Since the Broadway musical Hadestown opened on April 17, it has run for 237 shows, many of them selling out the 945-seat Walter Kerr Theatre. Thus, around 200,000 audience members have experienced Anaïs Mitchell’s lovely music, Rachel Chavkin’s inventive directing, and the award-winning cast. But if you’re a musician like me, you can’t help but notice that many of the responses on social media are making more or less the same joke:
People really love the Hadestown trombone. No, I mean they really, really love it.
It’s fitting that for all the love showered upon the trombonist of Hadestown on social media, very few people mention his name, Brian Drye. After all, the trombone is perpetually the unsung hero of the band, rarely getting the attention that the saxophone or trumpet receive—and Broadway shows are no exception, even though many, if not most, shows have a trombone in the pit. For the trombone, though, the planets have finally aligned, or in this case a phenomenally talented musician in an unbelievably juicy part with an all-star production team. In Hadestown, trombone is finally getting its due.
How epic is the part? Obviously it’s the most prominent trombone part currently on Broadway. But I’ll venture to say it must be the greatest trombone part in the history of Broadway. Veteran Broadway trombone players I talked to could not recall anything as involved and creative as this one. The Internet Broadway Database tells me that Strike up the Band featured both Jack Teagarden and Glenn Miller in the pit with the Red Nichols Orchestra, but in 1930, before the peak of either man’s fame, I can’t imagine they were given this level of prominence.
Broadway shows are known among musicians for maintaining rigorous control. Repeatability and predictability are prioritized over musical creativity, and improvising is discouraged. But for Hadestown, Mitchell and orchestrators Todd Sickafoose and Michael Chorney created a trombone part that gives unprecedented improvisational freedom to the performer. The show features five solos, four of them improvised, one played while dancing at the front of the stage, one played opening the show accompanied only by Andre De Shields’ Hermes, one played as a cadenza closing the show. One even gets a shoutout (“Brian Drye on the trombone!”) from Amber Gray’s Persephone.
I’m a sub on the show, which means I’m one of several who play that trombone part when Brian needs a break. I’ve played it 25 times, and it’s a blast. Like Brian—an old friend—I’d never played trombone on Broadway before. The production team purposely sought out musicians who are a little more off the beaten path than the typically polished pros. A lot of trombone parts in musicals can be one step removed from classical, but this one needs to be exciting and, at times, nasty. You’re using mutes in unconventional ways, acting as the congregational response to Hermes’ preacher’s calls, playing off of Persephone’s manic, drunken energy, doing absolutely anything you want in the cadenza. It’s a bluesy part, but one that has to be played with a touch of weirdness, befitting the surreal staging. My nervousness about leaving the safety of the back of the stage for the “dance” steps was softened by performing in costume: In Hadestown, I’m not a New York freelancer; I’m the trombone player in a bar frequented by a Greek goddess.
It’s no surprise that when I was hired as a sub, the music team asked me to play the way Brian plays. Even the richest of roles is nothing without an interpreter gifted enough to give it life, and Brian is the Olivier to the trombone part’s Hamlet. He didn’t write the part, but he put his indelible stamp all over it. Before Hadestown, he toiled away in the trenches of the New York underground scene for more than 20 years, mostly playing the kind of music that society has written off. But now, people are going bananas for him, and he’s playing the way he always has: a combination of soul, funkiness, and grit, as perfectly suited for the quasi–New Orleans speakeasy of Hadestown as it is for a free-jazz gig at Ibeam, the no-frills performance space near the Gowanus Canal that he runs. Here, in this show, clad in a brown zoot suit, Brian gets to see his previously overlooked artistry speak directly to the crowd, who wildly applaud his solos and wait for his autograph outside the stage door.
It’s a crossover success! It’s Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, it’s Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” but for avant-garde improvising trombone! This is what all avant-garde musicians, and really all musicians who have struggled to gain recognition, have been trying to get across for years: If the music comes in the right package, everyone will get it.