It’s an old song.
It’s an old tale from way back when.
It’s an old song.
And we’re gonna sing it again and again.
We're gonna sing it again.
- Hermes, Hadestown
I saw Hadestown nearly a month ago, the night before its official Broadway opening. I was pretty familiar with the music (and story) going in. In fact, the show's transfer to the Great White Way is one of the primary reasons my theatre-nerd friends and I decided April would be the perfect time to visit New York. We bought our tickets to the show months in advance, even before we had our lodging secured.
I didn't know what to expect when I took my seat at the Walter Kerr Theater, but I knew it was very unlikely I would be disappointed by what I saw. After all, I already knew I loved Anais Mitchell's score. I knew I would be a fan of Amber Gray and Patrick Page (if their performances on the original cast album were any indication). I also came in immeasurably excited to be seeing a piece developed and directed by goddess-on-earth and personal #careergoals embodiment, Rachel Chavkin. Once I saw the set, even before the house lights dimmed, I knew I would likely be a fan of the technical elements of the show, too.
What I didn't expect was to be so impressed and inspired by the material that it would continue to consume my thoughts even weeks later. The evening I was attendance at Hadestown, I was entranced for most of the first act simply because of the energy radiating off the performers and musicians on stage (in a lovely homage to Mitchell's singer-songwriter roots, the musicians are as much a focal point of the show as the characters are. They are placed prominently on stage throughout the play's entirety and even given individual shout-outs by Persephone in an entr'acte after intermission). David Neumann's choreography is incredibly layered and specific. Bradley King's lighting, particularly when the entire stage transforms from 'Up on Top" to the depths of Hades, reaches levels of outright magnificence, as does Rachel Hauck's set design, which is so integral to the production it almost becomes a character itself. Every moment of Act I was perfect, precise, and bursting with a sort of indescribable joy that kept my attention fully rapt from start to finish. (Anyone who knows me well knows I can find about 200 things "wrong" with any given show, even one I enjoy, by intermission. With this production, I had zero complaints.)
Act II was even better. Having a visual association with the lyrics somehow made them feel all the more pertinent in relationship to our current political climate (Going in, I thought you couldn't get more eerily relevant than "Why We Build the Wall" but turns out seeing Orpheus plead with the dead workers to band together and stand up for themselves was the thing that hit hardest for me on a socio-political level.) As the story came to a close and the ending played out the way it's played out for centuries, I found myself knocked out of breath. It was an ending I knew was coming but it still managed to catch me off guard because Orpheus' character is written (and played) with such earnest hope that I fooled myself into believing the cast had somehow planned out an alternate ending for our evening's audience. But, no. Hermes and the ensemble even warned us outright in the opening number: "It's a sad song...It's a tragedy". As they repeated that phrase again in the final song, a touch slower and far more somber than the first time around, I felt my body rejecting the ending they were showing me, even as they continued to sing about Orpheus and his ability to, "make you see how the world could be, in spite of the way that it is." In other words, I found myself desperately trying to see the love story play out the way it could be, in spite of the way it was going down right before my very eyes.
I had tears streaming down my face well before Gray began singing the curtain call number, "I Raise My Cup". It's a a simple, quiet song that toasts to Orpheus, "wherever he is wandering, alone on the earth", Persephone urges the audience to let the music "follow him and bring him comfort". The song, for me, harkens back to a speech I love in Terrance McNally's Master Class, which is a fictional account of a workshop led by real-life renowned opera singer, Maria Callas. In the show, McNally has Callas talk about playing the character of Medea, how one night on stage in the role, she experiences a moment where she feels connected to every actress who has ever played the part before her, back on through to ancient Greece, back on through to whoever the inspiration for the real Medea was. It is a love letter to theatre, acting, actors, and storytelling, all at once.
I felt the same way about this callback to Orpheus- one of the first characters in one of the first recorded stories to fail in such an undeniably human way. On the night I'm in attendance at Hadestown, Gray sings the last words ("To Orpheus and all of us, goodnight, brothers, goodnight") and the crowd leaps to a well-deserved standing ovation. I jump up, too (again, out of character), flooded with an overwhelming wash of love, respect, and outright awe for theatrical artists- modern and ancient, professional and amateur, American and foreign. I am simultaneously overcome with feelings of empathy and pain for every idiot human who has ever felt the need to metaphorically turn over their shoulder and make sure their loved one was behind them, thereby losing them in the process. Right before the lights in the theatre come up, I feel myself transition from a few sympathetic tears to full-on, chest-heaving sobs. I have to force myself to stop thinking about the show in order to collect myself enough to not look like an insane person in front of my friends and the other patrons in the audience.
I try to vocalize how I feel after the show and I am not able to do an adequate job.
That was April 16th. And here I am on May 12th still thinking about it, still trying to verbalize why the show had such a profound effect on me.
It occurred to me only a couple days ago why Orpheus' story– a narrative about "someone who tries" and fails– has effected me so powerfully at this particular moment in time. In a world where it seems like art and arts funding is constantly being stripped away, in a world where leaders don't listen to the cries of our earth or any marginalized or suffering group, in a world where people, like the dead workers in Hades, rather disengage and 'keep their heads low' than fight against tyranny and abuse, the artists out there don't give up. They continue to try, over and over again. They continue to have love and hope for a world that offers scarce return in the way of both. On some level, when the cast sings, "It's a love song about someone who tries," they are singing about themselves. They are singing about the other companies and crews on Broadway, past and present. They are singing of visual artists and photographers and dancers and musicians and writers. They are singing about all of us who continue to work toward making "the world we dream about the one we live in now." When Orpheus sings, "Give me a lyre and a campfire and an open field at night. Give me sky that you can't buy or sell at any price. And I'll give you a song for free, 'cause that's how life oughta be," he is representative of all the rest of us who would take peace over power and beauty over billions, every single time.
In effect, I had thought Hadestown contained a love letter to artists within the play and I was moved to tears by that alone, but I now see the entire piece is one giant, beautiful, powerful love letter to art and storytelling, artists and storytellers, alike.
No wonder I can't get it out of my head.