(This article contains spoilers for the Broadway musical Hadestown, the review is based off the London showings of the show and promotional videos released online for the Broadway show).
Hadestown is an eight time Tony Award-winning musical written by musician and singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell that debuted Off-Broadway in 2016, transferred to London and Edmonton in 2017 and came to Broadway in March of this year. The show depicts the themes of poverty, capitalism, destroying the earth and giving hope to others through the use of artistry, more specifically music. The tragic story explores love and loss and learning to keep living your life hopefully, despite what has happened in the past, utilising the sentiment of remembering ‘the world we dream of, and the one we live in now.’ The need to change the world and for the world to have a change of heart is rife at the moment, and this show inspires its audience to not only believe in change, but to pursue it in one of the most enthralling shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Everything from the cast, vocals, choreography, staging and even lighting is beautiful, telling an incredible story through Mitchell’s stunning writing and Rachel Chavkin’s innovative directing.
The Tony-Award winning musical is a touching retelling of the Greek myth about Eurydice, who marries the best poet and musician of the time; Orpheus. After Eurydice dies on their wedding day, Orpheus is overcome with grief and attempts to bring her back from the underworld using his enchanting music. He manages to bend the will of Hades, God of the underworld, who tells Orpheus she will only return from the underworld if they walk back, single file, without communicating or checking to see if she is following him.
It is said that one of the main themes of the story is that the power of love is stronger than anything, including death. As Orpheus’ actor Reeve Carney said ‘the earth functions through love’. However, in the myth, Orpheus turns around as they are about to leave the underworld. Some people say that he does this on purpose, as he realises that she may never be the same after death. Others say that it is a comment on the human condition and how you can do anything if you believe you can (like changing the mind of a God using a song). The second doubt sets in, your own fears and paranoia can become your downfall. Orpheus doubting his relationship ended up being his downfall; not trusting that Eurydice had followed him ultimately ensured that she would be lost to the underworld forever. After his loss, Orpheus creates songs about the Gods and their loves with a new understanding of love and pain that moves everyone who hears, including nature itself.
The musical takes this myth and recreates it in a modern-era, post-apocalyptic world where winter is the longest season, meaning that humans must survive in extreme weather conditions and poverty. The idea of spring represents the world being joyful and alive, and the dark winter represents poverty and destruction. Hermes (messenger to the Gods), introduces us to a young woman called Eurydice who has lived most of her life fending for herself in the extreme weather and a young man called Orpheus who believes that he can bring spring back by singing a song he’s been writing. The two fall in love and Orpheus promises Eurydice that they will get married once he brings spring back. Persephone, the goddess who brings spring and summer to the world, has made an agreement with her husband Hades, god of the underworld, that she should stay in Hadestown (his industrial underground city) with him during the colder seasons. Becoming lonely in her absence, he makes her stay in Hadestown longer, causing the seasons to cease existing. Persephone resents Hades for keeping her from what she loves, forcing her underground for months while he commands the poor to build his industrial kingdom
Orpheus continues to write his song, eventually realising that the turbulent climate is a result of the Gods’ turbulent relationship due to their extreme differences and growing resentment for each other. Meanwhile, Eurydice is left to fend for herself again, and ends up getting lured down to Hadestown with the promise of work and safety. Once Orpheus has realised what is happening below, he sets out to play his song for the gods’ in order to save his lover.
The themes of changing the world through art and creativity are clearly explored through the character Orpheus, a musician who can bend the will of gods and change seasons with his song. Though it isn’t the act of writing the song alone that allows him to impact the world, it is the understanding of and empathy for others that he gains from creating his art that allows him to make a difference. Using art to learn about other people and interpret their feelings through music allows us to connect with other people we may have never thought we could (though probably not Greek gods).
Eurydice represents those struck by poverty in the world, struggling to survive and eventually signing her life away to slave labour for a wealthy and power-hungry boss in order to survive, though ultimately not actually ending up any better off. Hades himself is a depiction of capitalism destroying the world and killing the poorer classes through hard work and not enough pay to sustain themselves. The song ‘Why We Built The Wall’ very clearly references the idea of ‘trying to keep out poverty’ whilst brainwashing those who work in Hadestown to believe that they are better off working in such harsh environments for little pay than being left to fend for themselves in the world. Persephone represents nature, or possibly even the planet itself, suffering due to capitalism and industrialisation and becoming a shell of what she once was.
The show is very well known for its stunning writing, using industrial sounds for those in Hadestown and softer instruments like the piano and string instruments for songs sung by Orpheus and Eurydice, symbolising the naive nature of their relationship (as they believe that they can change the world with just a song). Hadestown uses predominantly folk music, with an in-house band that sits on the stage behind the characters, adding to the very grounding and down-to-earth vibes of the show and reinforcing the idea of the characters themselves retelling the story. This is also hinted at when Orpheus and Eurydice talk about knowing each other before they even met, and Orpheus sings ‘Epic’ (the story of Persephone and Hades) before he even knew the story. The final song itself even acknowledges that the story is an old song that will be sung retold many more times, despite a lot of people knowing the ending, possibly even hoping for something to change, just like Orpheus does.
Verses of songs are often repeated throughout the show in order to foreshadow events and mirror relationship between characters; Hermes telling Orpheus to not look back during ‘Wait For Me’ and then again during the reprise of the song, with the meaning becoming a lot heavier the second time the song is heard. The Fates ask Orpheus ‘who are you to walk a road that no one’s ever walked before?’ and ‘who are you to lead them?’ as he starts to question his own worth and inner strength, just as he questions ‘who am I that I should get to hold you (Eurydice) ?’ when they start to fall in love, foreshadowing his self-doubt. This doubt later becomes a much more serious problem when he is trusted to lead the workers out from Hadestown, and ultimately fails.
The stage direction is innovative and creative whilst using a very simplistic approach; less is definitely more in this case. The lighting plays a huge part in the show’s design, as the only actual backdrop used in the show is a balcony and staircase, and occasionally some tables and chairs. The lighting is not only used to differentiate between settings and characters, but also as an artistic addition, for example during the performance of ‘Wait For Me’. In one of the most iconic moments of the show, industrial lights swing from the ceiling as Carney sings, smoke pouring over the stage whilst the cast all stand around Orpheus and point the spotlights on him as the song reaches its climax.
Reds and orange lighting is used predominantly in Hadestown; warm colours in general are used whenever Hades himself is present. The warm tones are clearly meant to imitate the heat and fires used underground from the construction work, as well as to aid the narrative in its comparison of Hadestown to Hell. Colder blue tones are used when Orpheus is travelling to and from Hadestown, creating a lonely and isolated feeling, as well as during ‘All I’ve Ever Known’, when Eurydice is battling with the figurative wall she’s built up around herself and wondering if she should open up to this new stranger she’s falling in love with.
The rotating and elevating stage is utilised wonderfully to show the metaphorical emotional distance between characters, from Eurydice being lowered below the stage at the end of the show away from Orpheus after he loses faith in her to Persephone and Hades standing above everyone whilst the lower classes starve and work themselves to death below them. The four main characters all revolving around each other during ‘Chant II’ is a beautifully tense moment in the show, and it almost made me wonder why more shows haven’t used this type of stage. Another notable moment is when Orpheus is singing ‘Wait for Me’, when the rear of the stage seemed to extend and open up dramatically as smoke poured in during his solo.
Hadestown is the first musical that has ever actually made me cry; the actors performances are stunning vocally and emotionally. The pain in Eurydice’s voice when Orpheus turned around and saw her there broke my heart, and Eva Noblezada’s performance was incredible. The show features the incredibly talented and diverse cast, including Amber Gray (best known for portraying Hélène Kuragina in the 2016 Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812) with her powerful vocals and caring ‘wine aunt’ characterisation of Goddess Persephone. Her performance as a drunk middle-aged woman who is fed up of her marriage is completely convincing, both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Eva Noblezada, known for playing the lead role of Kim in the 2014 West End and 2017 Broadway revivals of Miss Saigon at just 17, portrays a young girl who has always fended for herself and is extremely guarded in order to survive. Her voice is breathtaking, from her softer duets to her belting, you could listen to her sing all day. Reeve Carney, playing musician Orpheus is a singer-songwriter and actor known for originating the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway, Riff Raff in the 2016 remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again and Dorian Gray in the drama series Penny Dreadful. Carney has a very edgy, husky voice that works extremely well for the character, having a very indie sound that you could just picture for a young musician.
Hades is played by Patrick Page, an American actor and playwright who originated the role of Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. He also played Menenius in Red Bull Theater's Coriolanus. His voice is very iconic, hitting octaves so low you can basically feel the ground move when he speaks. His powerful voice really makes Hades the threatening antagonist that he is, being extremely deep, gravelly and completely chilling when he sings. The role of Hermes, messenger to the gods and caretaker of Orpheus is played by André De Shields, actor, singer, director, dancer, and choreographer. His Broadway credits include Warp!, Ain't Misbehavin', Play On!, The Full Monty, Impressionism, and the title role in The Wiz. His characterisation of Hermes is simultaneously comical and very serious, being welcoming and at times very warning. His solos are some of my favourites on the soundtrack, his rich voice is perfect for the upbeat numbers, as well as the more dramatic solos (his verses in Wait For Me are honestly so addictive to listen to).
The cast and crew are incredibly talented, evident in their very real retelling of the tragic myth. Hadestown is a heartbreaking and groundbreaking musical, currently showing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr theatre in New York. The story is motivational, uplifting and extremely memorable. You’re missing out on an epic scale if you don’t see this show, and it’s rapidly gaining popularity, so go and get your tickets (and the cast album) ASAP.