Tony Nominee Spotlight: How Amber Gray Found Her Way to 'Hadestown'

Gray as Persephone in Hadestown.
Walter McBride/Getty Images

Gray as Persephone in Hadestown.

With an instantly recognizable, ceiling-rattling voice and boisterous presence, Amber Gray burst onto Broadway in 2016 in one of the most unorthodox musicals to move uptown in years: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. The 38-year old's fearless approach meshed perfectly with the boundless visions of composer Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin in the immersive musical -- and now, she's reuniting with Chavkin and another imaginative composer (Anais Mitchell) in Hadestown. Since the show's inception, Gray has played Persephone in the musical adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and now she's won her first Tony nomination (for featured actress in a musical) for the role -- all while juggling eight shows a week and caring for a new baby. In an odd turn of events, Gray is connected to another much-praised musical on Broadway now -- she portrayed Laurey in an earlier incarnation of Daniel Fish's exhilirating revival of Oklahoma!  She spoke to Billboard about how "downtown" and "uptown" theater are finally meeting, and why she's still surprised to be in a big musical.

You have such a distinctive voice, and it's a big part of how you play Persephone. Did you always have confidence in it? Were you ever told, "This isn’t a traditional Broadway voice"? 

When I got the audition for Oklahoma!, I kept calling back to be like, 'Are you sure they mean Laurey? I’m sure they mean basically... any of the other women.' I didn’t think I could sing those songs. Those Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals are in a key so you can sound like a trumpet without being amplified, which sort of homogenized the sound of musical theater for decades. Luckily, I was never specifically trained in musical theater and told I had to sound a certain way, so I missed that kind of abuse in a certain way. I also can’t read music, which is a pain sometimes but helpful in other moments when I’m learning because I don’t get scared of a note on the page. I’m not inimidated by a high or low note, I just try to figure out how to sing it. I have a little less fear. All of that is learned fear from conservatory training. Growing up, I went to church a lot with my parents, I sang a lot in choir, so I definitely grew up singing. And then in high school I was obsessed with Björk and Tori Amos, and they have incredible instruments, so I’d just try to sing along all the time.

Was performing in Broadway musicals a goal for you, or has it just worked out that your collaborations with Rachel Chavkin got this bigger stage?

That’s funny. I think I always wanted to be on Broadway, but not in a musical, sister. I have a BFA and a MFA in acting, but I don’t have musical theater training. I learned how to use my voice as an instrument in grad school, but it wasn’t a singing program. If you’d told me I’d predominantly be doing musicals now, I would have said you’re out of your mind. But I don’t know what I was picturing then. I was not picturing the kind of stuff I’m doing now, which really does turn me on as art. I always thought maybe I’d be in a straight play one day on Broadway, but I haven’t in a long time. Now I’m like, do I even remember how to do that?

Are there any particular artists or characters who inspired your take on Persephone?

It’s just sort of what’s on the page. I’m not really a heady actor. I was a Latin nerd growing up, so I know this story really well -- she was abducted, she was straight-up raped, and thinking about that is not particularly useful for this story. In the beginning they let me play and figure it out. Something about the sound of the music, when I went in to audition, I knew she had to have a dress but also boots. I wore my mother’s combat boots, 'cause I felt she needed to stomp. The New Orleans flavor, it was very clear in my imagination that I needed a fan. Those all started early days, but they’ve stayed with the show. Vocally, I think of "Our Lady of the Underground" as a kind of cabaret number, which I think gave me more freedom to play around with vocal sounds. Rachel sees things long before I do -- thank God she’s the director and I’m not. She’s very good at challenging and pushing me in the direction of the thing you see now. 

Your approach seems so all-out and almost improvised, but I'm guessing it’s all well-choreographed. How do you decide precisely how much to give so you don’t kill yourself every night?

I don’t get bruises! Nor do I hurt my voice. I’m pretty good about vocal maintenance. I have an ENT I dearly love who I see once a week to get IVs and shots so I don’t really get sick. One of the IVs basically puts a little bit of moisture back into your vocal chords. If you’re supported, you’re not going to lose your voice, even if you scream or growl. Some of it is mental, some is training and just knowing how to do it well or not. I’m pretty anal -- nothing is improvised. I know what I'm doing almost on every word. That said, when things go wrong I love it -- but I need something to be deeply structured in order to make it look sloppy. Everything is definitely purposeful. I’m pretty uptight when figuring out all the moments.

Right now, both Oklahoma! and Hadestown feel like the buzziest shows on Broadway. Why are audiences embracing shows like this now?

A couple years ago people got more into activism and protesting. And I think people’s taste in theater is changing because of that. I keep joking, between What the Constitution Means to Me, Gary, Oklahoma!, Hadestown…. When we did Comet, we were like, 'We're the freaks!' Now there are four shows from my downtown world on Broadway. There’s more variety on Broadway, which is what it should be. These are my friends, the people who babysit my kids, the people I’ve been working with for years. A lot of my downtown world is having commercial succcess right now, and maybe that divide between what is stereotypical downtown and uptown theater will go away. It has nothing to do with skill. It’s a slight taste thing. I hope it stays, I hope it’s not a weird fluke season. It’d certainly be great for my paycheck!