Inventive retellings of classic myths––particularly Greek myths––are not uncommon. For example, take the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou,” the popular webcomic “Lore Olympus,” the acclaimed video game “Hades” or any book Rick Riordan has ever written. And these examples are only a few in an expansive genre of hundreds of new takes on old stories in a multiplicity of mediums.
But “Hadestown,” a Broadway musical written by Anaïs Mitchell, takes the myth retelling genre to new, unique and elevated heights with clever and electrifying music, jaw-dropping staging and lighting, a brilliant melding of myths and powerful performances.
“Hadestown” follows two mythological couples––the first being Orpheus and Eurydice, two mortals, and the second being Hades and Persephone, two gods. Narrated by the messenger god Hermes and the triumvirate of goddesses known as the Fates, it tells the couples’ deeply intertwined love stories in a dying, cold world. It evokes a dystopian fusion of an industrial-age dictatorship, the Great Depression and a dilapidated but vibrant jazz club. All of these are tied together with songs deeply rooted in New Orleans big band, jazz and American folk styles.
The show itself inspires endless praise about every detail and facet––the lighting, the music, the performances, the set design and so on. But one aspect of the show that has continued to enthrall me in the days since I had the privilege of seeing this piece of art in action is the staging.
Allow me to provide a bit of context:
The New York City production of “Hadestown” is currently performing in the Walter Kerr Theater, which was built in 1921 under its original name of the Ritz Theater. The space within is gorgeously gilded and beautifully decorated but much smaller than one might expect of a Broadway theater, creating an intimate environment. The stage is fully furnished and well-equipped but not as large as many others. This has not stopped “Hadestown” from uniquely and inventively utilizing their space to make the smaller stage feel as if it is the entire world.
For one, every instrument and musician is positioned on the stage and there is no pit or orchestra, simply the band––who are acknowledged as part of the scene by characters and performers. There are even a few instruments played by the actors themselves, such as Orpheus’s guitar and the accordion played by one of the Fates.
Near the end of the first act, the set––an already incredible and evocative piece––opens itself up like the gaping maw of a monster and reveals the industrial hell of Hadestown, accompanied by shifting, poignant lights in the red of fire and the blue of cold, lonely nights.
Additionally, the small size of the cast, with only seven main characters and an ensemble of only about four or five, inherently allows for more space to play with. This is complemented by the way the performers’ vivacity and vibrancy seem to fill that space to capacity, even to the point of overflowing their arresting energy.
But the most vital element in bringing this world to life is the revolving stage. There are three nested rings in the floor of the stage, including a center ring that rises above the stage and sinks deep into it, that spin like circular treadmills at different points in the show, ferrying the performers around or allowing them to walk in imitation of the massive journeys they must undertake without ever needing an enormous amount of space.
For example, the treacherous journey Orpheus makes into the underworld, Hadestown, to rescue his lover Eurydice sets him walking seemingly endlessly on the stage’s track. The simple act of walking in place on the moving track evokes a sense of many harsh miles traveled and many harsher miles yet to go, all while never leaving the same spot on stage.
And the use of these three revolving rings not only seems to create more space on stage where there is none, but it also establishes a powerful imagery, metaphorical and dreamlike.
This more metaphorical use of moving space is used to carry the performers around like the winds of the storm of revolution as Orpheus leads the oppressed workers of Hadestown to rise up against Hades. It is a storm that grows in power both musically and physically as the music swells and the performers swarm in those rings, making Hades powerless to stop them and their momentum, all with Orpheus leading from the raised platform in the center, the eye of the storm.
With some help from the show’s brilliant lighting, that same journey as Orpheus and Eurydice attempt to return to the land of the living together in the final trial of their love takes on a much more cerebral tone. The revolving stage seems to float the two lovers and the Fates in and out of the darkness as the doubts sung aloud ominously by the Fates threaten to overcome the two lovers and separate them forever.
And, of course, there are a thousand more praises to sing about this show, but I shall save that for your own listening and viewing pleasure. If you have the opportunity, I implore you not to miss this performance of a lifetime. And if you are understandably unable to see it in person, then I recommend listening to the soundtrack anyway, as the music of the show is capable of speaking for itself.
“Hadestown” has truly begun to redefine what it is to sing anew the stories of old, and it is no surprise at all that the show is a masterpiece of modern theater, not just leaning on established traditions of both performance and storytelling, but building something new and exciting upon those foundations.
Chloe Gocher is a sophomore majoring in English with a minor in Spanish.