Debut of the Month: Jewelle Blackman Goes Way Down HADESTOWN For Her Broadway Debut!
Jewelle Blackman makes her Broadway debut as Atropos, the Fate of Death, in the acclaimed new musical Hadestown. The love story intertwines two mythic tales - that of young dreamers Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of King Hades and his wife Persephone, and invites audiences on a hell-raising journey to the Underworld and back. Today Jewelle Blackman speaks with BroadwayWorld about making her Broadway debut in a show that encourages us to persevere, even if the odds are stacked against us.
Congratulations on HADESTOWN! You were part of the 2017 production of the musical in Edmonton. In what ways does the current Broadway production differ?
Well I think the story is much clearer now, both for me, as somebody being in it, and for the audience. I find the story points and the plot points are a lot more clear than they were previously in Edmonton. And musically, one big change for me comes in the Epic III Dance, in which Persephone and Hades have a beautiful dance moment. It was a different song previously, so for this time around I had to learn to play the accordion. So that was certainly something new for me!
So you actually had to learn to play a new instrument?!
I did! Well I'm a violinist by training, and in Edmonton I was the Fate who played the violin. But then when I found out I would be joining this production they said that I was going to be playing the accordion. And I was like, 'pardon?' [laughing] So, yeah I thought it was a joke at first. So I rented an accordion in Toronto a few weeks before I left there and I practiced for about a week. And then I came to New York and about a week and a half into the rehearsal process I finally got an accordion. But of course it was a different size accordion than I had been using so I sort of had to relearn what I had done previously. So yeah, it was a moment! And almost every day before rehearsal I would come in early, at least 45 minutes to an hour early, just to practice the accordion.
Unbelievable! Well speaking of this score - it is such a rich blend of jazz and blues and soul. In what way do these various musical genres help to tell the story?
Well I think just the nature of jazz and blues, the history behind them and the kind of sounds that they emote and the notes that are used are so emotional and are so varied. And that really helps to paint a picture of what this whole world of Hadestown is all about. And the fact that it is so different than the sound of traditional musical theater is another thing that makes it so unique. It allows for different voices to shine, to come together and make this amazing sound. And I think that's one of the coolest things about Hadestown - all the vocals in the show are so uniquely different, but yet we all somehow kind of sound as one, beautiful sound. And at the same time, we all get to shine within the music as well. And I think that is specifically because of the kind of music that Anaïs has chosen to use. So I think that's a beautiful thing that really makes the show stand out on its own.
Can you talk a little bit about your role as one of the three Fates in this mythic story?
Yes, so there are three Fates, I play the Fate of Death, Atropos, so I kind of end the life. And there is also Lachesis, who measures the life, and Clotho, who spins the life. And I think it's kind of cool because whenever we sing in harmony and sing our little ditties, I'm usually the one who has the final point. So one Fate says one thing, one says another and then I am like, 'here is the point,' to kind of cut it in the end. And also cool about my Fate is that I sing the lowest part and for some reason I always associate a low voice with death - just in terms of the Underworld and the depths and the death and the darkness of it. So to really be able to sink my teeth into something where I get to sing so low, using that register in my voice that not very many people write for, is a beautiful thing that doesn't happen very often. And then of course to be able to harmonize with the two other talented ladies, Kay Trinidad and Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, is a wonderful thing as well.
What do you think is the ultimate message that audiences will take away from this story?
I think the message is that even though you're not sure, even though you may think you know the outcome of how something may turn out, you should always try, you must always persevere. You may have all the odds stacked against you, other people may have tried and may have failed, you might have tried and failed before, but there is always a chance, there is always hope. And I can even relate that to my own story of getting to Broadway. This is my Broadway debut. I am one of the older people in the cast. Once my son was born I kind of put the whole dream of getting to Broadway on hold. Not that I thought it would never be possible, but I just had to leave it alone for the time being. But in the back of my mind I was like, 'I want it to happen, I believe it can happen, I know it's hard, but somehow it will happen.' So I think really one of the main messages is that you must keep on persevering, and with opportunity and preparation, you can make it happen.
What has it been like to work with such a talented creative team?
It's been great. And it's great to be working with two women, [Director] Rachel Chavkin and [Composer] Anaïs Mitchell, in those kind of key positions. It's fantastic to see them in those leadership roles, and leading with such grace and strength. You know, nobody had to tiptoe around in this creative process, there were no egos in the room, it was very collaborative, everyone was always willing and eager to listen and to share. And if we had questions or we had thoughts, they would always say, 'well what do you think of that?' For example, Anaïs had written a line in "Any Way the Wind Blows," it was written in a particular way and I sang it in a different way, and she was like, 'oh do it like that. That's what works for you, and it's great so keep it.' And not many people in those kinds of positions are willing to relinquish some of their creative control for the betterment of the show. And Liam Robinson, our Music Director, he was also so open to all of our voices, which are very different and do very different things. So if he thought something should sound a certain way he would ask, 'so how would you do it?' So it's been just amazing all across the board.
You are also working with a myriad of true Broadway veterans. What are some of the things you have learned from them?
Yes, wow! Well I've learned to always have grace, and just the professionalism of the business. I mean it is a job, sure it's a fun job, but to show up on time, be prepared, listen, display humility - just all of the best things. It has truly been like a Master Class in music theater. To see people in rehearsals try it one way but then be open to be directed a different way, it's just great. It was cool to watch André De Shields, who had just done the London production, to now come into this Broadway production with some major changes - that could really mess with your mind because you know it one way in your body and now you're being asked to do it a completely different way. So just to be able to watch him navigate that so calmly and Take That all in and still come out and do the work so masterfully, that has just been epic.
What was it like to make your Broadway debut in Hadestown?
Oh, it was beyond anything. And it's not only that it was a Broadway debut, I always thought for some reason that my Broadway debut would be in LION KING [laughing]. But to be in an original Broadway cast, in a show that I love, in a show that I feel that I am completely seen as an artist and that I am completely acknowledged as an artist and using all of my talents, I couldn't even write this. I couldn't have dreamed this. It's beyond anything, beyond my expectations. And everything that's happening now just keeps getting better. It's just a fantastic way to be brought into the Broadway community. I couldn't have asked for a better show!
BroadwayWorld congratulates singer-songwriter, playwright and violinist Jewelle Blackman on her Broadway debut in Hadestown. She has appeared in the Canadian companies of Hadestown; THE LION KING; WE WILL ROCK YOU, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE; and DREAMGIRLS. Her TV credits include "Kim's Convenience," "Frankie Drake," "Private Eyes," and 'Shadowhunters." Film credits include "Nine Lives," and "Crossword Mysteries." Her first musical you know my name, not my story will soon be receiving its first fully staged reading in Toronto.