“Lover, when I sing my song / all the trees gonna sing along / and bend their branches down to me / to lay their fruit around my feet” —- Orpheus, “Wedding Song” (Track 4, Hadestown 2019 Original Broadway Cast Album)
There are few events more important than the Grammy Awards and the promised eighty-four categories to the lives of artists not only in the music industry, but also on Broadway. From the 1959 Musical Theater Grammy awarded to “The Music Man” composer Meredith Wilson to last year’s winner, “The Band’s Visit,” the best of musical theater producers and composer-lyricists compete each year for glory. With the 62nd Annual Grammys just around the corner, I wanted to take a critical look at one of this year’s nominations for the Best Musical Theater Album: folk artist Anaïs Mitchell’s sensational “Hadestown” (2006-19). Why does the production of the cast album span almost 15 years and three iterations? Why does the musical simultaneously evoke Greek mythology and Great Depression–era shantytowns? And why should a show that already hauled off two Tonys this past year also get the Grammys limelight instead of other equally deserving candidates? I have taken the time to research and listen to the indie folk-opera from its inception as a 2010 concept album to the 2016 off-Broadway record and nominated 2019 Broadway cast album so you don’t have to, unless so inspired.
This year’s Grammy Awards are not the first time “Hadestown” has been up for nomination. Music producer and composer-lyricist Anaïs Mitchell received the Best Recording Package Grammy for her indie folk-opera concept album “Hadestown” (2010) with a modest track-list of 20 and an hour of musical narrative. The best recording package award aptly addresses the unique musicality and storytelling of the concept album, formally defined as a collection of songs about a specific song or theme. First introduced to the music world by folk singer Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), the concept album has subsequently been embraced by country, pop and progressive rock artists. Though the indie folk of “Hadestown” is largely infused with New Orleans jazz, cabaret and Americana, you can hear the legacy of not only Woody Guthrie’s groundbreaking work, but also Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” (1973) in the crackling radio sound effects and subversive ballads. And the most recent Broadway incarnation of “Hadestown” parallels the musical development of Green Day’s punk-rock “American Idiot” (2003) that produced such earworms as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Holiday.”
The plot of “Hadestown” in all its iterations reimagines the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in what some critics have dubbed “a post-apocalyptic Depression-era, Dust Bowl America.” The Depression aesthetic allows Mitchell to convincingly portray the tragic lovers as a poor starving artist and a working-class girl, as well as the King of the Underworld as the literal lord of mining black gold (coal and oil). Since the Greeks are vague about how exactly nature goddess Persephone travels between the land of the living and dead, Mitchell ingeniously has a train do the trick, conveyed through harmonica, New Orleans jazz and Hermes’s raspy vocals (subsequent stage adaptations adding the train whistle and vocal “chugga chuggas”). Mitchell reimagines the premature death of “the hungry young girl” Eurydice as motivated not by a rattlesnake but rather by the rattling promise of the business snake Hades’s promised relief from hunger — something her starving artist-fiancé unfortunately cannot guarantee. The dual conflicts of Hades and Persephone falling out of love over industrializing of the Underworld, all while the Earth dies and the artist’s inability to hold on to those they love, evoke a modern mythology of human irrationality during the climate crisis and the timeless struggle of industry versus art. The frequent invocation of all five elements — earth, wind, fire, water, metal — by all the characters acknowledges the age-old kinship of music and mythology with nature. And like any good adaptation, Mitchell does not sugarcoat the tragic ending of Eurydice’s eternal damnation to Hadestown which is showcased dramatically in the penultimate atonal “Doubt Comes In.” Rather the folk artist challenges the listener throughout her work to “raise their cup” to those who bloom in the bitter snow, or Orpheus-like figures who speak out for beauty and truth even in the times of greatest adversity.
The musical core of Hadestown has largely remained the same with each adaptation. The pastoral call-and-response “Wedding Song” that kicks off the concept album acknowledges the in media res introduction of the two lovers by ancient writers such as Ovid in “Metamorphoses.” The subsequent addition of footstompin’ “Road to Hell” showcasing André de Shield’s shrewd narration as Hermes aligns the music more within the oral storytelling and epic poetry traditions endemic to both ancient Greece and America. Given the range of musical genres and voices encompassed by “Way Down In Hadestown,” “Wait For Me,” “Why We Build the Wall,” “Lady of the Underground” and “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song),” it is noteworthy that Mitchell transplants motifs from her other work. The second track “Any Way the Wind Blows” and all subsequent callbacks sung by Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice and the three gravelly alto Fates is transplanted from Mitchell’s 2014 folk album “Xoa.” Persephone’s speakeasy-queen anthem “Livin’ It Up on Top” allows us to hear how Amber Gray’s nature-goddess revels on Earth, leading a Schwartz-ian bucolic dance break in stark contrast to her sultry Jazz-Age Underworld persona. Patrick Page’s gritty basso Hades on the insidious “Hey, Little Songbird” and resentful “How Long?” underscores his political motivations for the strange conditions taken for granted by myth by which Eurydice may go back with Orpheus.
Whether “Hadestown” (2019) garners a Grammy this weekend, however, will depend not only on the resonant mythological and environmental production values, but, more importantly, on what the music itself has to offer. The wholesome Act One ballad “All I’ve Ever Known” showcases Eurydice’s refreshing acknowledgment of the struggle between female self-reliance and suppressed loneliness against gentle piano and strummed guitar arpeggios and plaintive string harmonies. The three iterations of Orpheus’ meta “Epic” song about the relationship of Hades and Persephone with its minor plucked-string cadences and multi-part vocal harmonies pays fitting homage to the rhapsodes and troubadours of ancient Greek and medieval times. The aggressive string tremolos, thumping low-octave piano and percussive voices of “Chant” in contrast expose the harsh reality of Hadestown as “Hell on Earth,” exploiting the labor of both human souls and the Earth. The somber “Why We Build the Wall” claimed by the “Hadestown” fandom to predict the rise of President Trump is a good song in its own right for its harmonica and incisive call-and-response between the industrial elite and exploited working class. And Orpheus’s epic want song “Wait for Me” even stripped of its 2019 Tony Awards swinging-lamps spectacle is noteworthy for its balance of traditionally-lyrical strings, folksy guitar riffs reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Hermes’ bemused narration.
It is to be determined if all the aforementioned musical and narrative qualities of “Hadestown” (2019) will be sufficient to garner the 2020 Musical Theater Album Grammy. One of the main faults of the “Hadestown” Broadway cast album is its length, as the concept album has been extended from 20 to 40 tracks. I share the view that most of the Act Two tracks are not particularly noteworthy or conducive to the plot. The development of numerous reprises and plot-exposition songs originated with the off-Broadway 2016 cast album, and careful analysis of the three different “Hadestown” albums reveal that the majority of character and plot development songs originated with the concept album with the few notable exceptions already discussed above. Moreover, the Motown, psychedelic soul biopic“Ain’t Too Proud” (2019) and the first-ever full Broadway cast album of the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!” (2019 revival) pose a legitimate threat to “Hadestown” winning this year. Nevertheless, the timely themes of environmental and political consciousness and the role of the artist in society make the indie-folk opera turned-Broadway musical a better contender than “The Cursed Child” score or the jukebox “Moulin Rouge!” soundtrack. Ultimately “Hadestown” will win only if the Academy recognizes “Hadestown” (2019) as the culmination of over a decade of songwriting and musical production by one of the most talented female composers and folk artists of our time.
Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu