In “Oklahoma!,” they were two young lovers. In “Hadestown,” he was again a young lover, but she was a much older (like, eons older) goddess.
Over the last several years, as two artisanal musical productions took less-traveled roads through the alt-theater woods, Damon Daunno and Amber Gray found themselves side by side, bringing contemporary voices to reinterpret their shows’ classic stories.
Now they are arriving on Broadway, a few days and a few blocks apart. Mr. Daunno is riding in on a darkly revisionist revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” as Curly, the lovestruck cowboy; Ms. Gray will spring forth in Anaïs Mitchell’s folk-rock “Hadestown” as Persephone, the bluesy queen of the underworld.
Each show is directed by a downtown experimentalist — “Oklahoma!” by Daniel Fish and “Hadestown” by Rachel Chavkin — and, as unconventional stagings, had unconventional journeys. The “Oklahoma!” revival was born at a Bard College summer festival and then retooled in Brooklyn; “Hadestown” began as a concept album and became a full-fledged stage show Off Broadway, then traveled to Canada and England to shore up its footing before returning to New York.
First, Ms. Gray portrayed the farmgirl Laurey to Mr. Daunno’s besotted Curly in “Oklahoma!” Then he played the mellifluous Orpheus to her intoxicating Persephone in “Hadestown.” But the shows have been in development long enough that along the way, Ms. Gray had two children; Mr. Daunno got married; and their paths to Broadway diverged.
Now “Oklahoma!” is starting performances March 19 at Circle in the Square Theater, with Mr. Daunno as Curly and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey; “Hadestown” starts performances March 22 at the Walter Kerr Theater, with Ms. Gray as Persephone and Reeve Carney as Orpheus.
Mr. Daunno, a 34-year-old from New Jersey, and Ms. Gray, a 37-year-old who grew up in a roving military family, spoke in separate interviews about their intersecting journeys through parallel shows.
I gather neither of you ever expected to be in “Oklahoma!”
DAUNNO I had seen it when I was like 8, and I thought, “I’m not really into Oklahoma!” And I thought there’s no way any production of “Oklahoma!” is ever going to cast me as Curly. But they came back and said, ‘Trust me, this is not your grandmother’s “Oklahoma!,” and then I Googled some bits of the movie and Hugh Jackman, and cobbled together a video of me playing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.” I wasn’t going to try to please them, but just do it the way I do it, and it turned out that’s what Daniel Fish was looking for.
GRAY I had seen lots of Daniel’s work over the years, and they kept saying “He wants to see you for Laurey,” and I was like, “Surely there’s a mistake. Doesn’t he mean Aunt Eller?” I’ve been a theater broad since I was 13, so that’s in my head — it’s ridiculous, but that’s how we get trapped as performers. It took me a moment to wrap my brain around it.
And how did you wind up in “Hadestown”?
DAUNNO I got an offer to do a 29-hour reading in 2012, and so I listened to the album and was thrilled to be a part of it. It was just a week in New York, but it was lovely, and I got to know Anaïs through that.
GRAY Rachel Chavkin has been one of my greatest collaborators — I’ve been in six of her shows — and, during the “Great Comet” tent phase, other kids in the cast were doing “Hadestown,” and I was like, “What’s ‘Hadestown?’” Then they were doing a staged workshop, and I came in to audition.
Was there a fork in the road for you?
DAUNNO This business can be complex, with scheduling and things like that, and you need to make decisions and keep moving. There wasn’t a time for me when I had to choose — it was just no longer an option. We went on different paths — I went to England and worked with Kneehigh for six months, and then toured Russia and Eastern Europe with a jazz singer friend — and by the time “Oklahoma!” came back, I had grown quite fond of Curly.
GRAY It’s a bit sensitive, because my agent who was the point person died, and there was a miscommunication. But I had a great time in London with “Hadestown,” while really mourning that I had to break up with “Oklahoma!” It’s complicated, but what a good problem to have.
How are the roles you played in each show similar or different?
GRAY Laurey is young and green to a lot of life experiences, and has lots of questions. Persephone has been around for centuries, and has lots of answers. Both women wake up, but in very different ways — Laurey gaining experience, and Persephone remembering how open she used to be when she was young.
DAUNNO I feel like Curly could be Orpheus’s older brother.
Is there anything you’ll miss about the role that got away?
DAUNNO I learned a lot about stillness, about planting your feet in the ground and trying to stand up for what is right. At the time I did “Hadestown,” it was so new, and the part didn’t say very much, so it was a lot of internal work, and I had to learn not to be afraid of that. That translated immensely to Curly and “Oklahoma!”
GRAY I’ll miss the whole production, which was made up of a lot of Juilliard and N.Y.U. actors I trained with. A lot of those kids are my family, and there was something magical about that.
Will you see each other’s performances?
DAUNNO I really hope so. We’ve already talked about hanging out on two-show days.
GRAY I already called Daniel Fish and asked if I could have tickets to the opening. I can’t wait to see how the production has deepened.