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.