When you need someone to portray a literal god in your Broadway show, why not turn to the larger-than-life world of pop stars? This fall, Hadestown – which won eight Tony Awards in 2019 – found a fresh face for Persephone, the dichotomous Greek goddess of spring and queen of the underworld, in singer-songwriter Betty Who.
A year after releasing her fourth album Big!, Who surprised fans by revealing that her next move was a Broadway debut. Despite it being her first professional acting gig, the Australia-born talent got a part in the edgy mythological musical without auditioning. “This was… an offer,” Who tells Billboard with a winking braggadocio when asked about landing the role. She’s joking, but there is an undeniable (and justifiable) pinch-me pride to her tone as she talks about finding her feet on the Great White Way.
As Persephone, Who hits the stage with the saucy, pleasure-seeking zest of someone trying to run from a long-festering pain; Who deftly makes it clear that her character is unhappy, but she’s also a survivor. Her voice – as big as the title of her last album – is well suited for Broadway, easily commanding attention and delivering the musical’s information-heavy lyrics without strain.
“It turns out, I love acting,” says Who, sitting in the front row of the Walter Kerr Theatre on a Monday, Broadway’s weekly day of rest. “The 10-year-old in me still can’t believe it,” she adds, eying the silent stage of the mostly empty theater.
In the midst of her Hadestown run, Who spoke to Billboard about finding her voice (literally) as an actor, taking inspiration from Shakespeare and what surprises she’s learned about herself during this process.
This isn’t just your Broadway debut – it’s your first professional acting gig. Was this always a goal for you?
Yes, it was absolutely a childhood dream. The lines, when you’re a kid, between theater and pop stardom are very blurred, so my love for the theater and Britney Spears inspired me to want to be performing. My mom was really big on taking me to see shows – such a gift she gave me. To arrive here at this juncture and to have this opportunity to do a show I love so much — but also act on Broadway? My husband — straight culture — is calling it the NFL, being like, “You’ve made it to the big leagues.” An EMT I just saw said, “I don’t know if anybody’s told you, but you’re about to compete in the Olympics with two weeks of training.” It’s like, “Thanks for your vote of confidence.” (laughs)
How did you get the role?
I’d spoken to my manager the day before and he said, “We have a theater offer for you that’s going to make you very happy.” I had to manage my expectations, thinking, “There’s nothing they’re going to offer me that will live up to my dreams.” And so to get the call for the wildest dream – I was texting my best friends while I was on the phone with my agents. I’m sitting here, weeks into the show, and I still feel like I’m processing it every day.
Was it helpful starting the show the same day as Phillip Boykin, who took over as Hades on the same day you took over as Persephone?
I think my anxiety levels would have been a thousand times higher had not Phillip been starting with me. He’s been such an incredible partner and friend — he’s a Broadway king, he’s been here, done that. He’s an OG Broadway boy and to have him in rehearsals being like, “This is a really hard show,” is like, “Okay, thank you for validating my fears.” The first few weeks we both felt like we were never going to learn or remember it. It’s so dense, very Shakespearean. So much is going on that is context outside of the text. I’ve always loved Shakespeare and the way Shakespearean actors can help you along with the story even if you don’t totally understand the words that they’re saying. There’s a similarity in the way Shakespeare tells you the story physically. I was reading a lot about how to perform Shakespeare while preparing for this.
Did you feel the freedom to imagine your own version of the role?
I knew when they hired me I was really different from everyone else who has done it before – physically, type-wise, all of the reasons. That was both freeing and scary because I didn’t have anything to base it off of. There’s that vulnerability of experiencing the show every night and finding it in front of an audience and seeing what works and what doesn’t. There’s a line in the show I do different every night because I haven’t gotten a big enough laugh yet. It’s “you’re early” at the end of “Hadestown.”
Do you find yourself singing differently than during your concerts?
The note I got consistently in rehearsals was using the language. The articulation it takes to get something across feels really crazy when you’re doing it, but when you’re sitting in the house it looks like a three out of 10. The commitment it takes – you have to be okay with feeling crazy, and that was scary to me in rehearsals. I wanted to give a larger-than-life performance to this character who is a god – she’s supposed to be otherworldly, which my height contributes to as well. I feel blessed to have a role that impacts.
There’s a part in the show where you and Hades embrace for a while and your head is on his shoulder. This is a pedestrian question, but with the height difference, does that hurt your neck?
We’ve been trying to find the shape that doesn’t look like I’m bending down to hold him. Yes, it does, that’s one of my least favorite parts of the show because me and Phillip have to stand there for so long.
It’s a long time. I’ll feel his knee cramp and we have to adjust. But I love doing that dance with him – he’s so open and silly and fun. One of my favorite moments so far was the Wednesday matinee during my first week, we got an applause after our dance. He dips me and the audience clapped. I thought it was really moving because on Wednesday matinees the audience is often older, so it’s people who have lived their lifetime of a relationship. I think of Hades and Persephone as the parents, mom and dad, and their fight is affecting the kids, Orpheus and Eurydice. So to have an audience of older people watch that storyline and be moved by it is really sweet.
Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself?
I looked at my husband after opening night and I was like, “Am I completely in love with this? Whoops.” I’ve always wanted to do it, but I think I had a fear that I would get into it and realize it’s so hard and be turned off. But it turns out I’m completely insane and that’s the stuff that makes me jacked up – giving yourself to an experience that takes over your entire life.
In terms of exhaustion, how would you compare this to touring?
Touring has helped prepare me. If I was coming from an easygoing lifestyle I would come to the theater and be overwhelmed, but it’s in my DNA to never let them see you sweat. The travel is what makes tours so exhausting. Maybe we’re only doing four shows a week, but you spend a day at a truck stop in Arizona and you sleep on a bunk that’s shaking and you don’t get good sleep. Here, I’m more concerned about my voice. On tour, if my energy is up, most people won’t know (if my voice is tired). The first (Broadway) show I did feeling tired was the show I was like, “People are going to ask for their money back.” When I’m tired, I feel like I’m not able to deliver so I have to be more protective. Talking makes your voice tired, and eight shows means that my friends came to opening night and I basically haven’t seen anybody since. Broadway owns my ass and I have zero energy to get to anything else. Mondays are my precious time – having that single day away from the theater makes me excited to go back.
Are you looking to do more acting now, whether on TV or film?
Yeah. I really like acting and I really like film and TV acting. I actually think that set me back a little bit because I spent the last five years auditioning a ton and working with an acting coach, and I’m finding a lot of my instincts are for film and TV which doesn’t read for stage. I’m trying to unlearn a bunch of the stuff. And I’m trying to let everyone know I love this world and I’m open for business. I would like to write musicals. That’s in my future without a doubt but the way this came to me makes me go, “I have no idea what is meant for me.” I always felt like I did know, so this taught me something about that. I’m looking to the universe like, “You tell me where I’m supposed to be.” I really enjoy being part of the greater company, being one of many working toward a shared goal. Music — being the number one person in charge of everything — is freeing and incredible, but being the boss is hard, and I’m enjoying taking a step back and focusing on the actual performance. It feels exciting without having to put my heart on a platter for everybody. Being myself is scarier – the stakes are higher.
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