I was very excited to have the opportunity to see Hadestown on Tuesday night. It’s this year’s big hit show. I’d heard excellent things about the show, and of course it won the Tony Award for Best Musical this year. In what was perhaps a rash decision, I purchased resale tickets in the back row of the mezzanine at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. It was totally worth it.
Since Hadestown opened in April, I was able to see it with the original cast intact. The more well-known cast members included Andre De Shields (Hermes), Reeve Carney (Orpheus), Amber Gray (Persephone), and Patrick Page (Hades). Eva Noblezada (Eurydice), was out for this performance, so I saw her understudy Khaila Wilcoxson instead. She was fabulous!
The featured ensemble of The Fates were played by Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad. The rest of the ensemble was Afra Hines, Timothy Hughes, John Krause, Kimberly Marable, and Ahmad Simmons. As far as I know, I did not see any other swings or understudies, but I’m also not sure if those are announced the way lead actors are announced.
A few notes about Hadestown first. It tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which I won’t summarize here. (I will provide a link to the Wikipedia article about it though). Filtered through a concept by Anais Mitchell, here it’s told with steampunk and dixieland/folk elements.
The show is overtly theatrical, including direct addressing of the audience and no attempt at realistic locations. It originated as a concept album by Ms. Mitchell in 2006, and was developed through a series of productions (Off-Broadway, then in Calgary and London) along with the director Rachel Chavkin, who became famous for her work on Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 a few years ago.
I listened to the original concept album in 2016 and was kind of unimpressed. The tunes were nice (I especially liked “Way Down Hadestown” for its dixieland jazz feel) but they were individual moments, not parts of a story. It was more album than show.
The show gathered steam recently, so on the drive to Virginia I listened to the Off-Broadway live recording and was much more impressed. In particular, the song “Wait for Me” grabbed my attention. Other standout tracks included “Road to Hell” (the opening number) and “Our Lady of the Underground” which starts Act 2, and in which the character Persephone introduces the members of the orchestra by name. The show was clearly structured now with a through-line I could follow even without the scenes.
After the show won the Tony Award, I wanted to give it a shot live when I went to NYC on this trip. The reviews I read were universally raves and the performers (especially Ms. Gray and Ms. Noblezada) were widely praised. Mr. De Shields won a Tony Awards for his performance, and the cast showcase there was compelling, though I didn’t fall in love with it there.
With all that in mind, when I found out tickets weren’t completely unattainable, I was thrilled to get a chance to see it.
I’m a big fan of shows that begin with a strong statement as the audience enters. Usually this seems to come in the form of having the curtain raised showing the set so the audience can examine it. Hadestown was no exception.
I’d heard some interviews with the ensemble members on the Ensemblist podcast where they had described it like being in a New Orleans bar. I could absolutely see French Quarter vibes in this set. A few tables and chairs were scattered around, and along the walls were several tiers on which instruments (and later the band) sat.
There was a small balcony with stairs leading up to it and underneath the balcony was the “bar” which was blacked out with cloth to hide the drum set. The center of the stage contained three concentric rings which were later revealed to be turntables used extensively as the show went on.
At the start of the show, something truly shocking happened. With broad smiles on their faces, the whole company (cast and orchestra) rushed out onto the stage, waved at the audience, and took their seats. My mind was already blown. I’ve seen shows that begin with the actors taking their places in full light, but never an immediate acknowledgment of the audience.
Mr. De Shields emerged last. He rambled across the stage, shaking a hand here, touching a shoulder there, greeting all the ensemble members seated at the tables. The principals and fates were off to the sides and back. Then he turned to face the audience and just looked, totally at ease. Without a word he had every eye on him.
There was a long pause. Then with a broad grin, he unbuttoned his jacket and revealed a sparkly vest beneath. It broke the tension and the audience applauded.
He gestured to the trombone player and kicked off the first song.
I won’t go into such detail about the rest of the show, but those first moments absolutely captivated me. So many of my favorite theatrical elements drawn together with a total command. This is a show that embraces imagination and requires the audience to believe totally.
The acting itself, for the most part, was realistic. Characters looked at each other when they talked, and moved around naturally. Any time a character was speaking or interacting with another, it was realistic or slightly heightened. The dialogue in the show is often in verse and short phrases.
Much of the show is sung or underscored and occasionally the cast joins in the accompaniment. At one memorable moment, the band dropped out and the only music was one actor stomping a beat and singing. The Fates sometimes played accordion and violin. Orpheus himself, the prototypical musician, played guitar often.
Some other singular moments that I remember:
The fracturing of the barroom set when Orpheus descends into the underworld, revealing an industrial wall covered with blinding lights.
The unexpected trombone solo, in which the player actually stood out of his seat and walked downstage to stand by Hermes; he played a jazz solo directly to the audience
Most of Persephone’s solo moments, were riveting.
The famous “swinging lanterns” during “Wait for Me” which were striking, but not as astonishing as I’d imagined them to be.
That last point brings me to some of my specific dislikes about the show.
I should point out now that these are incredibly personal, and do not take away from the achievement of this work. Also, they are likely colored by the fact that I heard so much about the show before seeing it, and imagination has better special effects than life.
As I said, some moments didn’t quite rise to the level I’d imagined of them. When you’re in a proscenium theatre, there is a distinct divide between actors and audience, whatever you do. Even in this show, the fourth wall wasn’t completely disintegrated. I wanted to feel like dancing in the opening number, and instead I just wanted to watch them dance.
Orpheus is an enigma of a character, more device than person. In this story, he’s described as kinda dumb but incredibly gifted as an artist. I wonder if the story would be strengthened by making him simply dreamy, not unintelligent. Then his determination to rescue Eurydice would be more admirable and deeper. It would result from courage, instead of from youthful unthinking.
A quick note that I disagree with the statement that Orpheus/Eurydice are underwritten compared to Hades/Persephone. Some people feel that the latter relationship is given more nuance. I think it’s just a more complicated relationship. Orpheus and Eurydice are clear and simple.
Reeve Carney has a nice voice and it was well suited to the character of Orpheus as singer/songwriter. He moved stiffly sometimes, especially at the beginning. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional. He also had a habit of squeezing his eyes shut and grimacing slightly when he went into falsetto, which he does a lot. It sounded good but looked like he was working really hard.
This last one is a spoiler, so skip to the dividing line if you want to miss it.
Finally, I was really looking forward to the climactic moment of the show when Orpheus breaks and looks back to see Eurydice. The stage picture was incredible. I think it would have been heightened even more to have been in complete silence. At first I thought it was silent but after a moment I realized the violin was playing high, shifting harmonics in the background. It was eerie, but having a sharp contrast to the musical build could be devastating.
So here’s the short version of my thoughts: Incredible show.
fThe complaints I just aired are really footnotes to what is an extremely compelling night at the theatre and a highly original vision of what musicals can do and be. My complaints are really the definition of creative differences.
I hope to one day work on this show, and I’d love to get to talk to anyone involved in creating it or putting it together. Everyone has made a massive creative investment, whether onstage or off. This is truly a vision of what theatre can be.