Yesterday, Clara and I saw the Broadway production of Hadestown for her birthday. It was the best thing I have ever seen on stage.
Hadestown is written, words and music, by Anaïs Mitchell, who originally made a musical, then recorded it as a concept album with Ani DeFranco, then re-worked it as a new musical that premiered in 2012. If you still think of Mitchell as a somewhat pretentious, precious, indie folk cutie, you need to get caught up! This is a mature and stunning work that’s hard to classify. WordPress is having fits over me trying to insert audio right now, but you can hear the Broadway cast recording here.
It’s based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hades and Persephone, and it’s set in a Depression-like era perhaps near the end of the world, complete with squalid barroom and post-apocalyptic New Orleans folk jazz, I guess? Normally I could do without old stories cleverly transposed into unconventional settings — this Onion article springs to mind — but that’s not really what Hadestown is. Part of the conceit is that we’re all always telling these same stories over and over again, and that we must. And in spirit, it’s truer to to Greek tragedy than any Greek tragedy I’ve seen performed straight, complete with an omniscient narrator in the person of a dazzling urbanite Hermes (André De Shields):
Image from this Theater Mania video
a chorus of the three pitiless, inexorable fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad), who are on no one’s side;
screen shot from this Theater Mania clip
and so much catharsis, the ushers had to go around with a spatula, scraping the melted puddles of the audience out of their seats after the final curtain.
I’ll do a more thorough review at some point, but in the meantime you can read Leah Libresco Sargent’s take here.
The lyrics are real poetry, but also clear and clever, studded with allusions you can take or leave. Each song, lyrically and musically, was worthwhile in itself, and didn’t exist merely to move the plot along or to give equal time to every performer. Clara and I agreed that Orpheus’ song — the one that has so much power in the story– really did have that much power. You didn’t have to tell yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure this feels very magical if you’re part of that word.” The hairs standing up on your arm spoke for themselves.
The stage set was so well-conceived, they could build worlds with lighting and shadows and the three concentric circles of the stage floor, which rotated independently and could be raised or lowered. Without complicated special effects, they placed us indoors and outdoors, in Hell, and in uncanny in-between places.
(These photos are before the show began, obviously.)
All the musicians were part of the action or otherwise integrated into the set, and many of the actors played instruments as well. It was mind-boggling how much talent was on display.
Orpheus (Reeve Carney)’s voice was powerful and disturbing and he sometimes lost control of his falsetto, which was affecting, rather than otherwise.
He had the air of a floppy theater kid ingénue.
Image from Theater Mania videoo
At first I thought his acting skill wasn’t quite on par with the rest of the cast, but I believe this radical immaturity was part of his tragic flaw. Hermes introduces him this way:
Now Orpheus was the son of a Muse
And you know how those Muses are
Sometimes they abandon you
And this poor boy, he wore his heart out on his sleeve
You might say he was naïve to the ways of the world
But he had a way with words
And the rhythm and the rhyme
And he sang just like a bird up on a line
And it ain’t because I’m kind
But his Mama was a friend of mine
And I liked to hear him sing
And his way of seeing things
So I took him underneath my wing
And that is where he stayed
Until one day…
Well, one day the gods get involved. Toward the end of the show, Persephone takes up the bird theme again, singing:
Hades, my husband, Hades, my light
Hades, my darkness
If you had heard how he sang tonight
You’d pity poor Orpheus!
All of his sorrow won’t fit in his chest
It just burns like a fire in the pit of his chest
And his heart is a bird on a spit in his chest
How long, how long, how long?
Hades (Patrick Page), from his gleaming hair to his gilded shoes, was downright terrifying, in voice and presence. You felt that presence every second he was on stage.
I thought at first his basso profundo was something of a party trick, but he knew how to deploy it, and he seemed more than a man. Which made it all the more gripping when, as a god, he is faced with a terrible choice of his own.
Persephone (Amber Gray) in this work is not an abducted maiden in mourning, but an aged and aggrieved queen and wife who’s prowled back and forth between summer and the underworld countless times, and who knows full well that “a lot can happen behind closed doors.” She’s developed some coping strategies, and they are not ideal. With her gravelly powerhouse voice and desperate green velvet and shimmies, she is alarming, pathetic, malevolent, and ultimately completely winning, as well as miraculously light-footed in her spike-heeled boots.
Image from Theater Mania video
The only quibble I had was the casting of Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). She did a good job, but I didn’t lose my heart to her, as I did to every other character. It wasn’t a stumbling block, though; and at one point, Hermes directly chides the audience for holding Eurydice to too high a standard. I was content to award the real heart of the story to Persephone and Hades. Eurydice and Orpheus are, after all, still very young in this iteration. It did hurt to see how she held him at arm’s length even as she was falling in love.
While Hadestown is raucous, funny, stylish, and vastly entertaining, it is also profoundly in earnest, and doesn’t try to dazzle or deceive the audience about what’s the show really means. It has elements of politics, of social commentary, of lessons about the environment and worker’s rights and industrialization; but what it’s really about is . . . well, art, love, and death.
In elementary school, some student would always complain, “Why do we have to read Greek myths?” The anemic answer came: “They teach us about our own lives.” This makes no sense when you’re fourteen years old and reading a fleshless synopsis of a tale about people in togas making inexplicable choices and being randomly smitten by the gods. But in Hadestown, which keeps most of the myth’s major plot points intact, the very overt point is: What you’re seeing right now will happen to you. Rather than asking you to suspend your disbelief for the show, they insist you resist forgetting, and that you acknowledge how personal it is. As Hermes tells Orpheus: “It’s not a trick. It’s a test.”
As the action moved inexorably toward the final shattering blow, I was in agony, not only suffering with the characters, but wondering whether the show would have the guts to end with naked tragedy.
And they did. They did not flinch, but let the terrible thing happen. But the way it was framed, what they showed us was tragedy, not nihilism. Real tragedy, which tells you something true about life. Real tragedy which gives you something, rather than taking everything away.
What a contrast there is between the circular reasoning in “Why We Build the Wall” and mystical cycle of hope that Hermes reveals at the end. The whole show is marked by a pattern of openly asking and answering questions, and leaving it up to the audience to decide whether the answers satisfy or not. My friends, I was satisfied.
Clara drew a picture of the show the night before, and several of the cast members signed it.
One more note: The Walter Kerr Theater was wonderful. It’s a small theater, and although our balcony seats were unexpectedly high up, they were still good seats. The sound was great, the theater is gorgeous, and the courteous, placid staff managed the tight crowd exceedingly well, directing streams of antsy New Yorkers in a serpentine line for lady’s room with aplomb. Overall a near-flawless experience. If there’s any way at all you can get to see this show, I beg you to try!
The show says it’s recommended for people age 12 and up. That seems about right to me. There isn’t any sex or violence or cussing that I can recall, but it sure is sad.