Betty Who

Hadestown Star Betty Who is Fulfilling Her Inner Theater Kid’s Dream

Betty Who’s inner theater kid is finally stepping into the spotlight. Though known for her career as a recording artist, Who has deep roots in theater. In fact, the two are inextricably linked for her. Not only did she teach herself the piano and guitar, she learned the cello at 4 years old — “It was really dinky and cute,” she says — which led to her playing in the orchestra pit for various musicals growing up. The last time she acted in a stage musical was as a sixth grader, playing the Undertaker in her all-girls school production of Oliver!. So it was a decades-long dream come true when she made her Broadway debut in Hadestown as everyone’s favorite Lady of the Underground, Persephone, on September 5.

“I’ve loved singing and music since I can remember,” Who says. “I’ve always had headphones on, listening to music, singing, and performing along to songs from Britney [Spears] and Spice Girls. I loved movie musicals like Rent, Chicago, and Hairspray. It’s a full-circle moment for me to [make my Broadway debut], because I was always the kid who was jealous watching from behind the scenes, seeing people do what I loved and wanted to do.”

Who studied songwriting at Berklee College of Music before she released her first single, “Somebody Loves You,” in 2012. Four studio albums and five EPs later, the Australian-born singer has made a name for herself in the world of pop music. She opened on Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour and Kylie Minogue’s Kiss Me Once tour, and had her cover of “All Things (Just Keep Getting Better)” featured as the theme song for Netflix’s Queer Eye. Just before arriving in New York City for Hadestown rehearsals, she wrapped up her own global tour for her 2022 album, BIG!.

Lillias White, Solea Pfeiffer, Betty Who, Emily Afton, and Reeve Carney in Hadestown. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Lillias White, Solea Pfeiffer, Betty Who, Emily Afton, and Reeve Carney in Hadestown. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

“I had a really big year in music, and some of it doesn’t feel as big as it should,” says Who. “It’s more of the same. I’m grateful, and I love my job, and I love writing music and performing it, but I knew there were other things I wanted to try.”

When she told her theatrical agent she wanted to explore getting involved with Broadway, she was expecting a solo concert at 54 Below. She was shocked when she got the call that she would be heading way down to Hadestown. Making her Broadway debut in a musical written by fellow singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, who won a Tony Award for Best Score, has taken on a special resonance.

“I’m so inspired and moved by the genius that is Anaïs Mitchell. Her poetry and the depth of the language in this show is Shakespearean,” Who says. “It is so dense, which freaked me out in the beginning. In rehearsals we talked about creating the story in your body so if someone is having trouble listening to the words, which go by quickly, they can still follow and be in the story with you.”

The self-described “alto queen” took comfort in Persephone’s vocal range and being familiar with Mitchell’s style of music, which allowed her to focus on discovering her version of Persephone and the story’s overall arc during rehearsals. She hooked into the direction that Persephone’s singing performance should feel more like “yelling ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the bar with friends” instead of a clean, perfect tone.

While Who is no stranger to performing live, she is still continuing to push herself in terms of her acting. “It’s an actor’s show. I came in as a vocalist and as a musician, and I’ve yet to get a single note about how I sing the songs, but the creative team is stretching me, pushing me, and challenging me with the acting. I’m kind of obsessed with them, and I’m so grateful they believe in me and help me continue to push myself. I’m realizing how much I love the feeling of acting.”

Betty Who, Reeve Carney, and Phillip Boykin in Hadestown. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Betty Who, Reeve Carney, and Phillip Boykin in Hadestown. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Joining Who as her Hades is Tony Award nominee Philip Boykin, who audiences know from the 2017 revivals of Once on This Island and Sunday in the Park With George, and the 2012 revival of Porgy and Bess, for which he earned his Tony nomination. Though Hadestown’s plot focuses on the Greek myth of Euridyce and Orpheus, the love story of Hades and Persephone is heavily intertwined throughout the Tony Award–winning musical, and their chemistry is key. Their duet “How Long” is actually Who’s favorite song that she looks forward to performing every night.

“I love being in scenes with him because he gives me somewhere to send all of my energy to and he is just such a great vessel for it. He is so present and beautiful. His presence reaches the back of the room. He is so funny. I have to turn my light all the way up to sparkle and shine at the same wattage as Phillip. He’s been so supportive, knowing I’m new to this. We have been partners in it, which I’m so grateful for. When I stand next to him every night for curtain call, I’m just like, ‘Look at that superstar.’”

Solea Pfeiffer and Betty Who in Hadestown. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Solea Pfeiffer and Betty Who in Hadestown. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

After a handful of performances completed, Who feels like she has started to settle into her character. From an acting perspective, her first priority was to dig into the humanity of Persephone, and now she’s working on elevating her performance into that of Persephone’s goddess status.

“I’m so grateful this is the show I ended up in. There are some amazing shows I’d be lucky to be in, but I continue to deepen my love with this story. There’s so much more to excavate — there are so many layers, and so much depth, and new meanings to find. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about theater. I love the chance to do it all over again the next day and make a new choice.”

With a wide smile and a clack of her Persephone-inspired, black-painted, stiletto-shaped nails, there’s no question Who’s inner theater kid is already shining on Broadway and livin’ it up on top.

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