Review: ‘Hadestown’ Dazzles Broadway in Stunning Return



Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Marlie Kass, Outgoing Arts Editor

It’s a clear picture: a world shaken out of tune, ravaged by climate change and economic toil. The ones on top sit high above, looking down at the workers below, all made uniform in their struggle. 

This is the opening of Hadestown, the Tony Award-winning musical—and the definitive example of what musical theater needs to be in 2021. 

Oddly, Hadestown has proved itself to be prophetic time and time again, perfect for a musical inspired by the myths and love of Gods and Men. 

Hades’s address to the workers of the underworld at the end of act one goes as such: “Why do we build the wall? We build the wall to keep us free… How does the wall keep us free? The wall keeps out the enemy. And we build the wall to keep us free. That’s why we build the wall, we build the wall to keep us free.”

Although it amplifies the ‘power of a song,’ the show intelligently knows it’s not enough to survive on its own. In two words, it is genuine hope.

Composer and playwright Anaïs Mitchell wrote these lyrics in 2006 when she began working on the show, but anyone in a post-2015 political climate can associate quite a different meaning to them. This is only one of the ways that Hadestown has grown more relevant with each passing year. By the time it opened on Broadway in 2019, the folk-and-jazz-music myth retelling couldn’t have been more perfect.

Then came March 2020, and Hadestown, along with every other show on Broadway, was forced to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For a long time, its return seemed uncertain, until May 24, 2021, when the box office announced that Hadestown would reopen in September, making it the earliest musical to do so at that time. 

To my extreme gratitude, I got the incredible chance to be there that September 2 opening night, and it only further cemented what I had been thinking for the entire pandemic: Hadestown is the show we need right now. 

In its most basic premise, Hadestown is relatively straightforward. It is just a retelling of the ancient legends of Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone. The cast is small, supported by a “worker’s chorus” of six. The audience walks in to see an open stage where not even a curtain hides the simple scattered chairs and tables of the show’s set. Typically, there is no fanfare as the cast enters without warning while the house lights are still up. Then the show begins. 

And the heart of the show is anything but simple. It is a show about love and revolution. It shows both pure struggle and joy. It’s not quite idealistic. Although it amplifies the “power of a song,” the show intelligently knows it’s not enough to survive on its own. In two words, it is genuine hope.

Watching actors and musicians simply dancing together, no matter what is happening in the outside world, is such a beautiful picture in-show and out. Hadestown doesn’t need fancy special effects or a commercial draw to make its mark.

One of the most memorable moments is when an actor floats across the stage simply by singing while walking across tables moved by the ensemble. With everyone’s commitment, it seems like more magic than smoke and mirrors could provide.

But the most remarkable things of all are the themes of the show. From the opening number, it is made clear that what the audience is walking about to witness is “a sad song, a tragedy.” But by the end of the show, something has been added to the message about why they bother to tell it: “To know how it ends, and still keep singing. As if it might turn out this time.”

This idea of continuing on and keeping up hope even when things seem like all despair and gloom, to keep working even though you know not everything will succeed, is such a beautiful, important message told so cleverly. 

Live theater is such a powerful medium, and Hadestown uses every bit of it to its advantage. Hadestown is a conversation between the performers and the audience. It is simply a group of people gathered to tell a story, one that has been told for thousands of years, and to sing a song, one that might save things this time around. 

Everyone can benefit from this show, theater-lovers or not. Both the Broadway Cast Recording and the concept album can be found on music streaming platforms. Anaïs Mitchell’s book, Working on a Song, is a worthy read that highlights her journey in creating the piece and her lyrics which stand alone as poetry. Finally, the Hadestown tour, with a spectacular cast, will be in Boston from November 2 until 14. 

I can only hope that Hadestown will inspire more mainstream musicals like it. It has never failed to give me hope, and I believe that is what shows need to be doing right now. Because of Hadestown, I am motivated to use my voice to fight for “the world we dream about…and the one we live in now.”