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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Ani DiFranco makes her Broadway debut

    As a longtime denizen of the music industry’s DIY underworld, Ani DiFranco tends to relish a made-from-scratch ethos. So it’s no surprise that the 53-year-old singer-songwriter eschews bells and whistles onstage, instead underscoring each concert she performs with a grounded, go-with-the-flow aesthetic.

    That means DiFranco shuffles the set list, freshens the storytelling and shapes the performance to the venue, be it a crusty dive bar or a soft-seater theater. When she was touring with drummer Andy Stochansky years ago, she recalls begrudgingly humoring his ideas for dramatic entrances, elaborate lighting and other theatrics. But left to her own devices, the Grammy-winning folk-rocker would rather stroll onstage in a flannel shirt, sniff the air and ponder the question, “What’s tonight about?”

    It’s unfussy, and it’s unscripted. Leaning toward the camera during a recent video chat, DiFranco sums up her vibe with a hushed confession.

    “I’m kind of anti-theater,” she concedes, “in my Ani game.”

    Which makes her latest endeavor — starring as the Greek goddess Persephone in the Broadway musical “Hadestown” — an ironic interlude. DiFranco is no stranger to the production: Her indie label, Righteous Babe, produced the 2010 “Hadestown” concept album that eventually spawned the Tony-winning stage show, and she sang the part of Persephone. As “Hadestown” creator Anaïs Mitchell puts it, DiFranco has long been the project’s “fairy godmother.”

    DiFranco notes that she did dance in her youth until, as a broke 18-year-old moving from Buffalo to New York City, she realized she couldn’t afford the classes. But DiFranco had never acted before making her Broadway bow in February, and she asserts she is most definitely not a “theater nerd.” So finding her place in the “Hadestown” machinery has been a trial by fire for a challenge-chasing performer who now goes to hell and back eight times a week.

    DiFranco circumvented the mainstream recording industry and founded Righteous Babe Records in 1990, at age 19. She forged a reputation as a feminist trailblazer, a queer icon and the mother of the “do it yourself” music movement. The independence gave DiFranco free rein to express herself artistically, blending autobiographical musings with sociopolitical commentary on albums that ran the sonic gamut from punk rock to spoken-word poetry.

    One early DiFranco devotee: Mitchell, the indie folk maestro who penned “Hadestown’s” book, music and lyrics. “I maybe picked up the guitar because I wanted to play like her,” recalls Mitchell, 42, who adds that DiFranco’s “Both Hands” was one of the first songs she learned as a teenager. “She really was a guiding light for me.”

    Mitchell was just starting to make a name for herself in the mid-aughts when she booked a gig at the Buffalo bar Nietzsche’s and, following her first set, realized DiFranco was in the house. “This was like if a mythical figure walked into my world,” Mitchell says. As DiFranco remembers it, “I was struck by her immediately. My first instinct was, ‘Let me help this girl. Let me get behind this girl.’”

    Thus Righteous Babe came to sign Mitchell and release her next three projects — including the “Hadestown” concept album. DiFranco says she learned about the endeavor when Mitchell mailed her a cassette tape of tracks from an early iteration of the show, which the composer had been adapting from Greek folklore as a community theater project in Vermont. (“Cassette tape, check. Snail mail, check,” DiFranco quips. “Those were the days.”) Fusing blues and jazz with ethereal folk soundscapes, the musical was unfinished but intoxicating.

    Although DiFranco wasn’t available to personally produce the record, she recommended Todd Sickafoose, her band’s longtime bassist, for the role and agreed to voice Persephone. Described by Mitchell as a “benevolent party girl,” Hades’s estranged wife splits her time in “Hadestown” between the cold, industrial underworld and the ragged land above, where her arrival is accompanied by prosperity, warmth and plenty of wine. All the while, she looks out for the troubadour Orpheus and his love, Eurydice, as poverty and Hades’s duplicity pull them apart.

    “There was something about Ani playing Persephone that felt really right,” Mitchell says. “She has this sort of New Orleans inflection and just a real kind of a swagger that she always has had, but it’s also who she is in the culture. She has been a revolutionary figure, and also kind of a nurturer, kind of a mothering figure to the artists that she has helped shine a light on.”

    DiFranco sang as Persephone during subsequent concert performances of “Hadestown” before ceding the role as Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin embarked on a trio of tryout productions and the show at last opened on Broadway in April 2019. “Hadestown” went on to win eight Tonys, survive the pandemic pause and become the longest-running show at the nearly century-old Walter Kerr Theatre.

    “Even when I was very young, striking out on my own with a guitar, traveling — no address, no zip code, just a license plate, if I was lucky, and a mission to share my songs with people — I was always pushing into the unknown,” DiFranco explains. “I think the same is true right up to saying, ‘Yes, I’ll go star in a Broadway production at age 53. You know, I did some dancing back when I was a teenager — I should be fine.’”

    DiFranco is the picture of easygoing affability during a recent call from her apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, where the longtime New Orleans resident is staying, appropriately enough, during her “Hadestown” run. Yet she doesn’t shy from the reality that walking the road to hell takes its toll. Persephone’s high heels, she points out, make for devilish footwear. (“They’re killing me,” she says. “They’re frickin’ killing me.”) Adjusting to the character’s loose-limbed physicality has also required lifestyle changes.

    Revisiting songs she performed a decade and a half ago came naturally enough. But tackling the subsequently written tunes, which were first recorded by original Broadway cast member Amber Gray, became an exercise in restraint after she found her initial instinct “was a little too Ani-fied.”

    “She’s been Ani DiFranco onstage for 30 years and has been kicking all of the ass doing that,” says co-star Jordan Fisher, who plays Orpheus. “But the way Persephone carries herself, the way that she speaks, the way that she sings and loops her voice, all of these things are not Ani. To be able to explore that — for the very first time at the mecca, mind you, on Broadway — is a very, very scary thing. And Ani came in and took the bull by the horns.”

    Breaking into Broadway hasn’t slowed DiFranco’s musical output. She released the politically charged single “Baby Roe” in February and plans to drop her 23rd album — a production-heavy collaboration with producer BJ Burton — in the spring. “It’s a bit of a departure, sonically,” DiFranco teases. “I wanted to take a more modern approach.” A mother of two, she also wrote a civic-duty-centric children’s book, “Show Up and Vote,” that’s set to hit shelves in August.

    “Her artistic metabolism is very high,” says Sickafoose, DiFranco’s bandmate who, after producing the “Hadestown” concept album, won a Tony for co-orchestrating the Broadway production. “When she has an idea, she seems to try to enact it and bring it into the real world as soon as she can. One of her favorite times to write is on the road after a show. I think she likes that kind of quiet after loud. When we’re traveling, we’re constantly playing things that she just wrote the night before, two nights before.”

    DiFranco says she agreed to a six-month stay in “Hadestown,” after which she’ll trade in Persephone’s florid dresses and foot-wrecking heels and reprise her onstage role as Ani. Considering DiFranco’s “anti-theater” instincts, it’s tough to imagine another Broadway part tempting DiFranco as Persephone did. But for a performer who relishes stumbling through the dark, nothing piques her curiosity like uncertainty.

    “I am as interested in the unknown as ever,” DiFranco says. “So I’m open to anything.”

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