I don’t like musicals. Until Hadestown. I’m tremendously grateful that Anais Mitchell’s musical gave me the chance to finally examine why I hold this prejudice. I’m still working it out, but I think I understand a little more about what a good, or even a great musical might be for me.
The music of Hadestown comes from a singer-songwriter steeped in the American folk tradition of harnessing common truths, from poverty and desperation to the dream of a glorious transcendence, always held a little ahead the hero. The wonderful alchemy that Hadestown pulls off is to speak to our incomprehensible and frightening times with freshness, joy and even hope…through the retelling of a 2000-year-old myth and the retooling of musical traditions which have their roots around a century ago.
We have an acoustic ensemble, onstage throughout, consisting of: piano, accordion, violin, cello, guitar, trombone, glockenspiel, double bass and percussion. This group of musicians is as tight as one could as for, and it seems that, throughout the decade-long gestation of the show (still always, apparently, always changing and shifting) they have been given the freedom to add their contributions to songs that feel always moving, always alive.
Mitchell’s songs manage to communicate the foot-stomping catchiness that is the province of musical theatre and yet meld them with the ancient, deep heritage on which she draws as a songwriter. No song is like another – even when compositions are extended and reprised between acts or scenes, the musicians, Mitchell and her arrangers are always interested in pushing the story forward musically, and the songs keep mutating in new directions.
There is something about the whole production which seems, magically, to partake of this exciting doubleness: both old and new, contemporary and ancient. Rachel Hauck’s set is a beautiful edifice, a kind of dreamlike New Orleans saloon around 1933; the costumes, designed by Michael Krass, are gorgeously intelligent. Andre de Shields as Hermes looks the picture of a Greek god transplanted to a seedy American setting and Amber Gray’s Persephone is an attired appropriately like a combination of genteel brothel madam and stony widow.
The show clearly plays with archetype, with cliché, just like it plays with myth, but the songs and the performances are strong enough to overcome all suspicion. Andre de Shields frequently steals the show with a devilishly witty and inscrutable portrayal of Hermes, and Patrick Page’s depths, both vocal, and, when he takes off his trademark shades, in his welling eyes, give us plenty to think about. Hadestown is certainly not a modern psychological musical (if such a thing exists): rather it achieves the potential for music, imaginative performance and deep underlying foundations to come together to create something that simply felt deeply meaningful, somehow timeless. 10 years in the making, writing and devising; many hundreds more in the weaving of the myths and the music. The result? The only musical (so far) I ever really loved.