Hadestown: An Old Song Made Brand New
By Jude Joseph Lovell
The singer-songwriter turned composer Anaïs Mitchell has not been satisfied with a conventional singer’s career path. Since the early 2000’s she has been toiling on a “folk opera” called Hadestown, based on the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone. First appearing as a concept album in 2010, it has been re-imagined and transformed into a full Broadway musical, now running at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City. I had the good fortune to take my fifteen-year-old daughter to see a preview in New York before the show opened its official run on April 17.
One of the defining marks of a literary classic, of course, is the way it can be uprooted from its own age, replanted in another, and still have unequivocal relevance. In this updated version, Orpheus is a poor, timid young man who has a singular talent for writing and performing music. He falls desperately in love with a nymph named Eurydice and quickly asks her to marry him, believing he can provide for them both with his talent. Eurydice longs for a stable existence, however, having spent most of her life in poverty, but eventually she relents to his persuasion.
Meanwhile, a train from the underworld, ruled by Hades, has brought his jaded wife, Persephone, back to the surface with a suitcase full of summer. Persephone, as per the myth, is the bringer of seasons, but by prior arrangement with the gods, she returns to Hadestown, Hades’ underground factory, to spend every fall and winter. Orpheus and Persephone meet, and he expresses to her his hopes for a future with Eurydice. While Persephone sees Orpheus’s youthful naiveté, she recognizes in his fervor something she once had with Hades and feels sympathetic toward him.
Bored with her role as “Our Lady of the Underground,” Persephone has become little more than a wisecracking drunk, and Hades, exasperated by what he perceives as a lack of gratitude on her part for all he has accomplished for them, goes to the surface in search of someone who might appreciate him better. He becomes enamored with Eurydice, and lures her into his underworld only to imprison her as a factory worker. Orpheus, discovering his loss, sets off for the underworld to attempt to bring her back.
By weaving the tales of the young lovers (played by Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada) and the world-weary older couple together, Hadestown examines love in its various seasons. It does this with moments of humor and tenderness, as well sometimes shocking instances of betrayal. As Persephone, Amber Gray’s half-drunk rants offer bright comic touches and threaten to steal the show. Hades’ wily seductiveness, delivered in Patrick Page’s striking basso profundo, commands the stage.
The four other characters in Hadestown’s limited cast have been pulled from the ranks of Greek tragedy. Hermes, the messenger god, narrates the show and is portrayed by André De Shields, a fifty-year stage veteran. Outfitted in an impeccably tailored silver suit with embroidered wings hanging from its cuffs, De Shields mesmerizes from the first lines of “The Road to Hell”: “It’s a sad song, it’s a tragedy . . . but we sing it anyway.”
He also introduces three women “dressed the same” who are “always singin’ in the back of your mind.” These are the Fates, played by a stunning trinity of actors (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad). Their well-timed commentary at certain moments in the show contributes to its profundity—particularly in the song “When The Chips are Down,” as Eurydice weighs her growing love for Orpheus against her poverty and hunger.
The music is performed by a seven-piece ensemble—piano, guitar, double bass, drums, cello, violin, and trombone—arranged in a semi-circle in the jazz-club-like round stage that represents the world “on top,” as one lively number puts it. The music itself is a fusion of the haunting folk-rock that marked Anaïs Mitchell’s original album and New Orleans-style jazz.
While Hadestown focuses on two contrasting love stories, the show has more to say about the power of love in general. Orpheus believes that his music can transform the world, but if he loses Eurydice, what does he have left? Hades has spent decades building his underground empire, but if he has neglected Persephone, is he really rich or is he poor?
This is the sort of show that seems to amount to much more than the sum of its parts. In this haggard era of walls and wars, Hadestown’s remarkably alive and emotionally charged production vividly dramatizes, in Mitchell’s lovely closing words, “How the world could be/In spite of the way that it is.”