Hadestown is the best Broadway musical in recent memory
If I have one complaint about the state of Broadway in 2019, it's the monotony of the shows. No matter how enthusiastic reviews might be, I still find it hard to work up excitement over the umpteenth revival of Oklahoma!, and it will probably be about a gazillion more years before Chicago decamps from the Ambassador Theatre. That's why, when I heard about Hadestown, an Orpheus and Eurydice retelling that arrived on Broadway this spring, I remained a bit skeptical. It might be an original musical, but I still know how that story ends.
It's true: Orpheus, as he has since time immemorial, looks back in Hadestown, damning his fiancée Eurydice to remain in the underworld. But what I hadn't realized — and what I hope Tony Awards voters will realize on Sunday, with the show up for 14 nominations — is that way down in Hadestown you'll encounter the best musical on Broadway in recent memory. Yes, even counting that other wildly popular Tony hit.
Hadestown had an odyssey getting to Broadway, though. Originally developed as a touring song-cycle by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown was released as a concept album in 2010, then an off-Broadway show in 2016. With some tinkering and rejiggering in Edmonton and London, the show at last reached what is widely agreed to be its best iteration yet, performed on Broadway's Walter Kerr stage this year. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, who was also behind the beloved War and Peace musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Hadestown reunites some of her former collaborators, including the lighting designer Bradley King, whose work with handheld light sources and industrial-sized bulbs breathes a steampunk character into his projects, and the actress Amber Gray, whose raunchy Persephone is the captivating soul of the show.
Although it takes some liberties with the original myths, Hadestown primarily centers on the young lovers Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). Only in Mitchell's version of the story, Eurydice is no poor maiden killed by a snake on her wedding day. Instead, she voluntarily strikes a bargain with Hades (Patrick Page) to be saved from her gnawing hunger in a moment of Depression-era desperation: "You can have your principles/when you've got a belly-full," the Fates chide anyone in the audience who questions her infidelity. Meanwhile, Persephone and Hades feel their love guttering while André De Shields brings some New Orleans soul to his portrayal of the winged messenger (and show's narrator) Hermes. There is also a multipurpose Greek chorus, on-stage musicians, and a trio of Fates who do what Fates do best: drive, mock, and tinker with everyone's plans.
Hadestown's brilliance is in large part owed to Mitchell's songwriting, which flirts with folk storytelling traditions, big-band jazz, and even gets a little honky-tonk at times. If Hamilton revolutionized the Broadway stage with its rapping Founding Father, then Hadestown similarly shreds the musical theater songbook in favor of something a little darker and messier. Patrick Page's Hades, who acts as a kind of underworld factory foreman, sings in an imposing Tom Waits-esque growl, frequently complemented by his wife Persephone's heavy-drinking gravelly purr. By contrast, Carney's Orpheus has a pure, belting crystalline refrain that is rumored to be powerful enough to bring back spring, and that an audience might half believe is magic themselves.
Still, how many times can such a familiar story be told before it becomes wearying? Even during Hadestown's intermission, giddy with excitement about the quality of the music and performances, I was nagged by the question of how such a show could possibly end satisfactorily. Despite transporting the classic myth to a unique place and time, the characters still functioned largely as the same moral archetypes that exist in the Greek original, a decision that provoked some critics to call the writing flat. I was less bothered by the choice — clearly Hadestown leans intentionally into its moral-tale roots, guided by the omniscient narration of Hermes — but it did seem a decision doomed to exacerbate the fact that the story is, for lack of a better phrase, the same old song.
Hadestown never falls into such a trap, though, due to the script's intense interest in its own process of retelling. While other shows might blandly riff on their source material, swapping gender and race, or changing the setting or decade, Hadestown is a meta-commentary on the fact that we're electing to watch an Orpheus and Eurydice story at all. "To know how it ends and still begin to sing it again," one lyric wistfully goes, "as if it might turn out this time." I was startled to recognize myself in that line; I'd been so swept up by Carney and Noblezada's chemistry that I'd found myself wondering if, somehow, in this version, the lovers would make it out of Hadestown alive.
Of course, that would've defeated the whole purpose of the musical. By necessity, Hadestown has to be exactly the tragedy we expect, even if, on so many technical and performance levels, it still surprised and thrilled me. Just as a song turns back on itself with a refrain, or the revolving floor of a stage physically doubles characters back on themselves, so too are stories meant to end and then start over again. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice might be just another old song, but there is magic in singing it again and again.