In its first national tour, the blockbuster Broadway musical epic begins a six-day run in Seattle on Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre. If you want tickets, you’d better get them now.
Who are you to think that you can walk a road that no one ever walked before?
— “Wait for Me”
When Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown dominated the 2019 Tony Awards, it was the first time that a show both written and directed by women had won Best Musical; they also won Tonys for their individual contributions (Mitchell for Best Original Score, and nominated for Best Book of a Musical; Rachel Chavkin for Best Direction of a Musical). The folk singer-songwriter’s break-out musical led in both wins and nominations at the Tonys that year, with eight wins and a total of 14 nominations. The Hadestown cast recording, with Mitchell’s music and lyrics, also brought home the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
Unsurprisingly, things didn’t start out quite that big.
By her own telling, the seed for what would become Hadestown was planted in the loneliness of a long drive through Virginia, playing for tips. It started out with the phrase “wait for me,” which would become the title of an anchor track in the musical. Around the idea of a long-time favorite story, the ancient Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, Mitchell composed a story written through folk songs with notes of eclectic musical influences — a folk opera.
The well-established singer would eventually attract the likes of Ani DiFranco to perform on the 2010 concept album recording, which earned a Grammy nomination (albeit for the packaging visuals rather than audio content). But when they took the show on tour on 2006 it was a very local affair — through Mitchell’s home state of Vermont and into Massachusetts, playing shows at such bangers as the Socialist Labor Party Hall in Barre; current population: around 8,000. After the show’s huge success, Mitchell is said to have written to the historic hall, looking back on that “some kind of history,” thanking the Old Labor Hall for “giving us our first home,” and observing, “I don’t think the thing could have been born any other way.”
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From the bare description of Hadestown, the premise doesn’t sound all that inventive. Orpheus and Eurydice is a much-done story; in the first half of 2022 alone, at least four shows performed in Seattle, two of them operas, have already tackled it. (Those were Orpheus and Eurydice at Seattle Opera; a workshop of the mini-opera The Nightmare of Orpheus, at Seattle Opera’s Creation Lab; a short new dance work called Eurydice (Letters from Hell) in Base’s 12 Minutes Max series; and Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at Seattle Pacific University.) That it features a gimmicky Urinetown-sounding title, and is brought similarly into a modernized dystopia of extreme climate and industrial hell, doesn’t really help its case.
But even a quick listen to the music reveals there’s something different here. The 40-track cast recording combines Mitchell’s slow burn of evocative folk storytelling with an eclectic musicality that bursts through from the first notes.
Big Easy jazz infusion is obvious from the opening horn wails. Themes of classic traveling songs, calling to mind the likes of Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples, peek through at points. The catchy stage-setting opening (“Road to Hell”) gathers momentum as it charges ahead into the tale — even though it’s largely there just to introduce the characters. Reflective, mournful examination of lives and dilemmas build upon timeless themes of traveling onward, listlessness, and regret in the second track, “Any Way the Wind Blows.” With a bit of wit and wordplay, the third song, “Come Home with Me,” introduces the awkward dreamer Orpheus (“the man who’s gonna marry you”) to the skeptical, pragmatic Eurydice (“Is he always like this?”) as he plays to her dormant hopes. “Wedding Song” picks up the traveling momentum of the opener as Eurydice expresses doubts, Orpheus counters with the spiritual power of his song, and both give into hope — thus beginning the couple’s fateful journey.
As for “Wait for Me,” grown from the lyrical kernel that started it all, the song’s forward momentum, relentless strings, and yearning vocals combine into an addictive musical theatre take on the power ballad.
Many of these musical elements have always been part of the mix, if the (much shorter) 2010 concept album is a good indicator. That earlier album evinces the evocative storytelling, traveling themes, and eclectic influences that would eventually define the blockbuster’s tracks. It possesses layered instrumentation and a locomotive-like plodding progression, swirled with dreamlike elements that all feels very mythical.
But the original take is also much more obviously a folk record, with a bit of twang, evoking rural hills and fields. Orpheus feels like a guy with a guitar slung over shoulder, maybe hitchhiking, maybe hopping a Grayhound bus; Eurydice, his counterpart, sounds similarly starry-eyed. They both might have daisy crowns, smoke a lot of dope, and drift in the same drum circles. The Broadway version, meanwhile, takes the trumpet bursts that served as accoutrements to the original folksier album, and places them prominently wailing at the forefront.
A defining (and prescient) track of the earlier album, “Why We Build the Wall,” sounds like one the Raging Grannies would have sung in 2017; it’s also a good reminder of history and politics’ repetition. And while the song blends most easily into the earlier concept, on the Broadway cast recording it retains much of its original flavor, perhaps the folksiest of that latter album. But its power builds in a fitting crescendo to round out the first act.
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Most of the actor-singers who began the Broadway run and appeared on the cast recording aren’t the same as who will appear at the Paramount on the national tour, but the touring cast still features some heavy hitters: Kimberly Marable (Persephone; original Broadway and pre-Broadway cast member, and co-founder of Broadway Serves); Morgan Siobhan Green (Eurydice; Be More Chill understudy on Broadway) (see NWT contributor Dusty Somers’ interview with Green in the Seattle Times, here); Chibueze Ihuoma (Orpheus; recent Tisch graduate); Levi Kreis (Hermes; originated Jerry Lee Lewis role in Village Theatre’s Million Dollar Quartet, and won a 2010 Tony Award for Broadway performance in that role) (see NWT’s review of a more recent Million Dollar Quartet encore here); Kevyn Morrow (Hades; numerous Broadway credits, most recently in Moulin Rouge!); with Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne as the Fates. The design team reads like a Who’s Who of Tony Award winners and nominees.
Per Seattle Theatre Group and Broadway at the Paramount, “Mitchell’s beguiling melodies and [director] Chavkin’s poetic imagination pit industry against nature, doubt against faith, and fear against love,” and predict that Hadestown will deliver “a deeply resonant and defiantly hopeful theatrical experience.” Sounds unlikely for a Greek tragedy largely set in hell — but I’m inclined to believe them.
Note: As of today, only a smattering of tickets (including verified resale) remain for each night. Act fast if you want to see the show.
Hadestown runs 7/12-17 at the Paramount Theatre, in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $57+, here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restroom on the main floor. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance at 7/17 matinee; open-captioned performance 7/17 evening.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.