Review Summary: It’s a sad song/It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy/It’s a sad song/but we sing it anyway
Mimicking the classic tale of the musical, Hadestown
had a long and difficult journey on its way to becoming one of the most revered Broadway musicals of the decade. Anaïs Mitchell’s masterpiece began as an intimate house show back in 2006, before becoming a concept album in 2010, featuring industry giants such as Justin Vernon as Orpheus, Ani DiFranco as Persephone, and Mitchell herself as Eurydice, among other monumental performances. A magnificent folk/jazz concept-album that focuses on the Greek myth in a post-apocalyptic, Great Depression inspired Rust Belt, the album broke boundaries and created a cult following. After recruiting Rachel Chavkin as a director, following her visionary directorial stint for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
, Mitchell wrote an additional fifteen songs, with music and lyrics constantly being workshopped and added as the show played small stages in New York, entering Canada, playing the West End in London, before finally opening on Broadway in April of 2019. The show was nominated for an outstanding 14 Tony Awards, winning eight, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Orchestrations. After the original concept album and a West End live recording, the Original Broadway Cast Recording was finally released almost two months past schedule due to post-production issues.
A fully immersive show, as is Chavkin’s specialty, Hadestown
has created a sensation close to rivalling Hamilton
without quite breaking into the mainstream as the latter did, which is quite understandable: This is a two hour long experimental folk musical that is unabashedly bizarre and dark. From the opening trombone blurts to the enticing yet unarming narration of Andre De Shields’ Hermes in “Road to Hell”, the characters are introduced, the originality is made clear, and the story unfolds. Even without being able to see the magnificent design of the show, the story and concepts of Hadestown are made incredibly clear from the soundscapes Mitchell and orchestrator Michael Corney have created. The combination of folk and jazz create a bleak atmosphere without ever sounding dreary and the, for lack of a better term, wacky instruments found throughout, combined with masterful vocal performances, make this Cast Recording work just as well as a concept album as it does a stage show. The fact that the entire show is sung-through means that important plot points are never missed and it creates for a fully immersive story, just as Chavkin’s direction itself completely immerses the audience in the stage show.
Mitchell has managed to seamlessly combine the sounds of folk music with the sounds of showtunes. The cast recording never falls into one niche or the other, as it would be easy to do, but takes the voices of some incredibly accomplished performers and manages to blend them with ease into Mitchell’s experimental tendencies. De Shield’s makes for an incredibly fun and wily narrator as Hermes while still making sure the gravitas and darkness of the story is never abandoned. Reeve Carney has an otherworldly falsetto and fills Vernon’s shoes with a theatrical flair, making the trio of Epics found across the album clear musical highlights. Eva Noblezeda puts on a masterclass of all performers as Eurydice, delivering ballads like the definitive “Flowers” beautifully all while belting at the gods in a number of songs, including the “Wait for Me (Reprise)”, which may be the highlight of the entire recording. Amber Gray transitions seamlessly between the dark comedy and tragedy in her role as Persephone, bringing some of the most fun numbers to life, such as the irresistibly jazzy “Livin’ it Up on Top”. Then there is the incomparable Patrick Page as Hades, reaching depths in his voice and managing to be a sympathetic villain. His performance with the incredibly talented ensemble in “Why We Build the Wall” is chilling and shockingly relevant to today’s political climate for a song that was written over a decade ago.
Throughout the two-hour runtime, the listener is able to fully immerse itself into this modified version of the classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, becoming incredibly attached to the characters and becoming shocked the twists and turns, even though we are warned by Hermes within the first few minutes that “It’s a sad song/It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy/It’s a sad song/but we sing it anyway”. As Orpheus makes his way into Hadestown to bring back Eurydice, we are brought along on his journey by Carney’s heavenly and forceful voice all while being surrounded by the ensemble in “Wait for Me”. We become just as enticed with Hades’ lies and promises as Eurydice does in “Hey Little Songbird”, and can sense the tension rise as Hades finds Orpheus in the instrumental “Papers”. Even in “Promises”, the closest the show comes to a stereotypical Broadway ballad, we have come to root for Orpheus and Eurydice enough that we can buy into lyrics that reflect the best and worst of classic composers like Stephen Scwartz. As the tale comes to its dark end, we realize the moral to take a way in the “Road to Hell (Reprise)” and Persephone’s heartbreakingly hopeful “We Raise Our Cups”. The two hours flies by as if we’re watching the show itself, not listening to an intricate cast recording of a show that we will more likely than not never see in person.
That isn’t to say there aren’t faults with the recording. As many musicals, and particularly sung-through musicals (such as Les Miserables
, fall victim too, there is ax exorbitant amount of exposition. This becomes forgivable onstage, but can be fairly awkward and grating in a purely audio form. Melody has to be sacrificed in order to fit in more words and plot. There are also changes made from past iterations of the show that weaken it greatly to include for exposition, such as the lyrics of “Epic I” being changed to essentially tell the story of Persephone and Hades in very straightforward language. Repeated motifs are also aplenty, and sometimes work incredibly well, such as the wordless melodies of Orpheus’ song or the reprise of “Wait for Me”. At other times, they seem to fill no purpose except for to include more exposition. The spoken exposition also doesn’t translate quite as well in a recording studio, with Carney’s spoken lines feeling especially out of place at times. Additionally, even with the added time to fix production issues, some still abound, include transitions between certain songs being broken up, which can be jolting from the immersive experience.
Overall, Mitchell, Chorney, Chavkin, and the entire cast and creative team have created a piece of masterpiece theatre with Hadestown
. Unmistakably Broadway while also being unmistakably indie folk, it has created an incredibly successful hybrid not seen to this level before. While not without its faults, the Original Broadway Cast recording allows us to enter and experience the show without having to actually see it. Until we can all get way down to Hadestown, the Broadway Cast recording is a more than satisfactory replacement.