I say this every time I review any kind of music on this blog but it often bears repeating: I normally don’t review music. I don’t really feel all that qualified to talk about music as the only real knowledge I have of how it’s made comes from a 100-level college Music Appreciation course. So, because of that, I review music infrequently – and I review cast recordings eve less often as they usually comprise roughly 50% of the show and are an unfair representation of the entire quality of any musical. That being said, let’s talk about the Original Broadway Cast Recording for Hadestown – the winner of the 2019 Tony Award for Best New Musical. The Hadestown cast recording is unusual when compared to other cast recordings as it contains the entirety of the show’s score (most cast recordings leave out some reprises – or, even, entire songs). In that light, I think it’s worth looking at the album as a concept record and examine how it tells the story it’s trying to tell and how the music works to do this. (Spoiler alert: I really love this album a lot.)
Welcome to Hadestown, where a song can change your fate. This acclaimed new musical by celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and innovative director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) is a love story for today… and always. Hadestown intertwines two mythic tales—that of young dreamers Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of King Hades and his wife Persephone—as it invites you on a hell-raising journey to the underworld and back. Mitchell’s beguiling melodies and Chavkin’s poetic imagination pit industry against nature, doubt against faith, and fear against love. Performed by a vibrant ensemble of actors, dancers and singers, Hadestown is a haunting and hopeful theatrical experience that grabs you and never lets go.
Obviously, I have not seen Hadestown. I do not live in New York City, nor am I made of money. Normally, this fact would stop me from reviewing a cast recording but with Hadestown, it feels like the cast recording is enough of the show that I feel comfortable talking about it. Hadestown, like several other musicals, is a sung-through show – meaning there are no traditional spoken-dialogue-scenes. Some of the songs may have spoken dialogue, but it’s all set to music. As such, the cast recording of Hadestown contains the entire show – a feat that even the Hamilton soundtrack, a show that was similarly sung-through, couldn’t achieve. Unlike Hamilton, as far as I’ve heard, the staging of Hadestown is not vital to following the story of the musical in the way that the staging of Hamilton is (and here is where the Hamilton comparisons will stop; I only mentioned Hamilton because it might be the most recent sung-through musical to get really popular in the mainstream). In fact, I normally have to have the Wikipedia page of a musical open as I’m listening to a cast recording to be able to follow the show’s plot – even Hamilton; I did not have to do this with Hadestown a single time. So, in this regard, the Hadestown cast recording probably bears more in common with an audiobook or an audio drama than it does with a traditional cast recording of a Broadway show. So, I’m going to be treating it like one of those instead of a soundtrack.
So, how is the album? It’s really, really good. I keep referring to this album as more of an audio drama than a traditional cast recording because with the Hadestown cast recording, you really get the entire story. Sure, you’re missing all the staging and the visuals that come with the acting, and I would never suggest that anything could really replace the experience of seeing a piece of live theatre, but you are still getting an absolutely complete experience by listening to the album. From the very first song, “Road to Hell”, listeners are immediately placed into the world of this musical and the immersion is never broken. Hermes (André De Shields) acts as a sort of semi-narrator and ushers listeners through the plot of the musical, often acting as a lynchpin between different songs as the action shifts between different scenes. From that first song, listeners are ushered through the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Persephone and Hades – going from the Upper World, all the way to the Underworld, and back again. It’s a beautiful, auditory adventure.
I don’t really like to make judgment calls on musicals based solely on their cast recordings, but since the Hadestown cast recording contains the entire text of the show, I do feel comfortable saying that I utterly love this show. I cannot speak on how any aspect about the staging or the lighting or any visual aspect of the show, but I can speak as to how the story unfolds on the album. Through Anaïs Mitchell’s clever lyrics, we get a definite sense of who each of the main characters are. They all fall into various archetypes – but that’s to be expected given the source of the story. The story, itself, plays out in a very satisfying way. The first dozen, or so, songs are spent introducing the world, the setting, and the characters and all of their wants. From there, the plot really kicks it into high gear as Eurydice decides to join Hades in the underworld instead of staying hungry in the Upper World, leading Orpheus to make a daring rescue attempt. And, from there, anyone familiar with the myth knows how it all plays out. What’s really fun about this musical, though, is how it takes these familiar stories and molds them into something new – even going so far as to make note of the familiarity of the stories, themselves. It makes for a really unique and enjoyable story.
Musically, the album is a joy to listen to. It’s this really beautiful blend of jazz music, classic broadway music, and more mainstream pop music. While a lot of Broadway musicals are leaning towards a more pop/rock sound, Anaïs Mitchell’s score feels like the score of a more old-school musical, which fits the very nature of this being an old story retold. Mitchell’s score is insanely clever, though. Woven throughout the songs are various motifs that get repeated at various moments, each with an important narrative relevance. The music is catchy but never distracts from the lyrics and the mixing of the album is done in such a way that the lyrics can clearly be heard and understood without overpowering the beauty of the instruments. Headphones are definitely recommended for this album so that you can truly hear the beauty of the voices and how they harmonize as well as pick up on all the little things the various instruments do throughout the song.
All in all, the original Broadway cast recording of Hadestown is a work of art in its own right. It’s a beautiful story told in a really unique and engaging way. While I can’t speak to whatever happens on stage during a production of Hadestown, I can say that listening to the album feels like an entire experience. It’s very similar to the experience you’d get when listening to an audiobook or an audio drama; you get the whole story, just without the visuals. I’d never suggest that an album (or even a DVD) could replace the truly special experience of seeing a piece of live theatre, but for those of us who can’t make it to New York to see Hadestown, this album is definitely a good alternative. It’s really well-mixed, features some stunning performances from all of the actors – all of whom perform with the same intensity one would expect them to do on stage. It’s a really satisfying story told in a really unique way and I honestly recommend it to anyone who enjoys mythology and/or musicals. There’s a reason it won a bunch of Tony Awards.
5 out of 5 wands.