rest of the principals, she stuck with the show through an 18-month pandemic shutdown; Hadestown returned in September to the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Her performance won praise from Jesse Green, The New York Times theater critic, who wrote, Ms. Gray, never better, makes something quite brilliant out of Persephone: a free spirit, a loose cannon, a first lady co-opted by wealth yet emotionally subversive. He declared of her closing number, you at last wish the show would slow down so you could live in the glowy moment forever.
But Saturday night, Gray, 40, sang that song for the final time. She is leaving the show to join Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga in a production of Macbeth that begins performances in March at the Longacre Theatre, directly across 48th Street from the Walter Kerr. She will play Macbeths friend Banquo; her Hadestown alternate, Lana Gordon, will assume the role of Persephone full time.
On her single day off between finishing Hadestown and beginning rehearsals for Macbeth, she talked about her long run, an ovation-filled final night that included special attention from co-star André De Shields, and her next chapter. These are edited excerpts from the interview.
Q: How are you doing?
A: I dont know how Im doing. You have to help me process.
Q: At your final performance there were tears on your face at the start, at the end, in the middle. What was going through your head?
A: Im having great waves of grief, and Im heartbroken, but I also feel very excited about a new chapter. It feels like commencement.
Q: What happened after the audience went home?
A: My partner was there, and we went across the street to Hurleys, where we go often, the cast and the band, and we just chatted for another hour. I sort of stood around and loved on everyone and let them love on me. Lots of crying, and there was some sneaky footage of André kissing me, which we watched and laughed and laughed and laughed. It felt very celebratory.
Q: Whats it like to spend so long with a single character?
A: Its kind of like a deep, meditative trance state while Im doing it. Every 50 shows or so, you go deeper, which is so rad. And in those last few weeks of performing, my peripheral vision opened up. I saw things Id never seen before that have been happening for years.
Q: How has your approach to Persephone changed over time?
A: A huge shift came after two full productions, when the alcohol was introduced. In London, Chavkin came up to me and was like, I think youre trashed for a while, and its like Ab Fab youve got to be like Ab Fab trashed. I was like, Really, are you sure? I didnt get it. And then it became great fun.
Q: What does Persephone think of Hades?
A: She loves him. You know, theyve been married for hundreds of years. Theyre like an old couple that knows how to fight well and make up well. Thats important in a long-running relationship.
Q: How did you stay in shape physically and vocally for this role?
A: Physically, I dont do anything but the show; thats plenty of exercise. Vocally, I learned in school to stay away from certain foods, like dairy. I rolled my eyes, but I have really found if you stay away from stuff like that its so much easier to sing and scream and growl night after night. I see an ENT (an ear, nose and throat doctor) once a week and get an IV of a bunch of shots to make sure you never get sick. And I havent had alcohol in a couple of years. Thats another way that my physical, spiritual, vocal self is just healthier.
Q: Did you have COVID?
A: I got COVID in December with the rest of the cast. I got omicron after being vaxxed and boosted. It was like a really bad cold for about 36 hours. That was it.
Q: How did playing for a masked audience affect your performance?
A: I thought the masks were going to feel weird, but it doesnt. You can still feel the audience. They did start serving alcohol, though, a couple of weeks ago, and that difference I very much noticed. I was like, Oh, they love me these last couple of weeks, and then I was like, Oh, theyre serving alcohol again.
Q: Why are you an actor?
A: Well, Im an Army brat that had to move every two or three years, and I was deeply shy. And actors are really nice; they accept the freaks and geeks, no questions asked. I also grew up skiing, but the jocks were not nice. So if I were to make friends in the new town every two or three years, I had to do the play. By the time college rolled around, it was the only thing I loved.
Q: During your time in Hadestown, you had two children, and when the show reopened you started sharing the role with an alternate. Tell me about that.
A: Before the pandemic hit, I asked for an alternate to do the Sunday matinee and Tuesday night so that I could have three days off, away from that building, one of those days being Sunday, when my children are not in school. I wasnt seeing my kids, and that was deeply painful. I didnt have kids to not raise them. All I wanted was a little family time, and they gave it to me.
Q: There were job-sharing experiments both at Hadestown and Jagged Little Pill that turned out to be short-lived, for different reasons.
A: Im a big believer in job-sharing. Several productions have done it in London, and thats what gave me the idea. And in Korea they job-share. Its a wild puzzle to put together, but theyve figured it out.
Q: Whats it like watching other actresses play Persephone?
A: Its wild. I always offer survival tips. And any Persephone I have watched I always steal one thing from, as a gesture of honor.
Q: This is your first commercial hit. How does that feel?
A: Im not always aware of what a hit it is, because I dont use social media and I dont go through the stage door. But you know, I was totally that kid in high school I would go to the library and get a CD of Jesus Christ Superstar or The Whos Tommy and listen over and over again. So I know what it is to be a teenager who really latches on to a story and an album. Lots of people wrote me over the pandemic about how much Hadestown helped them, and its beautiful to know that the art is functioning in that way.
Q: Why did you decide to leave?
A: I was too comfortable. Its just time to grow. Its time to try new things. I come from a short-run world. Its what I love about theater: Its ephemeral, it goes away, it evaporates, right? I probably shouldnt admit this, but I dont keep any fan mail or fan art or show paraphernalia. I very neurotically photograph it all. I write back to anybody. But then anything thats paper I burn in the backyard. And then its on to the next one.
Q: Why Macbeth?
A: Because it was the job I got. I was banging out all these auditions, and that one came through. I auditioned for Lady Macduff and Witch One, and then the next day they were like, Actually, do you want to play Banquo?
Q: Banquo was written as a man. Any thoughts on what youre going to do?
A: I am a woman and I will play it as a woman. Im also excited to play a parent onstage, to a sweet 10-year-old that I havent met yet. Its my first time playing a parent in a play after being a parent, and I really look forward to that.
Q: A lot of actors have superstitions about Macbeth. Do you?
A: Its been a joke in the cast for a while. Patrick (Page, who plays Hades) has a copy of the folio in his pocket onstage, and every now and then hell throw it down on top of our dominoes game to try to scare me.
Q: So much of your career has been downtown. I wonder how you viewed Broadway before you worked there, and how your assessment of it has changed.
A: Ive been on Broadway only twice, but both times were pieces that I helped nurture from little off-Broadway gems. Then you get there, and the realities of producing a show on Broadway are very different, and, to be totally honest, I find the maintenance of the machine quite heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking to see things become moneymaking machines, and the money doesnt necessarily always go to the artists. But I will say Hadestown is doing a ton of work to try to have these conversations about how things could and can change.
Q: You have one day off between Hadestown and Macbeth. Are you planning to rest?
A: No. Im going to go see Taylor Macs The Hang for some artistic healing, and then my partner and I are going to go do a shamanic ceremony with a medicine from a frog for spiritual and emotional and energetic cleansing. Im like, Bring it on! Lets clean the slate!
This article originally appeared in The New York Times