In case you haven’t heard, the Tony-award winning Broadway smash, “Hadestown”, has rolled into town at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown and it is not to be missed. It is a dazzling, inventive spectacle based on the Greek myths about Orpheus, Eurydice, Hades and Persephone. Starting with one song that, as writer Anaïs Mitchell says, “fell from the sky”, the score began as a concept album that eventually grew into the Broadway show that premiered in 2019. Set in a smoky New Orleans bar, the show’s unique sound and soaring vocals take the audience on an electrifying journey.
We caught up with local drummer Anthony Ty Johnson who is part of the extraordinary, mostly onstage band that is bringing the heat to the Ahmanson stage. This is the CalArts graduate’s first experience with a Broadway National Tour and bringing the show to Los Angeles holds special meaning. In the show he covers drums and percussion and, as is usually a drummer’s lament, he has too many instruments to be featured on the actual set, but you can definitely hear his smoking rhythms and he jumps on stage for the final bows.
The Sacramento native was always drumming on pots and pans as a child, according to family lore, and began formal training in elementary school in the band programs. He was constantly in music programs through middle school and high school while also playing with various groups. “Drumming is one of those things that I feel has been with me since the top – it’s been a consistent part of my life. Through gathering information, meeting different people, taking lessons and having different musical experiences along the way – drumming started very early and it is something that has not left.” Although he jokingly says he sometimes wishes he had picked a lighter instrument, like the flute, so he’d have less stuff to carry.
But drums it was and he says “I was quite ferocious in terms of how much I would fill my schedule growing up – drumline, concert band, marching band, jazz band, having my own band outside of school – it was really just like anything available to me, I wanted to immerse myself as much as I could. To build that foundation and it was like an unholy drive of ‘I must do this the best I can’.” Post high school he continued to play at community college and around the local scene in Sacramento until his path eventually led to CalArts.
“CalArts was a really transformative process in terms of my playing and my understanding of music and this journey into this bigger professional world,” Johnson explains. While inspired by greats like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, Johnson says he is equally inspired by non-musicians and other types of artists, saying, “there are so many points of inspiration because I like for my music and my experience to be holistic. But someone like my Dad, is the hardest working person I know. And often that is so inspiring in the music profession where it really helps to have a really good work ethic. Coming out of the pandemic – the amount of work it took just to stay afloat was something that I hadn’t experienced before but something that I credit my father for instilling in me – being an incredibly hard worker.”
Johnson has been living in Pasadena for 2 ½ years. “It was an early pandemic decision” he tells us, “what ended up happening was my girlfriend, now wife, and I were looking for a place that embodied a feeling of home and homebase and what does that mean for us? We found that Pasadena was lively, bright and energetic, without it being frantic and intense. LA is such a big, beautiful place and there are so many different vibes everywhere that you go – we just found that Pasadena really worked for us in terms of when we go home, we’re home, and we love the vibe here. It embodies the things we need as people. LA music business is a crazy thing so being able to go home and just take a walk in the nice city that it is – it’s great for us.”
So yes, Johnson is a newlywed, having managed to pull off a late pandemic wedding. “It was such a rough decision because of not being able to gather – but there did come a time when vaccines were rolling out and we really didn’t want to wait but we also didn’t want to do a Zoom thing either so we tried to really boil it down to our closest family and do that. It was a beautiful experience.” And ultimately he is grateful they made it happen because not long after, he got the call for “Hadestown” and his life has been go, go, go ever since.
He had never heard of “Hadestown” but when he got the initial e-mail, his wife, who is a composer and did know the show, said emphatically, “you absolutely have to take it!”. It began with a random e-mail out of nowhere from orchestrator Todd Sickafoose. “Every time I tell this story it sounds so crazy – but he said ‘hey I went to CalArts for my masters in ’99 (I think). I reached out to the jazz faculty and they put your name forward that you might be good for this “Hadestown” tour’.” After quickly doing a little research, Johnson realized it was, as he calls it, “the most legitimate thing I’ve ever been offered in my life. It was insane. Tony-winning, Grammy-winning. Crazy. And then I really sat down and listened to it and that’s when I became attached to it.” He continues, “the sound of the show and the sound that I’ve cultivated throughout my life really fit and I thought, ‘oh no. Now I really want this’.”
Sickafoose decided it was a match as well and Johnson was hired. Rehearsal began in Schenectady, New York in September 2021 and the tour began in October with previews in South Carolina and they opened at the Kennedy Center. “It’s been a zero to one hundred moment – especially coming out of the pandemic. It’s an incredible opportunity and I’m more excited about how many things I’m learning right now. To have a first tour be at this level – you get to be around people who have done this for years. From the actors to stage managers, the crew, so many people who have done this most of their lives – I’m so excited to be around such knowledgeable people. And to see parts of the country I haven’t – and I get to play music every day. It’s the best case scenario.”
When asked to describe the music of “Hadestown”, Johnson says passionately, “I think the music is the most compelling piece of the show because it started out as a folk concept album and so it’s gone through so many iterations and where we have it now is this beautiful mix of pop, jazz, New Orleans second line – with so many beautiful textures and sound palettes – it’s a really eclectic show but it’s something that is very understandable, I feel. There’s not as much of a divide between the stage and the audience like there is in other Broadway shows.”
He goes on to say, “Hadestown has it’s own unique language, musically, I would call it syncretism in terms of different genres and cultures coming together to create something new musically. Especially in my role as the drummer and percussionist, I have so many different sounds and so many different textures that I need to serve the story with. I’m playing traditional drum set, Brazilian percussion, sheets of metal, and all these extended techniques on the drums. It is so unique that this show has its own musical language that they’ve created. It’s unlike any other music I’ve played before.”
Having the show here in Los Angeles feels like a homecoming for Johnson. “My friends, my wife, my family have supported me and this feels like an arrival that everyone can partake in this experience they know I’ve been having these past six months,” he says, “and LA is such a great place for this story to be and I think everyone is really going to dig it. It’s going to be nice to tell this story to so many people at the Ahmanson Theatre, which I could not be more excited about. I’m just excited for people in my life to be able to see this.”
This show is everything you want theatre to be and how you want it to make you feel. The score is hypnotic, the voices enthrall, and the musicianship is of the highest caliber so do yourself a favor and do whatever you can to get a ticket – and when you do, give an extra shout to Anthony for bringing the heat and the beat to Hadestown!
“Hadestown” runs through May 29 at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Tickets start at $35, available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office. Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
“Hadestown” will also perform at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Cosa Mesa CA 92626 August 9 to 21. Information at SCFTA.org