Lulu Fall on the ground-breaking operas Hadestown and The Great Comet of 1812 and the need for diversity in theatre

Lulu Fall (center) in Hadestown.

Lulu Fall (center) in Hadestown.

Hell is the coolest place off-Broadway.

Hadestown, the new folk-opera created by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell and directed by OBIE winner Rachel Chavkin, who is best known for her direction of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, has been extended multiple times due to the show’s popularity. The production’s final extension pushed the closing date to Sunday, July 31.

The inventive musical, which opened officially on May 23, is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and his quest to overcome Hades and regain the favor of his one true love, Eurydic. The electric score is based on American folk with elements of New Orleans jazz and rock.

Lulu Fall, who previously worked with Chavkin on an incarnation of Great Comet, stars as one of the Fates in Hadestown and will transfer to the Broadway production of Great Comet when the musical debuts in October. Fall is also an accomplished jazz singer-songwriter with two albums and several other stage credits to her name.

Fall recently chatted with Stage Door Dish about working with Chavkin, performing in operatic musicals, and the importance of diversity in theatre.

I want to start with Hadestown. It’s something that people are losing their minds over and Vogue called it the next Hamilton. Can you talk about what the show is like for audiences and what it’s like for you, as an actress, to be interacting with these audiences every night?

First of all, this piece is so interesting because of the way it was conceived. The idea of having a concept album and touring and performing around the country and sweeping the folk genre nation, for it to turn around and become a staged thing is a big deal. That concept is amazing, fresh, and powerful. From an audience standpoint, having all these fans of Anais Mitchell and her album is amazing, they come in and they know all the songs and the lyrics, and they’re so excited, and then their jaws drop when they see the set, when the lighting kicks in, when the characters open their mouths and start singing. It’s just such a magical experience on the other end. Not only am I like, ‘Wow, that’s great, I’m doing my job. I’m getting these people excited.’  I love the fact that although it’s a musical and it’s staged, there’s still that element of a concert. There’s still a concert vibe that allows people to sing at the top of their lungs while we’re performing and singing our songs, too.

From an artistic standpoint, as an actor, working with Rachel [Chavkin] is amazing because she is unlike any director I’ve ever worked with. She doesn’t try to put you into a mold or shape you into what she wants you to be. She’s very spiritual in that she sees each person’s spirit and knows who we are individually and allows us to bring that out on stage. I freaking love that. That’s what makes this experience so amazing. I can still rock my red hair, and it’s very fitting because we’re in Hell the whole time, and I have a jazzy, raspy tone that I use throughout the show, and Anais loved that and Rachel loved that. Everyone sounds so different and brings such an amazing spiritual, organic element to each role and therefore to the piece.

You play one of the fates. Can you tell me about your role within the production?

The fates are not necessarily omnipotent, but they are your conscience. They exist in your head. There’s that little voice that tells you, ‘Should I do this? Should I not do this? Should I wear this or not wear this?’ We are those voices in your head. We are a very integral part of the piece because we’re three devilish sisters who only sing in harmony and dress alike and almost poke and prod at you so you can succumb to the voices in your head. Also, we help narrate the story and move it along, and we provide an insider’s view of what’s happening with the characters. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know what Hades is thinking in his head or what young Eurydice is thinking when she’s talking about starving and which life decisions she is going to make. We help drive the story but we’re also deep inside your head, so we offer a different perspective. It’s great. I love singing in harmony. It allows us to showcase that talent alone, being able to hold tight harmonies and continue to tell the story.

A lot of articles say that everyone knows the mythological legend that Hadestown is based on, but I actually didn’t know it. Were you familiar with it going into it?

No. I guess I tried not to do too much research going into it because too much research spoils the element of surprise. I knew a little bit about this particular story, but not much, so it was nice to walk into it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. After we started rehearsal, I started to do a little bit of research just to understand people’s back stories, but that also naturally came with the progression of rehearsals.

Are you a fan of Greek mythology or is there a particular one that you grew up knowing or think of every so often?

I think about Medusa sometimes because she was a badass. I used to have long red dreadlocks, and sometimes my hair would get all messy and unkempt and people would call me Medusa. That was literally the extent of me thinking about Greek mythology.

Anais Mitchell’s music is so pretty. Everything she writes is so poignant and there’s never a wasted lyric. Were you familiar with her songs before?

I actually was not familiar with her music. When I learned that I was going to audition, I started looking her up and researching what I could about Hadestown. When I listened to two of the songs I had to perform at the audition, my jaw dropped. Like you said, no lyric is wasted. Her imagination is so vivid. ‘Any Way the Wind Blows’, the opening number, is still one of my favorite songs, and that was the first song I had to learn for the audition. The imagery and the way she rhymes words and doesn’t rhyme words really hit me. After that, I started researching her. I thought, ‘Who is this woman? How come I don’t know her?’ It’s like she’s speaking to you. As a singer and songwriter myself, I try to emulate those things as well.

The shows you’ve been and will be going to Broadway with are so folksy, unlike your jazz music. Can you talk about how those compare or what the connection between the two is?

I’m an artist. I always try to expand my horizons, I always try to be as versatile as possible. Jazz is great, and it’s a very specific music, but it’s also derived from so many other different types of music. There’s rock, there’s folk, there’s blues-y down south music, there’s African music. Jazz encompasses so many types of music already, and my instrument is pretty versatile. I always strive to push my boundary as an artist, as an actor, as a singer, as a writer. I tend to want to do shows that are a little bit out of the box for me. The more non-traditional and left the better. For me it’s all about versatility and forcing myself out of my comfort zone and learning new and different things, so I can take that and move on to the next project with another thing under my belt.

I want to ask about the term ‘folk opera’. It’s not just out of the box for you or any of the other performers, but it’s so beautifully different from any other show. What Rachel does in all of her productions is make the audience another character and the productions are so well executed. Can you talk about working with her and working within the ‘folk opera’ genre?

Rachel is a visionary. Again, she’s a spiritual being who gets inside of you and learns the essence of you and pushes you to bring out that individuality on stage. That’s one thing I love about her. She doesn’t try to put anyone in a mold and she’s not afraid to push the envelope. She’s so smart and is constantly researching stuff. She’s also a peer. I can have a drink with her, chat with her about life, and then we can be in the rehearsal room working on material. In my eyes, she doesn’t limit herself. There is no box for her to get out of or get into. She’s making an amazing reputation by pushing the theatrical envelope and, like you said, making the audience another character and breaking that fourth wall to the fullest. Opera means it’s all sung, so with the exception of a few spoken lines here and there, it’s fully sung. When it comes to folk, it’s not only folk, but there’s hints of that New Orleans jazz music, there’s hints of rock, but folk is the essence of the music in the show. All the instruments are acoustic. There’s trombone, which give you that down south feel, there’s violin, cello, upright bass, and acoustic guitar. Everyone sounds so effing good. All I can say is, ‘Oh my God, it sounds so good.’ Because I did Great Comet and that’s a folk electronic pop opera, I started to understand how to approach these types of productions where you’re either barely speaking or not speaking at all. Having done Great Comet definitely helped me with approaching how to emote through song and overly enunciate. All you have is the song to make the audience understand what your objective is and what your intention is, as opposed to, ‘Okay, I just sang this song and now I’ll say this line to sum up everything in the song.’

I love Great Comet. We did a lot of press on the show when you were off-Broadway, when Phillipa Soo was playing Natasha. What was it like seeing her evolve into the leading lady she is now?

She’s fun. She liked to learn a lot. She’s very level-headed. She’s insanely talented, as you guys all know, and she’s always willing to take risks. I personally learned a lot from her. I didn’t do Great Comet in the Ars Nova days. I was in the tent downtown in the Meatpacking District. I actually replaced Amber Gray for a month, so I walked into this already blooming production, and when she opened her mouth, I was like, ‘Who is this woman?’ Then we were dressing roommates, so we really got to understand each other on and off stage. She’s a person’s person. She’s insanely talented, yes, but she’s very down to earth, very sweet, eager to learn, and always in the moment. I definitely took a few things from being her dressing roommate and her cast mate. She’s great, and she deserves that Tony nomination, all the press and the love she’s getting. She is truly one of a kind and extremely kind-hearted. It’s not often that you find someone who’s really really talented and also that sweet. She has no ego. She’s amazing.

What attracts you most to Great Comet and why are you excited for it to move to Broadway?

Aside from the set, which is amazing, it’s the music. When I auditioned for this way back when, the music pulled me in. The first song I had to learn was ‘Charming’, the big number that Hélène sings. It was jazzy and folky and electronic. It had all these elements that I love in music and it absolutely engulfed me. It’s a wide array of genres. What’s not to like?

Dave Malloy is such an amazing artist. What have you learned from working with him?

He, too, is a very easy going guy. If he has an idea or has something he wants to execute, he won’t hesitate. He’ll just do it. We recently talked about it, and I can’t believe I never asked him this before, but I asked where the concept of where Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 came from and why he thought, of all books, to try to take 70 pages from War and Peace. He told me he read the book, and when he got to the 70 pages about Natasha and Pierre, he thought ‘Wow, this is intense. There are so many developed characters in this 70 pages.’ He said he started hearing music, hearing all these compositions. I don’t recall if this was before or after, but he went to Russia and went to different eateries, and music is such a big part of Russian culture. That’s how all this came about. What I love about this story is that he said, ‘Huh. I have this idea. I’m going to go for it.’ So often, especially as artists who are extremely sensitive, we have an idea, we mull it over, maybe we’ll talk about it to a friend or it’ll remain a mystery in our heads. I respect him for being a go-getter. He’s a trend setter and an innovator.

You’re working with these very strong women in Hadestown, and you have Denée Benton, who’s incredible, and Phillipa in Great Comet. As a woman of color, as a woman working with these other very strong women of color, what’s it like to be in this theatre climate?

There are tons of ignorant people in this world. I don’t mean it in a negative sense, I mean there are people who have never interacted with anyone outside of their race before. I’ve definitely experienced people who only know what they see on TV when it comes to black people, and we’re seen in such a negative light. There’s just something unfair about that. The media is extremely one-sided when it comes to a lot of things. Art imitates life, art is life, and in life, there are so many different colors, creeds, shapes, and sizes. It should continue to be diverse and open to many different cultures. Who’s to say Natasha should be a white woman? She could be Chinese-American, which she has been. She can be a dark-skinned black American. That should not and will not change the story. It’s absurd that, in any given Broadway season, there are two shows that are predominantly black shows. There are two shows that all of us are clamoring to get into, and it might not even be the right show for you, but they pigeon-hole you into trying to fit the mold of those two shows. That’s ridiculous. We should all be able to portray completely different characters. That’s one of the things I love about Great Comet and Hadestown. I’m a black woman, and I’m not singing gospel, I am not chicken-necking, I am not stealing- all these stereotypes that are perpetuated over and over again. I am just a regular woman helping to tell a story, and I hope people can see past color. Clearly, I am very passionate about this topic.

I always think about Renée Elise Goldsberry saying that one day her son is going to learn that Thomas Jefferson was not black. He’ll go to school and say, ‘Oh, that’s what he really looked like? It doesn’t really matter.’

Exactly. There should not be any limitations based off of your skin complexion. Shaina Taub, one of my cast mates, said something about there being a staged play in London of Harry Potter, and the woman playing Hermione is black. That’s amazing. Hermione is Hermione, whether she’s white in the movie or black in the play, her essence is still there. Who cares about color? Apparently so many people are so angry and are calling her names. I hate that so much.

Something else I love about Great Comet is that Josh Groban, who’s an international super star, is not the top billed actor in the show. And it’s great that people who wouldn’t otherwise know about the show are going to see it for him. Can you talk about working with Josh in the show?

When I first found out he was going to play Pierre, I was confused. I knew of him and his music, and I thought, ‘He has this pristine voice and an amazing career, but is he an actor?’ Stepping into the role of Pierre is filling some huge shoes because Pierre is an extremely beautiful and complex character. That was my only concern. I know he loves theatre and is very passionate about different art forms, but I was just hoping he would be able to pull off the character and capture the essence of Pierre in his own way. Then I met him- and that smile, first of all. Second, he was a sponge. He was an open book. He was like, ‘I know I’m stepping into new territory, and that’s why I decided to do this. I am passionate about this, but I also want to be a part of this movement.’ I could be wrong, because I’ve never worked with a big star in theatre before, but I assume that sometimes a big star comes on and thinks they know everything. They think they don’t need to read the script because, ‘Oh, I have my take on this character,’ and there’s just a bravado around these celebrities. Upon meeting him and seeing how eager and open he was, I realized he was the right person. He’s a hard worker, he’s absolutely going to bust his behind to actively and fully portray this character. On top of that, he’s really approachable, and that goes a long way. He has his coaches, and I don’t doubt that he will be excellent.

Why is now a great time for shows like Hadestown and Great Comet to be on stage?

It challenges your way of thinking, from the plot of the show, to the music- which is all-encompassing, to the content, to the actors who are multi-ethnic- especially in times like these, where racism is prevalent. It’s always been there, but even more so now, it’s plaguing the U.S. That’s why it’s important for these unconventional shows to be out in the limelight. Art does bring people together, and it does open you up, and it fuels your imagination, to see all these different looking people working together to achieve one goal, which is to have you not only understand the plot, but for you to leave the theatre and be ultimately satisfied and think, ‘This moved me. This changed my view on something.’

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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