Things are bad. Especially if you look at, say, America’s border crisis or climate change, and maybe they’re even worse if you are in some kind of situation somewhere not being reported on at all. What’s more, things are looking like they will likely continue to be bad, even if we manage to fix a few things, to make a few repairs, or find some new ways out of the very deep hole that we have not only dug for ourselves but have done such a good job digging. And yet, a great feature of the world is that no matter how bad things get, parts of it manage to stay incredible—beautiful, even. How, given all this, will we live? This is the question that Hadestown, the Broadway musical written by Ana?s Mitchell that opened this week, gets at and, despite some complications, gets at beautifully.
Hadestown is set in a barroom at the end of the world that’s got a dance floor and a stage and two VIP seats. In this case, the end of the world feels like the edge of a Louisiana swamp or someplace in a past that keeps reinventing itself as a future where things are going but not well, which, again, sounds familiar. There’s little in the way of provisions for anybody looking to eat. The only work is mostly bad, and the weather isn’t what it used to be, spring and summer unpredictable. As Eurydice says, in this retelling of the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, “It’s either blazing hot or freezing cold.”
If you’ve forgotten your Edith Hamilton, a quick review: Apollo teaches Orpheus to play the lyre, and Orpheus sings so sweetly that even Apollo is amazed. Orpheus falls in love with Eurydice, a seriously beautiful woman whose beauty, by the way, has to do with her sense of justice. They are married for a short, happy time, until Eurydice dies (long story) and lands in Hades. Orpheus visits her in the underworld and, with his music, melts the heart of even Hades, who allows him to leave with Eurydice on one condition. They must walk out in single file; Orpheus cannot look back. “It’s an old song,” Hermes sings near the opening of Hadestown. “And we’re gonna sing it again . . . Maybe it will turn out this time.”
Hadestown began as a series of songs presented in a community center in Vermont by Mitchell in 2006. In 2010, it was a concept album; then, in 2016, it was presented at the New York Theatre Workshop, to rave reviews; then it went to Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre in 2017 and to London’s National Theatre in 2018. If it was a small immersive theater piece back in 2006, it is a bona fide Broadway production now, reminiscent of Once, and opens with a song sung by André De Shields, as Hermes the messenger god. De Shields is, as usual, unlike anyone else onstage, this time in a sharkskin suit. His career, starting in the 1970s at places like the La MaMa theater, is in itself emblematic of what Hadestown is trying to do as a production: bring some downtown to Broadway, experientially speaking.
Hermes introduces us to the lovers—Orpheus, played by Reeve Carney, the singer-songwriter who starred in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark; and Eurydice, played by Eva Noblezada (Les Misérables, Miss Saigon)—and they are married straightaway, their vows sung as “The Wedding Song,” a number that was in 2010 and remains, even with the weight of Broadway, a lovely eclogue: “Lover, when I sing my song, all the rivers’ll sing along, and they’re going to break their banks for us. . . . The river’s gonna give us the wedding bands.” Cracks show immediately in the relationship when Eurydice, starving, strives to trust in love, or as she puts it, “trying to trust that the song he’s working on is going to shelter us from the wind, the wind, the wind.”
Persephone and Hades are the jaded VIPs, played by Amber Gray and Patrick Page, who at the outset are apart, with Persephone on earth momentarily bringing spring and hope. Having played these parts since 2006, both Gray and Page are a joy to watch, steady in their spaces, their relationship X-rayed with the arrival of Orpheus. Hades sounds more desperate, Persephone more wise. “We take what we can get, and we make the most of it,” Persephone sings, supported by the brilliant musical ensemble conducted onstage by the piano- and accordion-playing Liam Robinson.
But Persephone soon descends into an underworld that is emblematic of what’s new in the Broadway production. It’s the underworld as machine shop, as Depression-era factory via the photography of muscle and metal by Margaret Bourke-White: women and men working like mules, in an atmosphere of steam and sweat. The place itself is Hades’s grand and opulent acquisition, acquired to win and to impress the wife he loves but has lost, to divide and continue to conquer. It’s all explained in the song from Hadestown that has already moved into the culture at large. “Why do we build the wall?,” Hades sings, each chorus more ominous with each passing news cycle. “We build the wall to keep us free.” The world is out of tune, spirits broken, and the staging by director Rachel Chavkin, Mitchell’s collaborator since 2013, trades song and dance for singing bodies straining in muscular rhythm.
The songs are still searingly beautiful, and if the staging might overwhelm those who saw the New York Theatre Workshop version, that’s because the new Hadestown is all-or-nothing Broadway, with a workers chorus that takes the place of a chorus line, with moving bodies striving to move the viewer. There are hypnotic mine lamps, the clank of dead souls, the rut of work that doesn’t pay. If I were choosy, I might have liked to see how Nabiyah Be, who played Eurydice at the New York Theatre Workshop, would have translated her to the Walter Kerr Theatre, but Carney, who is new to the show since Canada, can hit high notes that are like something you sing with a lyre. Gray still owns the part of Persephone, this time in a gaudy green dress that, as reported, is meant to conjure up Texas oil wealth. Page, as Hades, hits notes that are as low as you can go, and yet even he is changed by song, reunited with Persephone for just a moment, enough to give love one more chance, a glimpse of a way out of life-as-hell.
When I saw Mitchell on the Friday morning before the show officially opened, she was just recovering from a few nights’ worth of anxiety dreams. That Tuesday, the show had been locked, all changes final, no more rewrites allowed for Mitchell, the songwriter who, yes, has been rewriting since 2006 this musical about a songwriter who can’t finish his song. She had just tweeted out some advice she’d gotten from Taylor Mac, who played Hermes somewhere around 2014: “Perfection is for assholes,” Mac told her. She was at her apartment in Brooklyn, where some magnetic alphabet letters had recently been rearranged on the fridge by her 5-year-old daughter, and she and her husband, Noah Hahn, had just wrapped up a morning run. “You know,” Mitchell said as we walked to the subway, “I’ve been working on this show off and on for a third of my life, and there’ll be another deadline, or, who knows, maybe there’ll be a movie or whatever else, but this has been so much to think about the show finally locking. But what’s amazing is that the story itself still feels as magical as when I started.”
We got on the R train, the long, slow way to Broadway, and she talked for the millionth time about how Hadestown came about. Her parents were back-to-the-landers in Vermont, who bought a farm when her dad’s novel was made into a movie, Thumb Tripping, starring Bruce Dern. Her dad talked about myths and played Santana’s “Europa.” Her mom, deputy secretary of the Agency of Human Services under Vermont governor Howard Dean, took her to see Les Misérables on Broadway when she was a kid. “I was so moved and still am,” Mitchell says. After a while singing in folk clubs in Massachusetts, Michell went to Middlebury College, majoring in political science, where she realized that politics, aside from being mesmerizingly complicated and worrisome and terrifying as the ruthless negotiation of raw power, is romantic—a reason why Hadestown is not a protest. “It’s a love story, but politics really is romantic,” she says, adding, “I know how cheesy that sounds, but it’s true.” A few hours later she texts me a line from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”
When we got to the theater, she looked around the nearly empty hall, recalling that when her name hit the marquis she and her husband and daughter danced to Sinatra’s “New York, New York” back in their railroad apartment. With Hadestown, Mitchell is the first woman in a decade (and only the fourth woman in Broadway history) to be the solo author of a new musical, putting her name on a list that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meredith Willson, George Cohan, and No?l Coward. (Of the 36 shows on Broadway at the moment, only three musicals are directed by women: Diane Paulus’s Waitress, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, and Julie Taymor’s The Lion King.) The songs are the thing in Hadestown, and if George M. Cohan’s were written only 45 minutes from Broadway, these feel as if they come from a not-so-Broadway place, which makes transplanting them to Times Square all the more remarkable. The audience I saw it with wasn’t treating it like your average night at a Broadway show, and the crowd in the street afterward was about something more than just typical theater.
She had to get going on the day’s details, starting with coffee, and she already seemed a little more relaxed. “I think what I am trying to lean into, especially because that power to change things has been taken at this point, is that the thing is just so much bigger than me,” she said. She was thinking about a red flower that just appeared in front of her apartment a few days before and remembering that the red flower’s appearance in the musical—in the play and in all the imaging—wasn’t hers. “It was a collective unconscious creation,” she says. “And with the musical, I can’t deny I put so much work in for over so many years. And there were times when I was saying, ‘This is crazy. I can’t live like this. I need to move on.’ But at the same time, there is an effortless quality—and it feels like the thing just came out of the ground, that you are chipping away at a sculpture that is in the stone already. And maybe we got all the way there on that left ear, but we didn’t quite get there on the ring finger . . .”
At the end of Hadestown, you realize that what’s beautiful about the play (and this is not a spoiler, or really shouldn’t be) has nothing to do with whether Orpheus wins or loses in the end but just that he tries and keeps trying—trying to open up some space in a world lined off and wholly owned. He’s a hero for trying, especially since for just a moment, with a song so beautiful, the world is back in tune.