By Rich Lynch: As I mentioned in Part 1 of this essay, Nicki and I took a four-day mini-vacation in NYC back in early January. We do this every year because Januarys are low season there. That means many of the busiest places in the city are far less claustrophobic, and there are usually bargains to be found — including Broadway tickets, thanks to the TKTS discount ticket booth in Times Square. For this trip, we did six shows in four days, which was enough to impress the people who shepherd ticket-buying lines at TKTS: “That’s awesome!” one of them told us. But sometimes you have to pay closer to regular price for a ticket to a show that you really, really want to see, and that was the case for a superb musical we saw on the last day of our trip.
Part 2: It’s a case of life imitating art.
I’m not surprised that Hadestown wasn’t one of the shows available at TKTS. It’s been one of the most popular musicals on Broadway ever since it opened back last April and it cleaned up at the 2019 Tony Awards, winning eight Tonys including Best New Musical and Best Original Score. The matinee we were at was a special performance to benefit The Actors Fund and it had some special attendees — a few rows ahead of us, down at stage right, about a dozen people were receiving American Sign Language interpretation. One of them was Russell Harvard, a hearing-impaired actor we’d seen the previous evening in the cast of To Kill a Mockingbird. Now I know what Broadway actors do on some of their afternoons off — they see other Broadway shows.
I really, really liked Hadestown. It’s a re-imagining of the ancient Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice, set in what looks to be Great Depression-era New Orleans. Orpheus is a street musician who just cannot seem to finish writing his song, and Eurydice is a drifter who falls in love with him. Hades and his wife Persephone are also characters, as are the Fates and Hermes (the latter functioning as a one-man Greek Chorus). Hadestown is depicted as an industrialized underworld that’s being built by a soulless indentured labor workforce which can never leave (as Eurydice eventually finds out to her regret). It has become a prosperous island in a sea of poverty, with a foundry and even an electric power infrastructure. And also a wall, which is the subject of the musical’s most powerful song, “Why We Build the Wall.” It’s sung by Hades accompanied by the Fates and other cast members, and one of the things that makes the song so imposing and ominous is that the actor portraying Hades, Patrick Page, has a voice at least an octave below bass. Here’s a sampling:
“Why do we build the wall? My children, my children, why do we build the wall? … Because we have and they have not! Because they want what we have got! The enemy is poverty, and the wall keeps out the enemy. And we build the wall to keep us free. That’s why we build the wall, we build the wall to keep us free.”
There’s obvious resonance with today’s political situation, of course, but the Hadestown musical, including that song, was written years before the Trump era. It was created by Vermont singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, who back in 2006 decided she wanted to write a folk opera. Between then and now there were two preliminary versions of the musical as well as a concept album by Mitchell, with work on what became the Broadway production starting in 2012.
Hadestown debuted on Broadway the better part of a year ago, so it was a pleasant surprise that the entire original cast was still in the show. The only name we were really familiar with was Reeve Carney, who played Orpheus — we’d seen him in the Penny Dreadful cable TV series — but the most prominent actors in the show were André De Shields, who played Hermes, and Amber Gray as Persephone. De Shields won a Tony for the role, beating out Patrick Page among others, but it was Gray who had the best moments on stage. Her Persephone, Queen of the Underworld and Goddess of Fertility, must spend six months of every year down in Hadestown (which brings on autumn and winter up on the surface). But in the other six months she’s a free spirit “Livin’ It Up on Top” — one of many good songs in the show, all of which advance the plot in their own ways. Some were staged really creatively, an example of which was another by Persephone, “Our Lady of the Underground,” that opened the second act. It was done as if she were headlining a nightclub, complete with a small jazz band. What made it both unusual and memorable was that during the song she breaks the fourth wall by individually introducing the band members to the audience.
So I’m also going to break the fourth wall and highly recommend this extraordinary musical to you, dear readers. I’ve read that later in 2020 it will be going on tour to more than 30 cities (appropriately, one of them New Orleans), and you absolutely MUST see it when it comes to a playhouse near you. Do not miss out — it’s that good!
(Excerpt from “Why We Build the Wall” ©2006 by Anaïs Mitchell.)