If you’re in the mood for some bluesy music and a tragic love story, the Tony Award-winning “Hadestown” may be your jam. This is a rape-free re-telling of the Orpheus-Eurydice legend in the time of the speakeasy and the Great Depression. With music, lyrics and books by Anaïs Mitchell, “Hadestown” premiered in Barre, Vermont in 2006 and hit Broadway in 2019 under the direction of Rachel Chavkin and received 14 nominations at the 73rd Tony Awards, winning eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. “Hadestown” opened at the Ahmanson Theatre on 26 April 2022 and runs until 29 May 2022.
The Great Depression (August 1929 to March 1933) was a time when the world was in an economic depression which began with Black Tuesday (4 September 1929), a stock market crash in the United States. Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was president. In literature, the time was depicted in John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.” Harper Lee’s 1960 “To Kill a Mockingbird” is set during that time period.
Prohibition in the United States began on 17 January 1920 when the Volstead Act went into effect. So by 1929, speakeasies were almost a decade old. A speakeasy was “a place where alcoholic beverages are illegally sold” according to Merriam-Webster, and is specifically “such a place during the period of prohibition in the US.” Lately, they have been making a comeback, but since alcohol is legal, it’s more a matter of atmosphere and it’s a national trend.
With liquor legal, what defines a speakeasy? I’ll depend upon the Los Angeles “Time Out” definition. Passwords are passé, but:
Every bar on this list has an entrance that’s physically hidden or unmarked, whether it’s a door within a restaurant or in a basement, or the door is actually a bed that flips around to reveal a secret staircase. You’ve got to be in the know to find these top-notch cocktail dens.
To get into the “Hadestown,” there’s no password although you might have to use your secret credit card code, but this musical is fun, lusty and ultimately tragic. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Orpheus and Euridice, here’s the Bullfinch version:
Eurydice, shortly after her marriage, while wandering with the nymphs, her companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus, who was struck with her beauty and made advances to her. She fled, and in flying trod upon a snake in the grass, was bitten in the foot, and died. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper hair, both gods and men, and finding it all unavailing resolved to seek his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave situated on the side of the promontory of Taenarus and arrived at the Stygian realm. He passed through crowds of ghosts and presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine. Accompanying the words with the lyre, he sung…”We all are destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But till then grant her to me, I beseech you. If you deny me I cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both.” …Proserpine could not resist, and Pluto himself gave way…Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition, that he should not turn around to look at her till they should have reached the upper air…Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following, cast a glance behind him, when instantly she was borne away. (pp. 185-187).
In “Hadestown,” our narrator is the charming Hermes (Levi Kreis). He’s slick; he’s suave. He has a soft spot for Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch) and yet knows the harsh ways of the gods (“Road to Hell”).
Hermes tells the audience:
His mama was a friend of mine.
And this boy was a muse’s son
On the railroad line on the road to Hell
You might say the boy was touched,
Cause he was touched by the gods themselves!
Give it up for Orpheus!
Our Greek chorus is the Fates (Bélen Moyano, Best Odorisio and Shea Renne). Into this town blows, Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) and she describes the desperate times–famine and harsh weather (“Any Way the Wind Blows”). Orpheus falls in love and make extravagant promises, that despite poverty, their love will save them (“Come Home With Me”). Orpheus believes that spring will come again.
Yet according to myths, spring and summer are dependent upon Persephone leaving Hadestown and coming into the world of men to join her mother. This Persephone (Kimberly Marable) is a sassy young thing with big hair and a neon green dress. She sharply contrasts her husband’s conservative (Kevyn Morrow) and more somber tones. She can’t wait to leave the darkness of Hadestown behind. But Hades takes her back down to Hadestown earlier than she would like.
In Mitchell’s telling, while Orpheus is attempting to write his musical masterpiece, Eurydice is tempted by Hades (“Hey, Little Songbird”) to go to a place that is warm and she won’t feel the hunger. The Fates back Hades (“When the Chips are Down”). Eurydice has been warned that Hadestown is a factory of endless work, but she’s too mindful of the cold days and the lack of food–she can’t ignore these things like Orpheus. When Eurydice signs a contract with Hades and bids Orpheus good-bye, there a sense of betrayal.
In Act II, Persephone is trying to make things more lively amongst the dead in Hadestown, running a workers speakeasy (“Our Lady of the Underground”). Eurydice begins to regret her decision but her memories of her life before are fading (“Flowers”). Orpheus arrives and the loss of his love has inspired him to finish his song. Before Hades, he sings his epic song, helping Persephone and Hades to reconcile. The Fates help Hades strike a bargain to prevent the couple from becoming martyrs and yet preserve Hades’ rule (“Word to the Wise”).
As Orpheus, Barasch gives the impression touching innocent. His Orpheus cannot quite seeing the hard edges of the world or the desperation of the times. He’s listening to his creative muse even when he isn’t listening to the very real fears of that same muse. Green’s Eurydice longs to surrender to the delirium of Orpheus’ love, but she never truly trusts Orpheus nor believes fully in his dream. The worries of this world oppress her. Her Eurydice is seduced by the promises of Morrow’s Hades. Perhaps the funnest character is Marable’s brash Persephone. Rather than abduction and coercion, age and different temperaments seems to divide this couple.
David Neumann’s choreography is loose and energetic, giving both the feeling of desperation and untrained masses celebrating and lamenting their lot in and out of Hadestown. “Hadestown” is an inventive, mournful musical about love, loss and regrettable choices in life. Who doesn’t want to find their muse and claim fame? And who doesn’t want to find true love?
Hermes asks: “Just how far would you go for her?”
Orpheus responds: “To the end of time. To the end of the earth.”
Isn’t that what we all want our loves to respond?
I suppose in time, we’ll all know a sad tale, a sad song, a tragedy and, in our dreams, we can fantasize that it turns out differently with many “what-ifs” and wistful nights. We can imagine if we had a second chance at love, we wouldn’t look back. But in our grief, do we find inspiration. Orpheus wrote his epic song and is best remembered for his tragic love story even though he, too, was an Argonaut.
As Hermes tells the audience:
See, someone’s got to tell the tale,
Whether or not it turns out well.
Maybe it will turn out this time
On the road to Hell
On the railroad line
It’s a sad song.
It’s a sad tale; It’s a tragedy.
“Hadestown” continues at the Ahmanson until 29 May 2022. For tickets or more information, visit CenterTheatreGroupo.org. Then it heads south. “Hadestown” will also perform at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Cosa Mesa CA 92626 August 9 to 21. Information at SCFTA.org
The program provides a guide to the mythological characters. “Hadestown” is two hours and 30 minutes long with one 15-minute intermission.