Hadestown Etc- Musical Theater Notes From 2022
"See, Orpheus was a poor boy But he had a gift to give: He could make you see how the world could be, In spite of the way that it is." Hadestown
If I had to admit the thing I missed the most during the pandemic, it probably would be in-person live theatrical performances. Not movies, not concerts, and not sporting events, but musical theater. That kind of surprised me this year. I ended up seeing eight musicals, two concerts, and only two movies, and the musicals will stick with me the longest. (I saw several Cardinal baseball games in person, but I've already forgotten most of them.)
The eight musicals were:
1- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the musical). Cute and an admitted guilty pleasure for something obviously aimed at kids.
2- Camelot. A classic show that was ruined by the Muny with alternative casting, costumes, and sets. You can't mess around with King Arthur.
3- The Color Purple. A surprisingly enjoyable and powerful story with a happy ending for the ages. A Muny debut with a great cast.
4- Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. A fun Tim Rice show with great dancing and singing, and a kind of a moral to the story.
5- Legally Blonde the musical. A musical comedy about lawyers? Sure, why not. And the songs were pretty good too. My favorite Muny show of the year.
6- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I had serious misgivings about this one after seeing the disturbing Johnny Depp movie. But it was much less gory than the movie, which lightened it up, plus singing and dancing!
7- Beetlejuice the Musical. My first actual Broadway show in many years, and it was the best one on this list if only because the special effects were spectacular. Plus the story was changed from the movie to a more emotional one, but with the bizarre silliness and comedy still intact.
Straight cis men aren't supposed to like musicals, so I guess that makes me a bit of an odd one. These type of live shows give off such a magical energy that I can't help but have a good time. The actors, singers, and dancers are all live and right there in front of you, and you can't help but root for them and their characters. With Hollywood movies, there's less of an emotional connection, because you know those actors are given plenty of money and time to get things just right. Once in a while a movie gets to me, but it seems harder and harder to find one that can do that. And while athletes are live while you watch them, they are playing a controlled game with controlled emotions and rarely seem to be having any fun out there.
How do you make a fun and enjoyable musical about about a murderous barber, an abusive husband, an overlord of the dead, or (ugh) lawyers? Search me, but these people made it work. Each show has some laughs, some sadness, and some dancing. Kind of like life. Ideally they have happy endings, but not always, which keeps you on your toes. The ending of Beetlejuice was so upbeat and fun that I've developed a new fondness for Harry Belafonte songs.
Now on to Hadestown. I had serious misgivings about a musical based on Greek mythology and set in the underworld. It had to be sad, especially given the story of Orpheus and Eurydice that ends badly. But it won the Tony Award for best musical in 2019, plus tons of great reviews. The thing that I appreciated the most about Hadestown was that it was its originality. Broadway, like Hollywood, has taken to producing safe remakes of popular older shows, movie adaptations, or "jukebox" musicals of greatest hits from popular musicians. While these can be enjoyable (like Beetlejuice was), they aren't original or surprising.
In contrast to most musicals that are backed by wealthy backers and movie studios, Hadestown had its start in 2006, long before its Broadway opening. Entirely written by unknown singer and composer Anais Mitchell when she was just 25, the show grew in size and scope slowly and quietly over a decade until it took the Tony's top prize. Only Lin Manuel Miranda has accomplished anything similar this century. Her success gives inspiration to many more up and coming artists.
As for the show itself, it's a mixture of sadness, joy, hope, and desperation as the hero Orpheus tries valiantly to rescue his one true love Eurydice from the underworld. The songs are very much jazz-inspired, and the band plays on-stage in a carefully crafted set that changes with the lighting and mood. If you don't live where you can see the show live, try to check out the following songs your favorite music streaming service. They are worth it:
1- Road to Hell. Sung by Hermes, who serves as narrator for the musical, it sets up much of the story.
2- Livin' It Up On Top. Sung by Hades' wife Persephone, it tells the story of her journey back to earth to liven things up for the summer. The only truly upbeat song of the whole show.
3- Way Down Hadestown. A very bluesy song about the underworld.
4- Wait for Me. A soulful tune of devotion, Orpheus sings this song to his lost love, Eurydice.
5- Why We Build The Wall- written well before Donald Trump made it famous, this song is powerful in explaining how walls protect us and enslave us.
I often check out the gift kiosk to see what the producers think are the most inconic representations of their show. For Hadestown, it was by far the red flower that appears in all of its advertising, representing love, because at its core this is a love story involving two very different couples, with different endings. I also noticed a popular saying from the show, "To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now." This is memorably voiced by the cast early in the show as they point out to the audience for the second half of it. At its core the musical is a story of hope and optimism for a better world, set in a world that's far from perfect. (Kind of like what we have now.) It's a story about how love and song can conquer the worst in people, but also how our own self-doubts or desperation can sabotage us along the way.
There are many deep and philosophical debates online about this show, which raises it above the usual mindless entertainment that many people consume, and that's always a good thing. Musical theater always seems to make me think more deeply about the issues in each show, while most movies are forgotten the day after I see them. I'm glad that the pandemic is over and we get to gather together to listen to great stories and songs. I'm looking forward to seeing more of them in the years ahead.