Last night I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Hadestown on Broadway, and there is so much I would like to say about the show and the experience.
Now, when I first began this blog I had promised that one of the things I would occasionally write is theatre reviews. However, I am not a reviewer or critic (well, everyone is a critic, aren’t they?) and I personally do not feel that the world needs another small-time reviewer to muddy the opinionated waters.
So what I am going to do is occasionally write about a show or theatrical experience that moved me, and then try to speak to why. What is it about this show? What in particular was enjoyable or exciting? What was new and/or different?
***This does mean there may be mild Hadestown spoilers today - but since I am including no pictures, video, or music, how spoiled could the experience really be? (Another question for another day?) Plus - well - the Orpheus story has also been around for a couple millennia, sooo… ;-)
Way Down Hadestown
You don’t go to see this show, you go to experience this show.
What does this mean?
A good piece of theatre will always pull you - as the audience member - into the world of the story and take you along the journey. But in Hadestown, it is clear from moment one that the audience is a character. A participant. A musical is not being performed for you, it is being performed with you. I got the sense that without an audience in the seats, this show could not really happen. And that feeling was invigorating.
Now, this might be due to the fact that there is direct address throughout the show. Plenty of narration. The opening song tells you exactly who everyone is and what their roles in the world of this Greek mythology are.
Or this could be due to the direction of the show, which makes certain that the audience - though separated by a proscenium - is given eye contact and energy and focus. And with the sweep of the show’s movement, no one in the audience is left out of this energy. The melding of design and direction in this regard made certain this was true - and they were absolutely stunning as well.
Or it might have been the fact that everyone is onstage: The entire cast of 13 and the entire pit of 7. And they are assembled and arranged differently throughout the show in a setting that is vaguely reminiscent of a Greek theatrical arena. The energy is shared. The movement is shared. The sound is shared.
Or maybe it was the sound. The unique music, mixed with the joy of having the (absolutely brilliant) pit in plain sight within the same room, created an entire world unto itself.
All of these elements in total make certain that when that show begins, you are a part of this epic journey. And personally, I would love to see more of this on Broadway.
It’s A Tragedy
One of my favorite things about Greek tragedies - and one of the main reasons I believe these stories persist - is that they are a fantastic blend of: beautiful/ugly, good/bad, creation/destruction, God/human, mystical/banal, powerful/powerless, love/hate, achievement/failure…
These are epic journeys that don’t shy away from the negative in order to better uplight the positive. And though they have sad or bittersweet endings, there is so much positivity and creation and hope wrapped up in them that they cannot be dismissed as just “sad stories,” which is how many people think of tragedies.
From a writing standpoint, watching this retelling of a classic story was a masterclass in both writing structure and adaptation.
There exist books upon books about writing structure and how best to create something that is invigorating and fulfilling - and most of these books harken directly back to the story structure of the Greeks. And for good reason.
But the problem I see with these books, which ends up trickling down into the stories we write and experience, is that the complexity of the narrative structures ends up getting diluted and simplified. Stories become too unimportant or uninvolved. The stakes fall or the characters flatten.
If I could boil down my big story takeaways to three (talk about oversimplification!), I would say that these are the things that I want to personally keep in mind as I work on my own material:
Everyone in the story is both good and bad. We must not oversimplify this. All characters have the ability to create and destroy. All have strengths and flaws. All characters are merely a product of their own lives, circumstances, and experiences.
All journeys are epic tales, and throughout an epic tale there must be both constant triumph and failure. We tell stories to learn lessons and reflect real life, and life is filled with both triumphs and failures. Sometimes things are darker, and sometimes lighter, but it’s never purely one or the other. Therefore our stories must be filled with these complexities as well.
The only difference between a tragedy and a heroic triumph is the result of the final test. The ending. That’s it. Every story should have the potential to end beautifully or in perfect sadness. This is what creates drama and tension.
Too often we forget these elements and their importance. But Hadestown served as a brilliant reminder - well, for me at least.
Why We Build The Wall
As for adaptation - I felt thrilled by the way this production made an old story feel as relevant as if it were written last week.
Sure, we can utilize production and design elements to hint at something new and relevant - we do this with Shakespeare productions all the time. And this can work brilliantly!
But what if we make just a few alterations to the story itself? Nothing tremendous, nothing that alters the big picture.
And what do we have at our disposal to do this?
Words. Words are magic. Words are art. Words can create and destroy unlike anything else.
The simple use of modern English is a piece of the adaptation, but we do this all the time. The use of poetic language to go into song form is another piece, but again we do this all the time.
What I think this show did brilliantly was to take certain aspects of the original story, and repurpose the metaphors into something specific and concrete that reflect our current day. Nothing in the story itself was altered. All it took was saying that this image, this object, or this human is actually called _____ and serves this direct purpose to our story.
I don’t want to go into the specifics just in case you have not yet heard or seen this show, but in terms of this adaptation I thought these changes were done wonderfully.
Music. Music, like words, is magic. Music is emotion. Music is time and place. Music transports.
As soon as the first song begins, you have a sense of time and place - without being anywhere specific - which I adored. I think it’s fantastic when we are able to allude to something musically without feeling to need to strictly copy it in full or be 100% historically accurate. Music should be able to remind us of something, while creating a world that is new and unique.
The score to Hadestown - in my mind - does just that.
But We Sing It Anyway
It’s an old song. It’s a tragedy. It’s a love song.
We know this story, but do we?
Any story can be repurposed and reflect something modern, but is that why we retell it? Or do we tell these stories over again - and in new ways - because their message is just as relevant to the human condition as when they were first created?
Nothing about Hadestown was completely new: the story is thousands of years old, the album is from 2010, we’ve seen direct address before, we’ve seen these tech elements before, we’ve seen this type of movement and heard this type of song and seen these character tropes many times before.
And yet it was entirely new.
A great piece of theatre makes the old feel new and combines all of its elements to create something moving. Perhaps this is all just my opinion, but I think Hadestown did this brilliantly.
So, for my money, last night was one of the best theatrical experiences I have had on Broadway thus far. I highly recommend to you all to go experience Hadestown for yourselves.