On “Hadestown,” Capitalism, Broadway, Politics, And Yes, The Pandemic

When the first wave of coronavirus panic hit, I honestly thought everyone was just being paranoid. The virus, after all, was still states away, and I remained flippantly sure that even if it did come this way, it would not be coming for meor on the off chance it did, I would emerge unscathed thanks to my freakishly good immune system. My resistance really ought to be toast given my horrendous sleeping and eating habits, but I can’t remember having anything more serious than a cold in years.

I still more or less believe that I am not, personally, in any real danger, but I am now aware, of course, that this is now a pretty big damn deal. By Thursday, my inbox was overflowing with emails from various establishments about new COVID-19 safety guidelines.

By midday Friday, schools and businesses were closing willy-nilly, my boss had halved my (and all of my coworkers’) hours due to low sales and financial concerns, and almost every upcoming event in the area had been cancelled, theatrical events very much included.

As has gradually become clear, coronavirus has indeed made it to Florida, and south Florida at that. So far, cases appear to be most concentrated in Broward County, not much more than a stone’s throw from my current residence in West Palm Beach and even closer to my Boca office.

Now that the gravity of the situation has become clear, I’ve dutifully hopped onto the bandwagon of avoiding all non-essential human activities; which, come to think of it, I’ve actually been doing to one degree or another for most of my life. Well, if all else fails, the internet will never run out of cat videos….

Of course, there’s really not much to talk about theatre-wise now that even Broadway is on a “social distancing” hiatus. Along with all the amazing theatrical work interrupted, what’s so disturbing about a Broadway shutdown is that the institution is known for its very indomitability; even the citywide chaos following the 9/11 attacks only led to a two-day-long closure. When those marquee lights go down, something must really be up.

The last time I made a pilgrimage to Broadway was actually the first week of this year, which I jam-packed with as much theatre as possible. I intended, at the time, to write some kind of reflection on all 5 of the shows I ended up seeing (yes, I realize I have a theatre addiction.) However, as life intervened, that idea fell to the wayside.

Now, though, having had my plate temporarily cleared of anything else to cover, I find myself wanting to back-track a bit, at least to the one play of the five I’ve thought the most about afterwards. It also, not-so-coincidentally, happens to be the one I deem most relevant to the utter insanity of the moment at hand.

I am talking, now, about Anaïs Mitchell’s bleak and beautiful Hadestown, a musical which harnesses a stunning folk soundtrack and some prescient plot updates to make the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice newly resonant. Hadestown’s first production was a ten-day ragtag Vermont tour in 2006. A 2010 concept album by Mitchell and several high-profile guest artists followed, as did a few more years of development.

Then came a 2016 off-Broadway production, then finally the currently-running-up-until-two-days-ago 2019 Broadway mounting, which has been both a critical and commercial success. The show’s award winning scenic and lighting design, eye-popping costumes and rousing musical numbers ensure an appeal to the masses, while the poignant anti-capitalist tale underlying the extravaganza proves that a touch of spectacle in no way has to come at the expense of a work’s soul.

Andres De Shields as messenger-god Hermes gets the first word as narrator of the saga, warning us from the start to expect a “sad song.” The plot then kicks off when the supernaturally gifted musician Orpheus, played with an endearing awkwardness by Reeve Carney, meets and immediately falls for Eva Noblezada’s beautiful Eurydice. Her powerful and crystal-clear vocals mix wonderfully with his pleasing falsetto in the first of the pair’s many duets.

Hadestown’s other major plotline sweeps in with the arrival of Persephone; actress Amber Gray’s raspy and sensual vocals and otherworldly dance moves are downright unforgettable. Persephone’s husband, Hades, is here stylized as a ruthless businessman who rules over an underworld reimagined as a factory, and Patrick Page’s deep voice and sinister manner prove perfect for the menacing role.

Hades runs his workers ragged to make foundries, oil wells, automobiles and power grids, a tampering with nature that causes the seasons that Persephone usually keeps in balance to become harsh and unpredictable. This takes quite a toll on the mere mortals aboveground, Orpheus and Eurydice included.

While Orpheus is content to forgo creature comforts as he toils away at a song he believes could heal the world, Eurydice eventually decides she can do longer stand the hunger and cold. So when Hades comes calling and joins her in a duet that feels unsettlingly close to a seduction, she’s taken in by his rhetoric and his charisma, his false promises of a better life. She accepts his offer of employment in his underworld hellhole, even understanding that she would be trapped there forever. He offers her a contract; she signs away her soul.

In case the Trump parallels weren’t obvious enough from Hades’ slick demeanor, dangerous greed, or slimeball tactics, Act 1 closes as the workers join their slave driver in an ominous song called “Why We Build The Wall.” The number remarkably predates Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan by a good 10 years, but could scarcely be more prophetic:

“Who do we call the enemy?

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.”

If you know anything about Greek mythology, you probably know the basics of what happens next: Orpheus’s attempt to rescue his lover, Hades’ cruel test, that fateful glance.

Yet Hadestown manages to wring a happy, or at least uplifting ending from this famously tragic tale, and its conclusion hinges less on the power of love than on the power of idealism and the power of stories. Hermes pledges to keep telling Orpheus’s sad tale to honor his friend’s vision of “what the world could be,” to keep his dreams alive. Then, spring indeed returns, and Persephone promises to forever toast to Orpheus’s courageousness in spite of all odds.

Luckily, Hadestown’s hit status means that it’s a show almost guaranteed to survive Broadway’s downtime. You should have time to catch it when and if the world ever goes back to normal and you happen to be in New York City, and it’s also slated to begin tour this fall—again, provided that anything ever goes back to normal. In the meantime, feel free to check out the soundtrack!

Today, Hadestown somehow feels even more current than it did a few months ago. As travel bans arise worldwide, talk of walls and implied xenophobia becomes even more chilling. Eurydice’s dilemma calls to mind the impossible choices thousands of Americans must make daily between their personal safety and making a living. Persephone’s long winter now not only mirrors the slow process of climate change, but also the disruption of every aspect of our daily lives by a pandemic’s violent reach.

Finally, much as Orpheus stood up to Hades, we too have a rather demonic figure at whom we can direct our rage. No, I’m not talking about the virus itself—I’m talking about the careless and selfish figure who allowed these germs to infiltrate far further than they otherwise might’ve. I’m a theatre writer, not a political junkie, so you’ll probably have to go elsewhere if you want the nitty gritty details of it all, but what I currently understand to be true is that President Donald Trump:

a.       DISMANTLED our country’s pandemic team in 2018.

b.       Refused to listen when experts spoke out about the dangers of the coronavirus and the necessity of proper preparedness, and this back in JANUARY.

c.       Tried to downplay the danger of the coronavirus to the American public, even calling it a “Democratic hoax.”

d.       Failed to institute much-needed testing for the coronavirus as quickly as he could have, worried about the impact a deluge of cases could have on his image and his chances of reelection.

Luckily, unlike Hades, Donald Trump is not in fact a God, his power anything but divine. We elected him, or, more accurately for the 2016 blue crew, failed to prevent his election. We, a societal we, fell for his tricks, his charisma, his slippery rhetoric; we signed away our futures, and are now, quite literally, imprisoned in our own homes as a result.

Meanwhile, we artists have learned the hard way that theatre is a privilege, not a fixture nor a right, and that in any sort of crisis, it may be one of the first things we lose. So, maybe next time: let’s prevent the whole damn crisis. After all, there’s more than one moral to take from any given story; so maybe this isn’t a tragedy quite yet. Maybe, someday, the 2020 coronavirus epidemic will be remembered as an important political turning point: as a time when a catastrophe shocked the American people into greater awareness and greater activism.

Maybe the story will be: the actions of a reckless leader threatened everything that Americans held dear, and  we decided to never let that happen again. Maybe this will steer us towards better healthcare, better safeguards, and better PRESIDENTS, and maybe, maybe, maybe this time we’ll remember not to look back.

One last word, though, one last toast; to those whom the coronavirus has already conquered. The mothers, the fathers, the unlucky travelers, the seniors who’d hoped only to enjoy the rest of their golden years before finding themselves instead at an abrupt excruciating end; and to, finally, to healthcare workers who weren’t afraid to put themselves on the front lines of the crisis and then paid the worst imaginable price.

Let’s be sure to keep telling those stories too.

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