So I rounded out the summer by having a full on religious experience in a theater.
In other words, I saw Hadestown with my family a week and a half ago, and it was incredible. I loved it; I ugly-cried. When I was younger, I cried all the time at media, but now it takes more to really set me off. This show tore down any and all defenses I have. It destroyed me, in the best possible way.
For those of you who don’t know, Hadestown is a bluesy musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Written by Anaïs Mitchell, it has an arresting Depression-esque aesthetic and a cast that may actually be made up of demigods. (Seriously, click that link. And then also click this one, because the first one doesn’t have Patrick Page as Hades in it and you need to experience his voice.) They really were all incredible, but for me, Amber Gray as Persephone was a standout. In one number, she bends 90 degrees at the waist as she stomp-dances, which was both wildly impressive and deeply visually distressing (as was appropriate, in context). The staging and design breathtaking, as well; I never knew I could get so emotional over factory light choreography.
But I’ve seen plenty of shows with great acting and music and visual storytelling. I’ve loved plenty of shows with those ingredients, ever since my musical-loving parents started toting their kids along to nights in the city. (I’ve even seen some shows that had slightly tighter pacing than Hadestown, if I were to be incredibly nitpicky.) Yet precious few would prompt me to begin a blog by facetiously-but-not-really claiming a RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. So what was different about Hadestown?
I realize that not everyone is my specific type of nerd and therefore didn’t go through a big old mythology phase circa age 11, but I’m not spoiling the millennia-old story by telling you it’s a tragedy (especially since the first song of Hadestown tells you, too). I didn’t ugly-cry because I wasn’t expecting the ending. The way they told the story — that’s what was so meaningful to me. Mitchell’s magnum opus has been in the works for well over a decade now (it’s original incarnation was a concept album), but it could not have felt more timely. It reworks the ancient themes to comment on the destructiveness of capitalism (including allusions to climate change), the desperation of poverty, and the deep uncertainty that the future holds in dark times. It doesn’t pretend that everything will always be all right. How could it? After all, “it’s a sad tale; it’s a tragedy.”
All right, here’s where I talk about the last two songs, which cut me open and held my heart in their beautiful terrible hands. If you want to listen to the album or see the show for yourself without hearing me talk about the ending, this is your warning.
So what is the point of art in such hard times? When even the most beautiful songs can’t guarantee a happy ending? What is the point of love, even, when it can’t do the same? There’s nothing and no one that can fully protect us from failing, from losing, from dying. From breaking our hearts.
But we haven’t stopped creating and appreciating art, have we? Even when it hasn’t saved us. We still turn to the Muses, after all these years and years and years. Love still needs its expression, and for so many of us, that’s art. Because we haven’t stopped loving, either! Even when it hasn’t saved us.
From the penultimate song:
It’s a love song
It’s a tale of love from long ago
It’s a sad song
We keep singing even so
Listen, I’m a person who got “with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah” tattooed on my body. Of course, of course, of course, this all matters. It doesn’t have to save us to matter. That was never why it mattered in the first place.
After the curtain call, the once embittered, now tentatively vulnerable Persephone leads us in a toast. Eurydice joins her.
Some birds sing when the sun shines bright
Our praise is not for them
But the ones who sing in the dead of night
We raise our cups to them
So let’s all be worthy of Persephone’s toast, yes? Let’s sing the songs.