Interview: 'You're Committed to Something Special Every Day': Actor Melanie La Barrie on HADESTOWN, Gender and Her Amazing Career Path

'It's huge in scale and it's huge in heart. You couldn't get a bigger story. '

By: Apr. 19, 2024
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Interview: 'You're Committed to Something Special Every Day': Actor Melanie La Barrie on HADESTOWN, Gender and Her Amazing Career Path
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Hadestown is a show that has taken the West End by storm. Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with Melanie La Barrie, who plays Hermes. We discussed how La Barrie first got into theatre and decided to move to London, how she changed the role of Hermes by removing references to the character’s gender and why Hadestown such a special show. 

How did you first get into theatre?

Well, I started singing Calypso! I'm from Trinidad and Tobago, and I started singing Calypso when I was eight years old. So that is how I got onto stage. I had a hit record when I was sixteen years old, so that made me quite well-known. 

Normally in Trinidad, the theatre scene was quite closed to just the people who did it and I had no way in. But I was quite famous at the time when they had open auditions, so I called the director and I said, “I want to come and audition for this play. Can I come?” And he said, “Yes, please come!” And I went in and auditioned and got not the part that I auditioned for, but this other part. Then that play was brought here [London] two years later as part of the Barbican International Theatre Event. From doing that play first in Trinidad I then went on to do a lot of other plays. And then when the play was brought, I had to re-audition - I auditioned for my role and got it again. I was brought here and the rest is history! [Laughs]

And what made you want to stay in London? 

I remember visiting here in 1998 to sing Calypso, nothing to do with theatre. I was coming for Notting Hill Carnival and was singing in what we call a Calypso tent. 

I remember being in a car coming from the airport and driving over the Thames, and I felt the river run through me. I said to myself, “I don't know how it's going to happen, but one day I will live here.” And so when I came in 2000, I came for three months to do the play, I had no intentions, no designs on living here - it was just going to be another visit. But while I was here, I was offered another play. They did work permits, so I was always here legally! [Laughs] And while I was doing that other play, I got offered representation. And I got a big musical and that work permit went through. And then three years later, I was still here, just on an adventure, and I decided to do the legalese to get to stay indefinitely, so I did that.

And then five years later, I was still here, and I decided to do my citizenship test, and I did that. And that's how I stayed! It was just just saying yes to opportunities and I've been very fortunate to be given opportunities. My partner always says to me, “You're not British, but you are definitely a Londoner!” [Laughs] And I am definitely a Londoner! And a proud British citizen as well. 

What was it like performing in London and then going to New York for & Juliet

You know when you have those things where everything is so familiar and so strange at the same time? It was a show that I'd worked on for such a long time since 2017 with the workshops and then we started performing in 2019. And of course, closed with the pandemic and then came back again in 2021. And I've just been with it for so long.

So then you go to New York and the set’s the same, the costumes are the same, the story is the same and it's just different faces in it. So it was a lot of always having to readjust what it is you see and what it is you know in your mind. But it was great! I made such good friends over there, I had such a fun time. The working environment is very different, they do things differently. They don't warm up, so sometimes you could not see somebody until you get on stage with them, which is the weirdest thing in the world to me! 

I can imagine!

In the UK, we do things so differently. The way of working is different, the way that the unions operate differently, even in-house theatre management, the way that operates is very different!

It was a lot to learn just in terms of the operation, but in terms of the art, it's the same. You go on stage, you face front, and you try to finish the play roughly around the same time as everybody else! [Laughs] Simple rules, really.

Melanie La Barrie in &Juliet on Broadway

Was it strange going straight into Hadestown after having been with & Juliet for so long?

No, it wasn't strange! I thank the theatre gods every day because this is something that I'm actually quite used to. It's not the first time that I've finished a show and started rehearsal for another show the very next week. And that is not to toot my own horn - I have been very, very lucky. I've worked with a lot of fantastic people who then wanted to work with me again. I've been well looked after and I understand the luck that comes with this industry and this profession. I'm grateful for it every day. 

And did you watch Hadestown when you were in New York?

I did! I'd sent in all of my tips already, and then my sweet friend, Justin David Sullivan, who plays May, because Hadestown is their favourite show, they took me to see it one random Wednesday we had off. I loved it. I saw Lillias White, Reeve was still with the show, Solea [Pfeiffer] had just taken over, so I just missed our lovely Eva [Noblezada]. And Jewelle Blackman was my Persephone. She changed me in a fundamental way - to see her work was extraordinary, and I subsequently found out that she is also Trinidadian! [Laughs] She tore me in half. Really beautiful, heartfelt, subtle, glorious work that's not about anything or for anyone, but just in service of the story. That's my favourite kind of storytelling.

What has it been like creating this version of Hermes?

It's so cool! For me, one of the things when I went to see it was that I didn't like that they called Lillias “Missus Hermes.” I didn’t like that at all and I couldn't really articulate why. I know when Andre created the role, they called him “Mr. Hermes” and it's good for the scansion. But “Missus Hermes” . . . It struck me as such a strange thing.

Because also, I loved the way that they cast the role, that anybody could play it, and therefore, if anybody could play, then it shouldn't have to change gender. It should just be a thing that exists - Hermes, as a whole. It's not a specific person, specific gender, casting type. Just Hermes as a god. And she was very excited about it and then when I was offered the part asked me to have a talk with Anaïs [Mitchell] about it and Anaïs was so great. She was so excited about it! 

Then, in making the character, I was so keen to wear the suit that André [De Shields] wore. Lillias looked beautiful, but her lines were very feminine. The jacket was a feminine, flowy type, the underthing is like a corset and it's so beautiful. She looks so beautiful! But again, because I couldn't think of Hermes as a gendered thing, and because I just love the suit, and I was really keen about what that would do to the way that I moved. 

When I had this idea about this genderless Hermes and this cultural idea of being a Trinidadian, I wanted to see how that would make me move, how it would make me comport myself. Even in the making of the wig, having that Victor/Victoria kind of feel, having one side a little bit shorter, having that asymmetry, because everything's kind of slightly off in this world. And that means Hermes is both things. I'm a woman and I'm in a man’s suit. I have the short side of the hair and the longer side of the hair. I am this Trinidadian woman telling this Greek myth.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

And what has it been like these past few weeks? 

Oh, gosh! I have felt loved. I've been very fortunate to make some beautiful things like Matilda, & Juliet, Mary Poppins . . . And you feel when people hold those things so preciously to them. What sets this apart is that you feel people going through it with you. People rarely go through it. And they know what’s going to happen! That is not a surprise, we have no big reveal. We tell them at the beginning - it’s an old song, it’s a love song, it’s a sad song. 

To be led by Dónal Finn and Grace Hodgett Young, two young, extraordinary talents. Extraordinary. Dónal Finn . . . The way I am so mad that he didn't get an Olivier! Congratulations to the people who did get them, because they’re all well deserved. But he's so, so precious to me.

 And same for Gracie, who is brand new, right off the shelf, and going through what has to be the most extraordinary career, created by her. She works so hard - she just turns up and tells the truth every day. 

There's honestly something about this production in particular.  I had seen Hadestown on Broadway, but this one is being pulled away from everything. That's really unique to this show. 

And I don't know what it is! All these people are magical. Gloria [Onitiri]  and Zach [James], they’re like two Gods walking through space with these extraordinary voices. It's like we pulled them down from Olympus themselves! All our beautiful Workers . . . And everybody who works here, even down to our stage management, our company manager, has such respect for the work, for the people who do the work and for the craft. You're committed to something special every day.

These musicians, and our musical direction team, oh my gosh! Because to tell this kind of story, it is so precise. Anaïs Mitchell and Liam Robinson were so precise, even when we were learning it. You have to learn a thing exactly as it is and they were very keen that we should have respect for the thing that was written because it's a big poem from beginning to end. And so if I was saying something, “but” instead of “and,” that would be caught because even those little conjunctions were very important. And a lot of times when you're making a contemporary play, you're trying to make it in the way that we speak. But this is beyond that. This is poetry, and all the words matter. The big ones, the small ones, the ones in between, they all matter. 

Dónal Finn
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Do you have any favourite parts either to sing or to watch?

You know what my favourite part of the show is? Dónal Finn singing “If It’s True?” because to me, it is transformative... It's an amazing piece of writing and the passion every night . . . I think we're a little bit more used to it now, but when we first started to do it, at the end of the show, Dónal and I just used to hold onto each other, because it hurts! 

My favourite thing to do is the end of the show because I think it's the most honest thing I've ever had to say. It's very reflective of my personal philosophy, because I'm an existentialist with a small e in that I believe in the inherent shitness of life. I believe that it is a terrible time and how we find redemption, and our joy, and the only way to get through it is to accept that and to keep at it. Because at the end, there is no end goal. At the end of the day, we all go in the same way, some sooner, some later. And so, I want to measure my life by the effort that I've made in it, by the joy that I brought others. I want to know that the level of joy that I've brought is much greater than the level of pain. That is my attempt.

Every night when he turns around, I have to keep myself together, because it's not for me to break down. And that's just how it is in life too. Sometimes you don't get the chance to break down...At the end of the day, we have to pick back up and go again. So that's why it's my favourite.

How do you take care of yourself emotionally after going through this process so often?

I have good people around me. I have good friends in the cast, I have good friends outside of the show. I have an excellent partner of fifteen years, who is my light and has looked after me for fifteen years and continues to do it every day. And also, I love what I get to do. The gratitude of that keeps me safe and sane.

So many things could have happened and turns could have been taken that would have meant that I didn't have the career that I have. You just do your best in the best way and hope that the next thing comes. I sit in gratitude for my good fortune. That's how I cope.

And finally, how would you describe Hadestown in one word?

Epic. It's huge in scale and it's huge in heart. You couldn't get a bigger story!

Hadestown is booking at the Lyric Theatre until December 2024


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