During curtain call after Thursday’s preview performance of Hadestown, something special and moving happened. The entire audience on their feet with joyous and intense cheers (myself included). A lady next to Katie kept yelling, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!”
The applause went on for a long time, only dying down when the grateful cast on the edge of the stage made it clear they still had one more musical number in them to give us.
Their song turned out to be a still, quiet number — far from the raucous final goodbye of something like Hairspray’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat” or Book of Mormon’s “Tomorrow is a Latter Day” — and when they started stinging, the audience remained motionless.
We didn’t shuffle down back into our seats. We didn’t clap along. We stood there, transfixed, drinking in not only the gorgeous final song but everything we had just witnessed for the last two and a half hours. When it was over, the theater burst into aggressive applause again.
Hadestown is a show that transcends poetry and becomes prophesy. Its first act culminates in the stirring and striking song, “Why We Build the Wall,” a song which, surprisingly, dates back to at least composer Anaïs Mitchell’s 2010 concept album, so its powerful resonance with post-2016 American politics is more a reflection of the show’s wise cultural critique than any knee-jerk political reference.
That critique has more to do with industry, capitalism and environmental justice than partisan politics or presidential Twitter theatrics. Hades (played arrestingly by Patrick Page) has transformed the underworld into a neon electric city, offering the guise of freedom in the form of spiritually violent and meaningless factory employment.
Hades is not so much the cause of evil or conflict in Mitchell’s and director Rachel Chavkin’s telling of this story as he is positioned to exploit it. He is the greedy boss, the all-powerful king whose grasp on power is actually as fragile as human ego — and he is ultimately without agency. Hades plays the part of king, but he has no actual power, as falsely free as the workers below him.
He is just another cog in the entire underlying corrupt economic system.
That system operates above any individual, and it is powered by human folly and short-sightedness. And it is consuming and destroying the world. Even the natural order of the seasons are affected, as personified by Persephone (the astonishing Amber Gray).
We tell stories like Hadestown — Greek myths and poems, I mean — to reckon with that folly and short-sightedness. And the miracle of humanity’s myth-telling, as well as the miracle of this transcendent piece of musical theater, is that by staring honestly at our most hopeless faults and examining, unflinchingly, our most dire predicaments as a society and as a species, art can stir us to better versions of ourselves.
The show asks why we sing sad songs. Its answer is devastatingly beautiful: Because songs have the power to create life, and they offer another chance at redemption and hope, as long as we are willing to continue singing and appreciating the song.
If that all sounds a bit froofy, that’s because it’s just me talking about it. Wait until you experience this perfectly balanced presentation for yourself, and I think you’ll get what I mean. Wait until you hear the high notes from Reeve Carney as Orpheus, or you see the crackling pizazz of André de Shields as Hermes, or you feel the earth-shattering power of Eva Noblezada as Eurydice.
The world is terrible, and broken, and unfair, and cruel. And we keep making it so. But we can keep singing, too, and a song can break through the crack in that wall, reminding that there’s always another road we can try.
Climate change feels like an impossible problem, among a series of impossible problems, and human beings are constantly disappointing — but I walked away from the theater in awe, and hopeful that it’s worth trying again.
On my radar: April 12-18, 2019
To put something good on my radar, please get in touch.
Friday, April 12
🎬 Missing Link (In theaters) — Laika is the new Pixar. The studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman is making some of the most ambitious and beautiful animated films anywhere. This is their latest. Trailer.
Saturday, April 13
🎬 Guava Island (Amazon Prime) — Starring Donald Glover, Rihanna and Letitia Wright. Written by Stephen Glover (Atlanta). Directed by Hiro Murai (“This is America” video, Atlanta, Barry). Watch on Amazon Prime.
📺 Saturday Night Live (New episode @ 11:30 p.m., NBC) — Emma Stone hosts with musical guest BTS.
Sunday, April 14
📺 Barry (New episode @ 10 p.m., HBO) — The second season continues!. Trailer.
Monday, April 15
📺 The Twilight Zone (New episode, CBS All Access) — Jordan Peele’s reboot of the classic anthology series. Am I going to have to sign up for CBS All Access for this? (Yes.) Trailer.
Tuesday, April 16
📺 Fosse/Verdon (New episode @ 10 p.m., FX) — I would be thrilled to see any series tackle the story of iconic theater artists Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, but with Lin-Manuel Miranda as executive producer and a cast that includes Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell (and Norbert Leo Butz!) I could not be more excited about this. And the first episode last week was absolute perfection.
Wednesday, April 17
🎬 Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé (On Netflix April 17) — Beyoncé has created a film that appears to be an epic amalgam of autobiographical documentary and footage of her famous Coachella performance. Trailer.
Thursday, April 18
📺 Superstore (New episode @ 8 p.m., NBC) — Slept on this show for too long. It's hilarious and well-written.
Chicago/Online: 🎟 Star Wars Celebration (Convention in Chicago, April 11-15) — More info.
🎬 Movie Marathon Series: The MCU in chronological order — I’m doing a series of movie marathons this year, and the first is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, leading up to Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. More info.
🎬 Movie Marathon Series: Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon — My next movie marathon is in preparation for the FX biopic series Fosse/Verdon. More info.
At the end of each newsletter, I look to — the past! — to mention the most most notable pieces of culture I've been paying attention to, whether they were previously on my radar or not.
📺 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW) — The finale was touching, and now I am left thinking about the entire course of the story. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was a special, thrilling show. When we will get another series that is a fully original musical comedy, a critique of gender norms and a thoughtful examination of mental illness? I can’t wait to see what emerges next from the mind of Rachel Bloom, and whatever that is, I hope it sings.
NYC: 🎭 Tootsie (Broadway, in previews now, opens April 23) — I have adored Santino Fontana since I first saw him on Broadway in Cinderella and then heard him in Frozen. Now, he'e starring in a new musical based on one of my favorite film comedies, with a score by David Yazbek (The Band's Visit, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and I am delighted to report that the show has met my impossibly high expectations. I cannot remember a musical ever making me laugh harder or longer, and the show is also surprisingly thoughtful. It is a poignant musical comedy for the #MeToo age, on top of being a vehicle for great performances — not only by Fontana, but all of his co-stars. Lilli Cooper (as Julie), Sarah Stiles (as Sandy), Andy Grotelueschen (as Jeff) and Reg Rogers (as Ron) are all absolutely delightful.
NYC: 🎭 White Noise (The Public Theater, closes May 5) — I was absolutely floored by this play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. I don’t want to reveal much more than to confirm the play’s own official description that it is “about race, friendship, and our rapidly unraveling social contract.” But I highly encourage everyone who can to get one of the few remaining tickets and see this show. Daveed Diggs gives an astounding performance, as does the rest of the cast, and it will leave you thinking about it for weeks to come, if not longer. More info.
Visit the full list for my complete listing of upcoming movies, TV shows and more.
ADDED THIS WEEK:
📖 Exponent II Spring 2016 issue (Magazine) — The Mormon feminist publication Exponent II is now offering a certain issue from the archive for free viewing online. The magazine writes, “Due to increased interest in the Spring 2016 issue of Exponent II, which examined the November 2015 Exclusion Policy, we have decided to make the entire issue available online for free. You can access it through the link below. We hope that this document will serve as record for history in how this policy harmed individuals and families.” Read for free.
📺 Disney Streaming Service (Launches November 12) — The back catalogue on this thing will be tantalizing, but it's the planned original content that has me most. A live-action Star Wars series with a Game of Thrones-level budget! Some fun Marvel shows! Also: Ilana Peña (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) has a series called Diary of a Female President about a Cuban-American middle school girl’s journey to becoming the future president of the United States (sounds amazing). More info.
🎬 Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (In theaters Dec. 20) — Mary Poppins may be practically perfect in every way, but she's no Star Wars. Disney, thank you for bringing Christmas back for me this year. Trailer.
Thanks for reading! What's on your radar? Get in touch to let me know! And look for my next letter to go out on April 19.