Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

You Must Go To Hadestown

Last May Leah Libresco Sargent told me to listen to Hadestown, a New-Orleans inflected retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.

A story of gods and men requires magic, and the show achieves its moments of transcendence by hanging onto a scrappy, small-budget sensibility, with an admirable restraint that is sometimes lacking in Broadway transfers. In “Wedding Song,” for instance, when Eurydice is won over by Orpheus’s courtship, his singing animates the set. There’s no wirework (which must be a relief to the actor playing Orpheus, Reeve Carney, previously star of the perilous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). Instead, the five-person chorus moves tables and hoists chairs, giving shape to Orpheus’s promise that, despite his poverty, “The trees are gonna lay the wedding table.”

In another show, this might be part of the heightened tone of theater, unremarkable as the act of singing is in musicals. Orpheus seems to experience it that way, but Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) clearly experiences it as diegetic action. She turns in confusion to see the usually invisible extras and takes in Orpheus with new eyes. There is a real magic to his song, and the cynical Eurydice, focused purely on survival, begins to consider there might be something more to the world.

The gods have their power established through similarly simple effects. When Hades (Patrick Page) delivers his first lines, his subbasement basso profundo feels like a trick. Nearly every subsequent time he opens his mouth, the audience stopped breathing for a moment, awed.

To match him, Orpheus has an implausible falsetto in his signature song (“Epic”). The first time Carney arced into his high melody, I leaned forward, staring at his mouth, trying to figure out if he was still carrying the tune or if it had been passed off to another member of the cast. It was Carney every time.

His voice, in that register, is unearthly, not lovely. Orpheus hasn’t written this tune, he’s remembered it, and as he performs, it seems like something is singing through him. He isn’t a songwriter, it turns out, but he might be the last person who can hear this song—the original love song of Hades and Persephone, one that the lovers themselves have lost the tune of.

Last September Simcha Fisher echoed her.

The lyrics are real poetry, but also clear and clever, studded with allusions you can take or leave. Each song, lyrically and musically, was worthwhile in itself, and didn’t exist merely to move the plot along or to give equal time to every performer. Clara and I agreed that Orpheus’ song — the one that has so much power in the story– really did have that much power. You didn’t have to tell yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure this feels very magical if you’re part of that word.” The hairs standing up on your arm spoke for themselves. 

But I was busy with other things, and then I didn't feel I had time to get into a new show, and life got in the way, and I forgot.

I was wrong, and I beg you not to make the same mistake. You can hear the Original Broadway Cast Recording assembled in this Youtube playlist.

As I have been finishing up the final edits on my novel, I've been listening to this song on repeat -- not, perhaps the absolute best number in the show, but the strings melody at 2:48 is one of the most beautiful things I've heard.


In these days of shutdown, as theaters close indefinitely, the last words of Leah's review take on a bittersharp poignancy:

In the final moments of suspense, even knowing the original story, I watched with bated breath, waiting to see if the production was willing for Orpheus to fail. For him to turn back is predictable. To evade the ending is cheap. But the show has told us at the beginning (and will remind us at the end) that this is an old song, a sad song, and that “we’re going to sing it anyway.” But, in the conclusion, Hermes and the chorus admit that, even knowing and performing every night, they “begin to sing it again as if it might turn out this time.”

And for a moment, it’s imaginable that it could. That one day the marquee will be dark and the show will have suddenly closed, with the actors as surprised as the ticket holders for future performances, only able to offer in explanation, “Last night, he made it.”

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