Nothing Changes — ’Hadestown’ and the self-defeating purpose of theater

Here’s the thing: theater as an artistic medium is and always will be irreparably flawed. (As a disclaimer, I’ve consumed a lot of theater over my lifetime, so I’ve earned the right to be mean about it.)

I think live theater is flawed and that will never change, because those flaws are rooted in the medium’s conventions. You sit in an audience of hundreds of others and watch as the performers, looking like figurines in a diorama, bring a story to life through movement and song.

That’s actually the best thing about theater: how honest and present and immediate everything feels as it takes shape before your eyes. How lucky you feel to be able to witness it as it happens — this giant spectacle, from start to finish.

Amber Gray as Persephone

The bad thing about live theater, though, is that it’s the kind of thing you can’t look past. As you sit and watch, there’s a hyperawareness that never quite goes away. The woman in the row in front of you rustles her Playbill every so often. Actors hold for applause at the end of each number, chests rising and falling in slightly more labored breaths. The whole company comes out and sings a rising harmony and you know that you’re watching the big finale because you know what a finale sounds like. It’s impossible to be immersed, no matter how hard the show tries, because you never get to forget that you’re just a spectator and that the actors are just actors telling you a story.

Hadestown recognizes this. It doesn’t try to pull you in and instead knowingly casts you in the role of “spectator”, taking advantage of live theater’s greatest flaw and weaving it into the show. As the smooth-talking Hermes introduces every character in the opening number, the show makes absolutely no effort to immerse you in the story. The actors laugh and dance and talk on-stage, irregardless of their characters, as Hermes shimmies and sings. Their movements are loose and easy, their expressions full of mirth and good humor. Nearly every character gets a spotlight and a bow.

Eva Noblezada as Eurydice, André De Shields as Hermes, Reeve Carney as Orpheus

The show makes it clear, right from the start: what you’re about to see is a story that’s been told many times before, and will be told many more times after you’ve gone.

“It’s an old song from way back when, but we’re gonna sing it again,” Hermes croons.

It’s a lyric that works on two levels. First, the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Hades and Persephone have been told and told and retold to death, thanks to a modern obsession with Greek mythology that I blame on Rick Riordan. But also, it’s a meta-commentary on how theater, by nature, is a repetitive medium. Actors have to perform the same show night after night, maybe with small differences each time but always, fundamentally, the same way. They’ve told this story, they’ve sung this song, they’ve danced this dance hundreds of times, for hundreds of different people before you came along.

And you know how it will end. Hermes tells you it’s a sad song, right from the start. You know that Orpheus will turn his head and Eurydice will slip from his grasp.

But as the show goes on and Anaïs Mitchell’s soaring, eclectic soundtrack seeps into your skin, you almost start believing that this time it’ll be different. That somehow, Orpheus won’t turn to look behind him. That maybe, Orpheus and Eurydice make it out of the Underworld. That the story isn’t a tragedy.

It is, of course. It always is.

Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada

So you’ve heard this story before, many times. But Hadestown reminds you that what truly matters is the willingness to listen, to watch, to live it again, and to keep hoping that maybe this time, something might change. This time, they tell the story just for you.

And now, a brief discussion of the cast.

André De Shields

André De Shields as Hermes: Electric, charismatic, and light on his feet, De Shields plays Hermes — the messenger — and does it to perfection, taking us with him on a journey through all the twists and turns of this story and commanding the stage with an effortless charm. When you listen to him, it’s because you genuinely want to — and when the stage is silent it feels like you’re just waiting for him to sing again.

Reeve Carney

Reeve Carney as Orpheus: Carney’s Orpheus is achingly earnest and so filled with love and music and feeling that he can’t even contain it. It spills out of him in every word he sings. His physical performance is distractingly stiff and he lacks the inherent magnetism required of such a character, but his falsetto is clear and lovely and he performs Orpheus’ signature melody with stunning sincerity.

Eva Noblezada as Eurydice: I feel like Eurydice’s character is a little underwritten in the musical — same with Orpheus’ — but Noblezada takes what she’s given and turns it into gold. She’s small in stature but big in stage presence, and so fierce that you really get why Orpheus fell in love with her so quickly. The brief moments of joy she gives Eurydice in Act 1 are so genuine and charming that it makes Act 2 all the more heartbreaking.

Amber Gray

Amber Gray as Persephone: From the moment she steps off the train, Persephone immediately steals the show. Gray is absolutely captivating in a way that cannot be taught or replicated, alternating between tipsy nightclub entertainer and solemn Queen of the Underworld with incredible ease. It’s like the whole world stops when she sidles up to the mic to growl: “You want stars? I got a skyful!” And for that one line, everything suddenly revolves around her.

Patrick Page as Hades: The first time Hades opened his mouth, the rumbling bass of his voice made a woman in the audience gasp. I really love how Mitchell writes Hades and Page’s voice is just perfect for the role, especially in ‘Hey Little Songbird’, where his voice is so low and so smooth that it almost feels invasive, and it makes you feel just as powerless as Eurydice.

Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzales-Nacer, Kay Trinidad

Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzales-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad as the Fates: Much like Hermes, the Fates are as much a part of the story as they are a part of the telling. I love that they never have to perform the kind of crazy vocal gymnastics that women in musical theater often have to at the hands of male songwriters— instead, the three women’s sultry alto voices make for some incredible harmonies and one particularly spellbinding a capella number (‘Nothing Changes’).

I first listened to the 2017 live recording of Hadestown in October of last year. I didn’t think too much of it at first — though I took an immediate liking to ‘All I’ve Ever Known’ — but over time as I revisited the soundtrack, as well as the concept album the show was based on, the more I liked it.

Hadestown is, at its center, “a tale of a love that never dies”, as Hermes tells us. It’s the love between Orpheus and Eurydice, sure, but also — and maybe more importantly — the love between Hades and Persephone. The two love stories are intertwined as Orpheus writes his world-changing song about the love between gods, and later uses that song to take Eurydice home with him.

Suffice it to say, Orpheus’ voice is pretty important to the show. In fact, it might be the single most important vocal role, because Orpheus’ voice has to be — for lack of a better word — magical. He sings the most important musical motif, that wonderful la-la-la-la-la-la-la that touches even Hades’ heart.

Damon Daunno as Orpheus and Nabiyah Be as Eurydice in the 2016 production

Now, as an aside, Damon Daunno and Nabiyah Be are still my favorite pair to have performed Orpheus and Eurydice. Daunno in particular is spectacular in voice and manner, and I point to his rendition of lovestruck dreamer Orpheus as the ideal performance of the character.

That being said, while Reeve Carney’s performance definitely left something to be desired, I actually liked him just as much as I like Daunno, which I didn’t expect. His voice is lovely, yes, but it was his lacking performance that weirdly endeared me to him (I know this sounds a little mean, but it’s true). It made it so that his Orpheus was fairly unremarkable, especially when placed next to the headstrong Eurydice, but when he opened his mouth to sing it was like he became a different person. His singing made him passionate, brave, beautiful. That, at least, is magical — and very true to the character.

The three times Reeve Carney as Orpheus (but really, Anaïs Mitchell’s songwriting and Rachel Chavkin’s direction) made me cry during the show.

Reeve Carney

01. Road to Hell — Four minutes into the show, as Hermes introduces him, Orpheus stands and sings his melody. La-la-la-la-la-la-la. That’s something Mitchell must have added recently because I’ve never heard it before. It sends a chill through my entire body and I feel unexpected tears come to my eyes. It’s such a beautiful melody, and to hear it in person for the first time ever shakes me to my core.

Reeve Carney in ‘Wait For Me’

02. Wait for Me — I’ve heard how good the staging of this number is before but absolutely nothing can prepare me for just how breathtaking it is. Lanterns suspended by ropes swing back and forth in time to the music as Orpheus sings his plaintive song with all his heart, imploring his love to wait for him as he comes to find her. The soaring melody is so stunning that tears start running down my face, and the set moves in such a way that it makes my heart skip a beat. When the number is over and the audience is applauding thunderously I cry even more, because it’s over and I know I’ll never get to see it again.

03. Epic IIIThis song has made me cry on numerous occasions so I already know that I’m doomed when it comes on in the show. It was this song that convinced me of Mitchell’s songwriting genius. Orpheus stands, just one man before the King of the Underworld, and sings. And in that one song everything comes pouring out, all the love and sorrow and guilt of millennia — a song that Orpheus knows, that Hades has forgotten. As Orpheus puts everything he has into this song and the company slowly joins in, my shoulders begin to shake and I find it difficult to breathe. The beauty of it all is suffocating.

Patrick Page and Reeve Carney

The sad fact is, I would almost definitely enjoy theater a lot more if I wasn’t as big a fan of it. It sounds paradoxical, but what it really means is that I know too much and I think too hard. I wish I could watch Hadestown as a newcomer, as someone who doesn’t have every song stored away in their brain already and whose thoughts never wander to the inherently flawed nature of theater as a medium.

Maybe I’d be puzzled by the start of the show. Maybe I’d be amazed by Hades’ voice, too. Maybe I’d still cry when Orpheus sang his melody.

One thing’s for sure, though. It didn’t matter how much I knew, because when Orpheus turned to look at Eurydice, just two steps from freedom, my breath caught in my throat. Because for a moment, I had actually believed the ending would be different. I had actually thought that something might change.

“Cause, here’s the thing: to know how it ends, and still begin to sing it again… as if it might turn out this time.” — Road to Hell II

Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney

In the end, nothing I’ve written here matters. None of the specifics are important — because for a second, Hadestown made me believe in what the world could be, in spite of the way that it is. I can’t give it any higher praise than that.



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