When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed how they made a 2,000-year-old legend feel fresh, and why one song in particular hits closer to home than ever.
For Eva Noblezada, who stars as Eurydice, updating the story was a freeing experience. “This isn’t just Orpheus and Eurydice the myth, so I was able to add layers of myself,” she told Variety after the show.
But the most crucial addition was a strikingly simple one: a voice. “Eurydice didn’t have a voice in the original mythology, and it was my honor and my duty to not make her a victim, to have her make an important decision based on her life, and for her to be a badass,” Noblezada explained. “Hopefully that’s how it’s conveyed on stage!”
Director Rachel Chavkin — the only female director of a new musical on Broadway this season — considers it essential that women’s voices are heard both on stage and off. “I’m paying attention to so many women directors,” she said, citing Lileana Blain-Cruz, Lila Neugebauer, Liesl Tommy, Leigh Silverman, Lear DeBessonet and Charlotte Brathwaite as some of her favorite artists. “There are so many makers, and they’re all ready. It just will take enough people going, ‘Directing on Broadway is not a prerequisite for directing on Broadway.’ Which it’s not! That’s how people only ever end up in a silo of white, cisgender men. And I think if our industry is truly committed to inclusivity and staying relevant for the future, then we have to get over that assumption.”
So, what allowed “Hadestown” to break through — and to say something new with a legend that’s been told and retold for millennia? “You think about what breaks your heart now,” Chavkin said. “If you as an artist living in the 21st century are moved by the way you imagine the story beat by beat, then it will feel timely.”
Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the book, lyrics and music for the show, agreed. “I think the story itself just goes deep into people’s bones,” she said. “The romance of it, the politics of it, and the hard questions of it: How do we want to live with each other in hard times?”
Those politics have only become more prominent on the road to Broadway — and one song, “Why We Build the Wall,” registers very differently now than it did 12 years ago. “It was political then, but it was such a surprise to hear, more than a decade later, almost verbatim, those words coming out of the mouth of the leader of our country. I’ll never understand how that happened,” Mitchell told Variety. “I tend to be really slow with my songwriting, but that was one that happened really quickly, almost before I knew what it meant. In a way, I think it was channeled from very old archetypes and symbols that people latch onto. A wall is something that people latch onto — the president knows that, and it’s working.”
For Patrick Page, who performs the song every night in his role as Hades, that shift has been visible in the audience’s response. “When I first sang it, Donald Trump was a joke. Then he was a candidate. Then he was the nominee. Then he was the president,” he said. “And I look in people’s faces: some people are very afraid. Sometimes I see people cry during that song. Some people sing along with the song. So it’s been a journey for me. But I think it’s one of the great folk songs ever written.” (Among those in the audience on opening night was Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s husband Chasten Buttigieg.)
Amber Gray, who plays Hades’ wife, Persephone, is also conscious of the song’s staying power. “There’s always been fascism, and there always will be,” she said. Still, she hopes “Hadestown” and other works like it can be a starting point for change. “I think art can expose people to an ‘other’ and their way of life and help them empathize, but that’s all — it still takes that individual to make the choice to care. Art is a very powerful tool, but at the end of the day, somebody’s gotta pick up that tool, and that doesn’t always happen.”
“The thing about any kind of activism is that the chances are against you, and you probably will fail, but you should try anyway, and eventually somebody will crack it,” Gray explained. “Maybe not Orpheus in our show, but the next person who comes to Hadestown. That’s the hope — you’ve got to have that.”