Hadestown 😎 Album(s) Review

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Written by Thelonia

A concept album turned musical turns the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a folksy-blues with a Donald Trump Hades, Flower Child Persephone, Used Car Salesman Hermes, and Hipsters Orpheus & Eurydice.

A few summers ago, I stumbled upon an album on iTunes by Anaïs Mitchell, whose songs I have occasionally listened to when I want to stare wistfully off into the middle distance on the edge of a forest. It was called Hadestown and though I knew absolutely nothing about it, I fell in love immediately.

I will (and do) listen to a large swath of things, but one genre I do return to more often than not is the indie folk that Mitchell tends to stick to.

Mitchell's Hadestown, released in 2010 by the awesomely-named "Righteous Babe Records," is a concept album which chronicles the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, with added characters of Hades, Persephone, Hermes, and the Greek Chorus of Fates. Most of these characters each get an introductory song, with a slightly blocky transition from song to song as the story progressed. But the songs were catchy, some slower and sometimes a bit creepy (particularly the introduction to Orpheus' pleading song to Hades "Epic II", which always makes me think my phone's malfunctioning), to more upbeat songs like "Our Lady of the Underground" in which Persephone sings to the assembled like a saloon singer, promising to bring them the sky, the wind, and the rain.

I enjoyed the album, though I maybe wished it had a bit more there, and wished that maybe some of the vocal choices had changed (Hermes' guiding song to Orpheus at the beginning of "Wait for Me" which always makes me feel like he's whispering directly into my ear (and more like a guy in the subway who starts getting too close for comfort than any romantic gesture). 

Then last summer, half-asleep on the A train, I happened to see a poster out of the corner of my eye around 135th st that triggered something like recognition in my brain. I wasn't sure what it was, but I made a point to keep an eye out on the ride back. And there, on a platform I usually never take notice to, was a poster for Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown. I immediately tried to Google what the poster was trying to advertise (was she doing concerts in the city?), and when the train managed to inch its way to Wi-fi, I was given answer: Hadestown was a musical. And at that point it had two weeks left. 

I knew I had to go, so I got tickets.

The theater was charming, full of fog, and with brick walls and charming chairs with individually placed cushions.

And then it started.

Anything that had been lacking in the concept album in terms of continuity or clarity were easily resolved by the expansion into a full-fledged musical. There were more songs, particularly in the first half, with all-new transitions between to explain the plot a bit more.

The characterization was much the same, if a bit more emphasized than the original album. Hades, with his low, low voice (which wasn't used as much as it was in the album - but I sang alto in my a cappella group, so I know how hard it is to sing in your lowest register for long periods of time - so I'll hold my tongue on that one), Persephone, a bit of a lush, Orpheus, that guy with a guitar at parties who lives on his friends' couches, Eurydice, his long-suffering hipster girlfriend who would, for one, be okay with getting a job and living somewhere stable, and the Fates, who dress sort of like they're from the 1930s (albeit one has neon pink hair, so, hipsters too), and Hermes, who sort of sing-speaks with a surprising southern-ish accent and who glides around through the story to make sure everything is moving according to the story.

The musical follows the original structure of the myth pretty closely, except for a few notable examples. Those mostly have to do with Eurydice and her death: while in the original tale, she steps on a snake, dies, and goes to the Underworld, in Hadestown, she finds that living day to day is not so much fun in the Wintertime as it is in the Summer - the promises Orpheus made to her in the "Wedding Song" did not come true, and you can't live on pretty songs.
Hades emerges and sings "Hey Little Songbird" to her, feeding on her doubts for Orpheus, and promising her warmth and nourishment.

And that is as sketchy as it sounds.
She follows him down to the Underworld - and inadvertently signs her life away.
Orpheus follows after her, with advice from Hermes, and Hades rounds out Act I with the showstopper "Why We Build the Wall."

Now, one of the things that had not struck me until I saw it live was how much relevance it has to modern politics.

Clearly they think so too.

There was a definite clear moment about ten seconds into Hades' song "Why We Build the Wall", which rounds out the first Act, when all I could think about was Donald Trump. And as someone who has always had a soft-spot for the God of the Underworld (I blame you, Disney Hercules, for that), I felt a bit dirty.

Hades, your wife is much too charming for you to be Donald Trump, get yourself together.
I buried my icky feelings about Trump at intermission with some admittedly kind of gross wine, which wasn't great but also did give me a pretty good buzz going into Act II.

I should take a moment now to say that absolutely everyone involved in this show was beautiful, wonderful, and extremely endearing. But, I will say that Amber Gray, who played Persephone, holds my heart in particular.

She's my wife now, Hades.
In the second act,  Orpheus finds his way down to the Underworld, and tells Hades he's going to sing a song for Eurydice's soul. If Hades is moved, then she gets to come with him back to Earth.
Orpheus decides to appeal to Hades' better nature, and sings a song ("Epic II") about how he met Persephone.

It's actually quite touching despite the fact that you are trying to read about 4 different people's facial expressions at once.
Hades makes a deal with Orpheus, so that he seems strong to his people, but soft enough for his wife to keep talking to him: Orpheus can leave with Eurydice, but she must walk behind him, where he cannot see, as he leaves the Underworld, and he cannot turn to see if she is there, or she will be stuck in the Underworld forever.

It goes about as well as you'd expect.

The thing about watching Hadestown in its entirety that struck me the most was how much I fell in love with Orpheus and Eurydice - my personal interest had been mostly on the relationship between Hades and Persephone - but by the end I really hoped they would make it, and change their ending. It was actually staged and timed so well that when Orpheus finally turns just at the door to the Underworld, and sees Eurydice, your heart drops. The moment is punctuated with silence, as Hermes repeats his mantra from the beginning: "It's an old song..." You get the impression that this is not the first Orpheus or the first Eurydice - that these two keep getting reborn and pulled into the same trap. Different universes, different people, same love, same flaws.

Look at them, the adorable bastards, hurting my heart.
Not only do Orpheus and Eurydice seem stuck in this cycle, so do Hades and Persephone, who spend the musical bickering and sort of reconciling in pity for Orpheus only for Persephone to return to the Earth ("We'll have next year" indeed).

As soon as I got home, I started checking the New York Theater Workshop to see when the release date for the album that had gotten recorded a few weeks before was going to be announced. There was radio silence through the end of summer and then suddenly in October, an announcement was made: October 14th. 
I waited, and as soon as it was out, I had to get a copy. 

The EP has four songs from the musical (recorded live over two nights' performances) - "Way Down Hadestown," the New Orleans Jazzy number that precedes Persephone returning to the Underworld at the end of Summer, "All I've Ever Known," a love song between Eurydice and Orpheus, "Wait For Me," which tracks Orpheus' journey into the Underworld after Eurydice, and "Why We Build a Wall," in which Trump-Hades coaches his dead laborers into a chant-and-response song about why they are blessed to have a wall to build (to keep us free, to keep out the enemy, to name a few examples).

Now I guess I just have to sit and wait for the complete live album to release sometime next year, and hope that the election goes in a way that will make "Why We Build a Wall" more stomach-able soon.

You can buy Hadestown and Why We Build a Wall (EP - Selections from Hadestown. The Myth. The Musical. Live Original Cast Recording) on iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and a number of music hosting websites.


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