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As 'Hadestown' slides into Philly, a word with its star trombonist

Trombonist Emily Fredrickson, pictured in the upper left in this photograph from 2022, is a member of the touring production of 'Hadestown.'
T. Charles Erickson
Trombonist Emily Fredrickson, pictured in the upper left in this photograph from 2022, is a member of the touring production of 'Hadestown.'

The very first sound heard in Hadestown, which opened on Broadway to great acclaim five years ago, is the blare of a lone trombone — rhythmic and rugged, barking a phrase made bleary with a wah-wah mute.

This is the introduction to a major sonic element in the show, as well as one of its ensemble players. For the last two years, in a national touring production, that role has been the purview of a jazz trombonist named Emily Fredrickson.

This week, April 10-14, the North American tour of Hadestown touches down at the Academy of Music under the auspices of Ensemble Arts Philly, and Fredrickson will be there, helping propel the action and shape the sound. I recently caught up with her to discuss the unusual demands of the show’s score, the way it calls on different aspects of her training, and how the experience has changed her artistic practice.

Emily Fredrickson, a trombonist in the touring production of Hadestown.
Courtesy of the artist
Emily Fredrickson, a trombonist in the touring production of Hadestown.

Frederickson originally hails from Clearwater, Fla., and spent about a decade in New Orleans, where she backed artists like Allen Toussaint, taught composing and arranging, and served as music director of Dee Dee Bridgewater's big band. She was on the cusp of relocating to New York City when a fellow trombonist, Jennifer Wharton, told her about a new opening in the Hadestown tour.

The show — a sung-through musical inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with music, lyrics, and book by Anaïs Mitchell — had already won eight Tony Awards and the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. But Fredrickson wasn’t familiar with the music, or its legendary trombone part, until she began preparing for her audition. Arriving at a pivotal moment in her life and career, the position felt almost cosmically ordained, and she still talks about it with a mix of gratitude and wonder, as well as the authority of a veteran. This is an edited excerpt of the interview.

The fact that you spent a decade in New Orleans, it feels like you had the perfect skill set at your fingertips; not only are you an improvising trombonist who can read, but you also have the energy and the spirit of that city in your bloodstream. That seems really important in this show.

It's extremely important. Just from listening to it, I could notice some things here and there. I was like, “OK, I feel like this is trending New Orleans,” but I wasn’t totally sure. Then I saw, in some of the music that they sent me, a nod towards the second-line tradition. And in my first interview, they were like, “Just take it in a more New Orleans direction. We want you to give it some more brass band influence.” And I was like, Oh, wow. I’m just going to take it and run with it, and see where it goes — and that was definitely the approach they were looking for.

I remember reading a piece by Jacob Garchik for Slate in 2019, headlined “In Praise of the Greatest Trombone Part in Broadway History.” Here is a quote:

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.
Jacob Garchik, Slate

So does that all ring true to you? And what else would you say about it? 

I remember getting sent that article when I was auditioning, and it got me really excited, because I’d only seen a little bit of the score at that point. It absolutely rings true. In my first set of audition tapes, I was fairly reserved because in my mind I had a misconception that the Broadway scene was perfectionist and all about flawless repetition. So I gave that as much as I could, and they were like, “No. Give us more crazy.” And I was like, Really? OK, that's definitely more my bag. And the cool thing about it is that it changes with every actor; the delivery for the actors is just as individual as the musicians. I’ve loved adapting it over the two years that I’ve been here. I’ve seen three different casts — and especially the relationship between Hermes and the trombone, that call and response, it’s very much controlled by how Hermes is dictating things. It’s such a fun part because it changes every night.

It seems like you really need to be a jazz musician — and maybe even a jazz musician with some brass band experience — in order to fully inhabit that role.

Yeah, the score calls for someone who was raised in the jazz tradition, who can speak that language first and foremost. But it also just as much calls for blending into the string section and sounding just like a viola. Then also there are parts of it that are written that say, “Sound like a French horn.” So it really does require that background of having played a bit of classical music, knowing how to get a darker sound. But they also have stated that they don’t want any symphonic horns being used in Hadestown. They always wanted me to play on my little jazz horn, even though some of the stuff is very low and calls for a really round, rich, dark sound. So you have to be versatile on specific equipment that can do all of that, and it’s been a growing experience for sure.

The usual knock on Broadway pit work, especially for jazz musicians, is that it’s the same thing every night: you’re executing, hitting your marks, and it’s not usually creatively fulfilling. But it sounds like this is the rare show where you’re challenged and engaged every night.

Yeah, and it’s up to you how much you’re challenged and engaged, which I think is the real challenge of playing eight shows a week. You could go in and theoretically play the same thing every night, but the challenge is what you pose to yourself. And that’s been really telling. Because I was in the same mindset: I don’t want to go do the same thing every night. I’m naturally a creative person. I want to try new things. This show has shown me that maybe my creativity is limited by the idea that I don’t do the same thing every time. Maybe I have to repeat some things to really deepen my relationship with what creativity is. And then on top of that, using a similar framework every night, how can I challenge myself with whatever language I’m using? How can I challenge my articulation? How can I challenge my breathing and my sensitivity dynamics? That has been so telling, because I thought it would be the opposite, where it gets duller, but in ways it gets harder as you play it.

Over the summer I had a conversation with Kalia Vandever about her experience as trombonist on the Harry Styles tour, and this is a different situation — but it’s similar in the sense that you’re in a role that brings you a lot of love and excitement from the audience.

It does.

And they probably don’t know your name at the beginning of the night. What is it like to be such a visible embodiment of the energy of the show?  

At first, I was very nervous. I am more naturally a person who fades into the background. I think that comes from my nature as a trombonist — but also, as an arranger I’m typically the person behind the scenes. I enjoy that creative role, being the person to facilitate and watch things flourish. But a new page has been turned: I enjoy being onstage, being a part of it. I treat my role like I’m a character that gets to elevate the scenes; if I’m going to be up there, I might as well play into it and have fun. Also, I need something to keep myself engaged. I just play along with all of the characters, and have embraced the idea of the trombonist as a character who’s helping tell the stories. I think of myself as Hermes’ sidekick, elevating the story, and also emulating that with the way that I’m playing. I was so shocked, when I first listened top-to-bottom to the show, that Persephone says the trombonist’s name at the top of Act Two.


I was shocked. I was like, They’re going to say my name? Being in the Playbill is nice too, but they’re actually saying my name — and they don’t even say the name of the actors onstage. Which totally threw me, but that just shows how important music is to this particular musical. It is the center. It is the thing that saves the world. It is the central element of every little thing that happens in Hadestown. So for them to make a point to nod to the musicians who really make it all happen, I think is such a beautiful thing. And it should be done more often.

Yeah, the idea that the central dramatic tension is whether a guy can finish writing a song…

So real!

I’m glad you mentioned your arranging, because you’ve done a lot of that for big bands and other ensembles. Being on the inside now, you’re working with these orchestrations that Todd Sickafoose put together for the show. I wonder if you have any insights on the mechanics of that, and what he did that works so well in this context?

Todd is brilliant. I’m still noticing things from time to time in the score that I newly obsess over. The instrumentation, for one, is very unique — and was one of the first questions that I asked in my interview. There’s a violin that acts like both violin and fiddle; a cello; trombone that doubles on glockenspiel; piano that doubles on accordion; upright bass; guitar that’s played fingerstyle; and then drums with a lot of different percussion instruments. I was excited by the use of the trombone, but also very confused by it, just curious how it wound up in this particular setting. And when I was talking with Liam Robinson early on, who’s the vocal arranger and one of the music directors, he said that it originally stemmed from a Sun Ra tribute band that they had been working with in Edmonton, and they just kept the same instrumentation and started messing it with it from there — which made me think, Oh, this is exciting. I get to be weird. This is going to be so fun. There's a lot of room for creativity here.  


Marla-Louissaint, Lizzie-Markson and Hannah-Schreer in the 2023 North American tour of 'Hadestown.'
T. Charles Erickson
Marla-Louissaint, Lizzie-Markson and Hannah-Schreer in the 2023 North American tour of 'Hadestown.'

And the way that each instrument has to be flexible adds to the score, and no one gets away without improvising. Everyone is required at some point to improvise, which is definitely very different from most Broadway pits. On top of that, the way that the instruments are used, you get completely different tonal palettes. Even if it’s just a mute change or the style of trombone that I’m playing. The accordion adds a lot of depth that the piano doesn’t necessarily get to. It’s an arranger’s dream, listening to how it comes across, but also studying the score. For a while I was helping out as an assistant music director, so I got more into the nitty gritty of the score. I just loved every single thing that I found. Vocally, the arranging is fantastic. Some of the stuff in there is not easy to sing, but the payoff is so worth it when it comes off. It’s not unusual for people to come back to the show many times, because even though the set is small and the cast is small, there are so many tiny details — in the music, but also in the set, in the tracking, everything about it.

It sounds like an infinitely expressive sound palette — not just the instruments, but the range of expression within each instrument.

They really take every instrument to its fullest capability, and stretch it beyond things that I didn’t think were possible. When I was looking at the score, I was so impressed and amazed by how Brian Drye, the chair on Broadway, gets through it eight times a week. I did not consider it super-possible to do when I first listened to it. The first song is five minutes of nonstop trombone; you don't get a break at all. But the way that they arranged it, obviously they had conversations with the trombone player. ‘Cause I can see that they intentionally gave a few songs off, and then one of the songs has a low note that warms the horn back up and lets you get back to playing. It’s just so brilliantly done. Same thing with the violin: there are a lot of extended techniques, and they take it to the breaking point where that’s almost impossible, but it's possible, with such a good payoff. So it’s really intimately knowing the capabilities of every instrument. I play the entire practical range of the instrument. And it’s economical in a way that’s not sacrificing the music. Also, there are no tracks. There’s nothing that’s not acoustic that you’re not hearing completely from the stage.

I have to ask about the fact that you’re out there so visible as this commentator and virtuoso on your instrument. As you say, Brian Drye originated the part on Broadway, and Jacob writes about stepping in as a sub…


But I want to talk about the difference in expectation and understanding for audiences to see a woman in this part — playing this big, brassy, at times nasty-sounding horn, and owning and inhabiting that. You’re playing to some houses where I’m sure it’s a mind-opening thing.

I’m always amazed at how much of an impact it makes to see someone who’s not a man doing something that you don’t expect. Not that I forgot it, because it was ever-present coming up in the jazz world. But I was raised in a way where your gender, while you can’t escape it, should not be really considered in the way that you play. I have grown past that to the point where it’s something that I can embrace when I’m playing. But it has been such an interesting journey, being the little girl playing on such a big horn with a big sound. To see it on a stage where the trombone player is a central focus of the musical, and also is something that’s cool, has allowed people to see the trombone just in a different light. And, too, there’s a lot of women onstage playing these instruments, and it doesn’t sound any different than what they’re expecting. So the bias that women can’t do the same job is being removed, in a way, because they’re watching us do it onstage. It’s not even like we’re being disguised in a pit. They can see that we’re up there creating that sound.


Lizzie Markson and cast in a scene from the 2023 North American tour of 'Hadestown.'
T. Charles Erikson
Lizzie Markson and cast in a scene from the 2023 North American tour of 'Hadestown.'

The thing that touches me on a regular basis is how many young students and young women have reached out, or their parents have reached out, saying “They saw you do this and now they’re playing trombone.” Every single time. it’s right to my heart. I had a young student cosplay me. They asked what my costume was, and they wanted to dress like me for their birthday.

Oh wow.

They also just started playing trombone this year, too. So it’s not lost on me. I spent a long time fighting the notion that my gender was important at all to the music that I play. Because oftentimes I was the only girl. But now I’ve gotten to the point where I embrace it. And even though the struggles continue, and were brutal at times, it’s such a gift to be able to share my presence playing the instrument with people. That means the world to me. Also, when I was young I only knew of Melba Liston and maybe one other trombone player who was a woman. I didn’t have any of that exposure, and that was 23 years ago now, when I first started. But it wasn’t that long ago, and for it to be so much more visible now, it does mean the world to me. It makes me so proud to see people like Kalia coming up, and absolutely killing it. I’m just really excited for what the future brings.

You are a solo artist in your own right: you’ve got a lot of ideas and ambitions and collaborative history with people. So as you’re traveling the country with this show, how is it feeding your artistic self? What do you think you’ll carry forward?

I, for one, didn’t really have any idea about what the theater community was like. I had never worked in musical theater before, but I see now how much of what I was hoping to get to is actually embodied in the musical theater world. The combining of so many disciplines at such a high level is really inspiring to me, and has definitely shifted my focus a little bit more towards: how can I bring more things like Hadestown to the theater community? Maybe it is because of a little bit of bias, but there isn’t as much collaboration between the jazz communities and the music theater communities as I’d like there to be, in ways that are full of integrity — where it’s coming from a place of truth, a place of being deeply informed and having a great respect for this music. I think the possibilities are endless, and I would really like to start exploring that.


As a musician, it’s gotten me to the point on my horn where I never imagined my chops being this strong. This has been a journey, because it doesn’t get easier over time. In fact, it gets harder, because the body starts to wear down. But it has truly made me a better trombone player. Because of the new capabilities that I have, I’m really excited about playing in ways that I haven’t before, and working with the different people that I’ve had the pleasure of coming in contact with. Traveling in different cities for the past two years has definitely introduced me to people that I’m really excited about working with. But also just bringing what I know about being a performer, through and through, to any type of bandstand that I wind up on. I see the value in it. I now understand that being the aloof, cool jazz musician — I’ve always admired that, but I would love to be enthusiastic about these things so that it communicates to a broader audience without losing its integrity. I’m not so afraid to get on the mic and have a conversation, now that I’ve been in front of thousands of people doing what I do every night. And it’s exciting, because I never really imagined myself being a voice like that.

Hadestown runs at the Academy of Music from April 10 through 14; purchase tickets through Ensemble Arts Philly.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.