’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
I learned that from a friend of mine
While theaters were still open, André De Shields sang those words every night to close out singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth: the Broadway musical Hadestown. Mitchell calls the very first performances of Hadestown in her home state of Vermont back in 2006 a “D.I.Y. theatre project,” but today it’s better known as the winner of 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Anaïs Mitchell said that, “those lines were maybe the last thing I wrote for the show.” At its core, Hadestown is about the power of storytelling. It’s about rebirth and renewal, about trying again and having hope in dark circumstances, and about the goodness of telling stories, even sad ones. As Mitchell said, “I know that the act of telling is worthwhile. We still have got to live, to make art, to love each other, whether or not the ending is going to be sad.”
Broadway theaters went dark on March 12th and will stay closed until at least September 6th, but likely longer. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Hangman, Beetlejuice, and Frozen have already announced they will not be returning when the restrictions lift.
What will be required of shows who want to continue to run past the shutdown? Stable finances are a must, but so is a strong message of hope, one that is able to withstand changing circumstances, that people of a variety of backgrounds and ages can grab onto.
In Hadestown, Mitchell weaves two love stories from Greek mythology: Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as Hades and Persephone. Set in what resembles a Great Depression-era New Orleans dive bar, the characters in Hadestown must figure out how to meet their needs and desires. Orpheus and Eurydice are the young lovers trying to survive together in their disrupted world. Orpheus, the dreamer, is working on a song to make the seasons right again, whereas Eurydice wants security and is more concerned about where her next meal is going to come from.
Hades, portrayed as a suave business tycoon, “conduct[s] the electric city” to keep himself busy while Persephone is away. Meanwhile Persephone, who isn’t a flower-child here but an alcoholic in a Dolly Parton-inspired lime green dress, drinks her way through the winter months in Hadestown to make it to summer when she can be free. Hadestown speaks to a fraught world where every character is out for themselves.
via Playbill // Michael Krass / Matthew Murphy
And, as box office statistics show, it’s a world that drew audiences.
Hadestown, which opened at the Walter Kerr Theater in April of last year, was the first musical of the 2018-19 season to recoup its initial investment. They have also been above their potential gross since the Tony nominations last May, with the exception of a downturn right before the shutdown. And their highest-grossing week back in December, which seems all too distant now, was almost $600,000 above their roughly $1M potential gross.
Much of Hadestown’s success is built upon audiences’ ability to catch Orpheus’ vision to “see the way the world could be in spite of the way that it is.” Specifically, they have been able to tap into a younger generation who see themselves as Orpheus, taking a stand for what they believe even when those in charge might not want to hear it. Students all over who participated in the Global Climate Strike this fall are like Orpheus, working on a song to set the seasons right. Orpheus stands in for anyone who wants to see a different world than the one they live in now, and does his own small part in influencing this change.
When I saw the show last April during the two-week period in between its official opening and Tony nominations, the audience was full of teenagers and young adults, particularly in the mezzanine where I sat with my sister. Yes, there was your typical older New York theater audience, but Hadestown pulled just as many young people to the show as the high-school-set Be More Chill across the street. Several people who waited at the stage door for signatures from the cast were already wearing outfits inspired by the show.
A younger audience has helped Hadestown gain popularity, and its acclaimed design, acting, and music have attracted a older, more experienced theater-goers. Hadestown’s ability to engage its audiences on a deeper level will help it sustain its fanbase through the shutdown and rebuild momentum when it ends. This broad appeal is what sets it apart from shows that closed due to the pandemic, including Frozen. Frozen was the first show to make a closing announcement that was out of previews and didn’t already have a closing date when theaters went dark. It did not yet have a way to connect.
Frozen was consistently under their potential gross for the majority of the run, with the exception of the holiday season. Unable to maintain sales in the off season, even with name power and Disney behind them, it was doubtful they could pull through after the shutdown.
Frozen’s target audience is tourists with young children, a group that does not primarily consist of regular theatergoers. I got to see the show this February through a college program, and I sat on a Sunday night surrounded by little girls in Elsa dresses and their mothers trying to get them to be quiet. Few adults went to see Frozen without their children, so ticket sales were entirely dependent on a niche market. Hadestown, in comparison, is built for theater people. Due to the high cost of a Broadway ticket, Frozen had to convince its target audience that it was worth it to shell out for a Broadway show instead of just watching the movie at home. What does the Disney name mean if a Disney audience is not willing to buy a Broadway ticket?
Other Disney shows like The Lion King have been able to sustain ticket sales through new and creative presentations (to this day, it is what film/stage director Julie Taymor’s best known project). But the design in Frozen was inconsistent: Sven was a mesmerizing piece of puppetry reinvented for the stage, while Olaf felt kitschy. Frozen didn’t have a high artistic value that would appeal to theater-going adults on their own, and it showed in their box office statistics.
But Hadestown, which has been making its journey to Broadway since 2006, has already proven that it can stay relevant recessions; through the presidential terms of Bush, Obama, and Trump; through social movements such as the Climate Strike, Occupy Wall Street, and #MeToo. It will be able to do so again.
At the end of Hadestown Act One, businessman Hades sings a call-and-response song with his workers in the underground about building a “wall to keep us free.” The lyrics to “Why We Build the Wall” go back at least as far as 2010, where they are heard on an early concept album, before Anaïs Mitchell could have imagined Trump would run a presidential campaign promising to build a wall.
And yet, you can’t deny the meaning those words will have on audiences today.
Mitchell said about the song that “at the time that I wrote it I was thinking about climate change and about migrant people and who among us in a place of relative wealth and security is not going to want to be behind a wall. The idea of a wall is a mythic idea.”
The way audiences perceive the show shifts as the cultural context they encounter Anaïs Mitchell’s text changes. Just as Mitchell had no idea the implications that “Why We Build the Wall” would take on today, other lines from the show will have a similar metamorphosis when it opens again.
Will Orpheus’ act of recognizing the dignity and individuality of Hades’ workers – who have forgotten who they are – resonate more since we have started recognizing and appreciating essential and healthcare workers these past few months? Will those who used to feel like Orpheus the optimist identify more with Eurydice and understand why she values her security so much? Will we chuckle to ourselves when Orpheus says that “if no one takes too much, there will always be enough,” as we think about the toilet paper shortages that ravaged the nation?
Hadestown’s director, Rachel Chavkin, said that the line that always makes her cry comes from the last song of the show:
Everybody looked and everybody saw
That spring had come again
Greek mythology explains the seasons through Persephone spending half of the year with Hades in the Underworld and the other half on Earth with her mother, Demeter. But this line also refers to the promise of the renewal of spring which comes on the other side of hardship. Chavkin says that, “Even though there is heartbreak, there is the act of daring to fall in love again. We tell you at the beginning that you’re watching a tragedy, but there is this incredible success story—the success of retelling the tale.”
If Orpheus’ song can bring back spring in the course of the musical, then maybe Anaïs Mitchell’s words can bring us some hope in our current situation.
Hadestown has been using #SpringWillComeAgain as a social media campaign while theaters are closed and encouraging fans to use the hashtag to post fan art and song covers, which they have been reposting to their Instagram account. They started the campaign on March 14th, just two days after the shutdown, telling fans in an Instagram caption that, “while we await the day when we can sing our song again, we’d love to see photos of you all with your #Hadestown flowers.” Red carnations are a symbol of life and rebirth in the show. They bring Eurydice hope that spring can come again, and bring audiences hope that this story can be told again.
One day, although we don’t know when, the Walter Kerr Theater will open its doors. As we have already seen from theaters around the world figuring out how to reopen, the experience will look different, but the intention behind it will be the same. Patrons will flip through their program and shove their coat underneath their seat, albeit six feet apart from others. They will dress in outfits fashioned after costumes from the show, even though they won’t be able to crowd around the stage door in them. But then this audience will get to listen to a story. It will be the same story that the cast and crew at Hadestown have been telling for a year, but this audience will hear it in a different way.
“It’s a sad song,” but it’s a song worth telling. And it’s in the telling that we understand ourselves and our world a little more.
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