Inside Betty Who’s Broadway Role of a Lifetime

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Betty-Who-In-Hadestown-lead - Credit: Zak Cassar
Betty-Who-In-Hadestown-lead - Credit: Zak Cassar

To fans of Betty Who, the queer Australian pop star is one of the music industry’s best-kept secrets — a whirlwind of Eighties pop and synth influences that can captivate festivals and intimate venues alike. Those closer to the singer and artist, who uses she/they pronouns, might be more familiar with their birth name, Jessica Newham, and the story of a classically trained cellist who decided the life of a pop star would simply be more fun. But even those best acquainted with Newham might have trouble recognizing the person sitting in front of me on a breezy Manhattan afternoon.

Newham is here to discuss the latest iteration of their career, an unexpected turn as Persephone in the acclaimed Broadway musical Hadestown. As a pop performer known for their queer stage presence and masculine-presenting fashion sense, Newham is currently a jumbled amalgamation of their ultra-feminine dream role, their ever-present performer’s energy,  and a frankly intimate layer of nervousness. For people who have only encountered Newham through their music, it’s a new look, ruby-red acrylic nails and an understated puffer jacket taking the place of sharp suiting and a carefully styled blonde undercut. But as we talk, it’s clear that exploration is a journey they’ve already been on — they’re just taking a new audience along for the ride.

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“It’s such an unusual world,” Newham says of theater. “I’m literally coming in like a monkey throwing shit at a wall being like, ‘Is this right?’ I don’t have a reference for if I’m doing this right or wrong. I know nothing.”

At the time of our meetup, Newham is in the sixth week of their role in Hadestown, performing eight shows a week at New York’s Walter Kerr Theater. The eight-time Tony Award-winning musical — written by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell, one-third of folk trio Bonny Light Horseman, and directed by Rachel Chavkin, also known for directing Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 — introduces audiences to the ancient myth of doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, but with a folk-pop, New Orleans-style twist. Alongside this story, set in the twin backdrops of a struggling town and a downtrodden underworld, another love story parallels the leads: the mythic, otherworldly, and downright epic romance of the Greek gods Hades and Persephone.

While Persephone has few solos, she is a major revolving force in the show, bringing the world back to life one summer at a time. When the role was originated by actress Amber Gray, who appeared in the show’s 2016 off-Broadway launch and the much-decorated Broadway run that followed, it was characterized by a balance between moody indifference and sharp, unrelenting rage. That performance earned Gray one of the show’s 14 Tony nominations and a Grammy for her role in the soundtrack album. Large shoes to fill? More like a gaping absence in a show known for its devoted fanbase. But Newham tells Rolling Stone that while their journey to Broadway debut has had its naysayers, the biggest struggle has been making sure they’re not one of them.

“As I’m learning, the replacement journey of a musical theater actor is very difficult, especially because I’m so different than the people who have come before me,” Newham says. “That is both freeing and also terrifying because I like being shown something and [told] ‘Now go do exactly this.’ And in this world, I’ve been shown something and then: ‘Now forget that and we’re going to try it completely differently in your body.’”

Newham knows their way around a fair share of musical history, gushing about the 1999 film Annie featuring Broadway legends Victor Garber and Audra MacDonald. They were a huge Broadway fan growing up, even taking musical theater classes at the Sydney not-for-profit Australian Theatre for Young People. As a teen, they went to a performing arts high school and specialized in cello, an attempt to grasp the dream of a career in music while still keeping their feet planted in reality.

“It’s funny looking back, because cello felt like the most serious version of music that I had access to that made people think that I was doing something worthwhile,” Newham says. “If you’re like, ‘I want to be a singer,’ people are like, ‘Cool, what are you really going to do?’ But classical music felt less scary to those around me. Studying cello full-time kept me in music, which is what I ultimately wanted. But I was playing cello in the pit of Aida, wishing that I was on stage.”

After seeing early success with their single “Somebody Loves You,” Newham signed with RCA Records in 2013 and began a now-decade-long career in pop, building a steady queer fanbase while evolving their sound at the same time as their gender presentation. In a pop field that’s often dominated by femininity, Newham purposefully embraces their gender fluidity, combining Eighties Jazzercise choreography with David Byrne-esque suiting and sharp lines. It’s a colorful dissonance — and one they carry with them onto the Hadestown stage in a new way.

For Persephone, Newham completely drops the masc elements of their personality, donning a curly ombre wig, starchy, voluminous dresses, and black heels that make their already tall six-foot frame soar over the audience. There are elements of Persephone that never leave Newham, like the long red acrylic nails that flash as we speak. For the singer, it’s all part of an effort to fully sink into their role.

“Persephone is a real woman,” Newham says. “She’s a goddess, so she is giving divine feminine, which I have moved so far away from in my personal life. So that’s also this unexpected twist of it all, to turn down my femininity more and more and then book a role that literally turns it up into hyperdrive.”

They’re OK with that, though: “I think one of the really fun parts of being an actor is that you get to not be yourself. I spent 10 years being Betty Who. Music for me is, how can I distill the truest form of self-expression. But [Persephone] is outside of me. I wanted to go there and be her.”

Newham’s Persephone isn’t one that day-one fans of Hadestown will immediately recognize. In a world of jazz and big-band instrumentals, their voice stands out as strong but distinctly pop. But Newham’s energy makes that a welcome surprise — threading hope and earnestness through every word. It changes Hades and Persephone’s relationship from a dynamic that’s biting to one that flirts, jokes, and can laugh and cry in equal measure.

“Rage doesn’t live inside of me,” Newham says. “I’m not really an angry, fiery person. I’m light. I’m joy. I like to be alive and present. So I’m aware of the emotional intensity of that kind of relationship that has lasted in [Persephone and Hades’] case, eons — centuries of misunderstanding, of falling in and out of love with each other. We go on this sort of epic tale in two and a half hours.” They give a lot of credit to their costar Phillip Boykin, who joined the cast as Hades around the same time: “He makes me feel capable, which I was afraid of not being coming in.”

In the context of the show, Newham’s addition turns the tragedy into a cycle even more heartbreaking, held aloft by a desire you know will be let down when they sing their tale again and again and again. Newham’s Persephone is unexpectedly earnest. And in front of a rapt audience, whether sitting in the orchestra or in the second-to-last row, their talent towers.

Chavkin, the show’s director, says that much of Newham’s performance strength comes from their genuine warmth as a person and commitment to hard work. “One of her first insights was to tie the role to Marilyn Monroe, meaning a charming extrovert in public, and an emotionally raw person in private,” Chavkin says. “I thought it was a brilliant model for characterization. We spoke a lot about holding her pop charisma, her savvy humor as a performer, and the epic or mythic nature of the show in equal weight. I think you feel that in the irreverence with which she storms the stage in ‘Livin’ It Up’  and in the gravitas she brings to ‘How Long.’”

Newham’s casting marks just one of several major changes in the show, which also include the departure this month of the musical’s last original Broadway cast member, Reeve Carney (Orpheus). As Betty Who, Newham is a known performer, and they were chosen directly for the role instead of auditioning, which has inspired accusations of stunt casting in die-hard fan pockets online. But while they’re well aware of criticism that they’re wrong for the role, Newham says it hasn’t stopped them from fully embracing the job, and all that comes with it.

“I have a truly authentic experience every night on stage that makes people forget that they didn’t want me in this role in the first place,” they say. “I had a couple of days where I got my ass kicked by people on the internet. At first, I just felt so beaten up because I am naive and think that people should be nice, and it [shocks] me when people aren’t. And then, you know, you have another show the next day and I have to get up and keep doing the job that I got.

I don’t want to disrespect the people who believed I could do this and gave me this job in the first place. I have to trust that those people are going to tell me if I’m doing it wrong or right.”

So let’s get the rumors out of the way. Jessica Newham is Betty Who. They are a pop star. They are also Persephone in Hadestown, and they’re damned good at it. They have created a Persephone who draws the audience in with her innocence, only to break them apart with her wisdom. As an actor, Newham says they don’t want this to be the end of their time experimenting. After their stint on stage ends in February (and a long break), they’ll start touring again, possibly recording some new songs, all while also auditioning for as many films as will have them.

“I feel changed already. And we’re only at the beginning of it,” Newham says. “I don’t know what is next, but I know that it is going to be very different than it has been, and that’s really refreshing and exciting.”

Our interview ends well past its allotted time, but when a fan stops Newham, they spend a few minutes chatting with them. Then they head out. They do, after all, have a show to do.

“I feel a ton of responsibility,” they say. “Because I feel very present to the fact that I am getting to live out a childhood dream. I’m not going to waste a moment.”

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