Becoming Hadestown's Hermes

“And after the bard of Rhodope had mourned, and filled the highs of heavens with the moans of his lament, determined also the dark underworld should recognize the misery of death, he dared descend by the Taenarian gate to the gloomy Styx. And there passed through the pale-glimmering phantoms, and the ghosts escaped from sepulchers, until he found Persephone and Pluto, master-king of shadow realms below: and then began to strum his tuneful lyre.”
-Ovid, Metamorphoses

The central conceit of Hadestown easily numbers among the best of any Broadway musical ever: the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in a post-apocalyptic New Orleans, soaked in that near-mythic city’s distinctive music.

The musical’s undergone many transformations. Debuting in Vermont in 2006, it became a tinkered-with concept album in 2010. It became a stage show yet again. The final (for now) version debuted on Broadway in the spring of 2019, drawing big crowds and earning big awards, including eight Tonys. It has played more than one thousand times on Broadway.

West Michiganders will have the opportunity to see it May 9th-14th, when it comes to DeVos Performance Hall as part of Broadway Grand Rapids’ 34th anniversary season.

Revue spoke to Nathan Lee Graham, who’ll be playing Hermes. The god of orators, Hermes is a natural choice as narrator. Andre de Shields, Graham’s mentor, played Hermes on Broadway, winning the Tony for Best Featured Actor In A Musical.

Graham said, “I knew of the show pretty early on. Dear friends were involved, of course. I saw its brief stint in London before the Broadway opening. I fell in love with it. In all of its incarnations, really.”

People began to approach him, suggesting that Hermes would be a great role for him. He told them that, if there were ever an opening, he would love the opportunity. In time, that opportunity came.

A veteran actor, Graham had appeared in the stage adaptation of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and movies like Zoolander and Sweet Home Alabama. Hermes fit him like a glove, he felt. “I have a reputation for playing those kinds of roles, those guides. I have a certain penchant for the thing. Besides, it’s a role Andre de Shields originated. He’s carved out a certain kind of role, a person who guides an audience with a degree of panache and bravura.”

Far from being reluctant to step into the shoes of his mentor, Graham was eager to do so. “I had no reservations whatsoever. And as far as copying well, if I can copy anything he did, I’ll do so. If it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it.” He said that inevitably, he’ll make the role his own, since he’s a different performer. “Our interpretations will be different even if our intentions are the same.”

Asked what made Hadestown special, he said it’s the uniqueness. “Everything can’t be Hamilton. Everything shouldn’t be Hadestown, either. That’s what’s so wonderful about musical theater: the different ways you can interpret a story.”

He loved the familiarity and simplicity of the myth juxtaposed with the jazz, bluegrass, and honkytonk saloon sounds. “It’s simplicity on a grand scale,” he said. “This isn’t so niche or so nuanced that it can’t reach a lot of people. This can reach everyone.”

Myths stay relevant, he said, because human nature doesn’t change. Quoting Hermes’ line, he said, “We’re gonna sing it again.” The basic story may stay the same, but how we interpret it: that’s new.

Broadway Grand Rapids
May 9-14