This was a commissioned review.
This is not a standard review topic for me, reviewing a stage show in audio form. To a great degree, I’m writing in the dark with half the show, arguably most of it, removed from my grasp. I only have the audio. I don’t know what anyone looks like or the visuals on the action. I can only review the audio. But this was the job. Let’s ride.
Why do myths endure? Why do we retell stories millennia old? One could argue it’s because the ideas of the stories never lose their punch. The Greek gods are characters as rich and reflective of man as it gets. We still relate to them. But is it not possible we revisit some stories because we long for the hope that one day the end will change and conversely that we revisit the tales we love fearing the joyful ending might yet change? And isn’t life defined by cycles we hope to change but are all too aware we can’t?
The musical, and it’s apparently an all sung one like Hamilton with no dialogue not in song, retells the story of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). If you know your mythology, you know the story. They’re in love. Eurydice dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld to bring her back. He’s told not to look back at her. He does at the last second. And the quest fails.
This is a timeless story. It’s been told over and over and over. It’s a story that even someone with a passing knowledge of mythology knows. And it’s a great story. There’s deep emotion. There’s a good love story. It’s a nice, solid, sturdy foundation for a musical. There have been several operas based on it in fact! It shows up over and over in literature. So why tell it again?
Well there’s two reasons. First, writer Anais Mitchell, who composed the entire thing start to finish, had a unique approach. This frames the story in the imagery of the depression era through a folk jazz soundtrack. This takes a classic myth and coats it in a distinct flavor far removed from the original culture that birthed the myth. And it’s fascinating because the myth gets applied to western culture in two ways.
The first is to give the story an American aesthetic. This is told through distinctly American music, jazz and folk. The characters have distinctly American accents. They dress in American fashion with largely a depression mining theme. The very image of mining, while hardly just American, has a deeply American cultural connection. This feels like a saga of Appalachia, not Greece.
But there’s a big one to be noted. This retells the myth through distinctly American values. Mitchell was raised in the Quaker faith, arguably the most American of backgrounds. It’s hard not to see how the musical reflects American ideas about mythology. Hades was famously at least a somewhat kind god in mythology. Here he’s filed off Satan. His marriage to Persephone might have begun with kidnapping but it was deeply loving. They barely tolerate each other here and honestly actively hate each other. There are very real American interpretations of very Greek myths here and it’s fascinating. That’s how mythology and storytelling works. We filter stories through our lenses.
And that’s a good reason, to filter it through us and show the similar values (love and fear of death) and the contrasting (religion) but another haunts me. The musical is about why we revisit stories, In fact that’s hard text. this is about why we retell tragedies: Because we hope that maybe, just once it will end differently. We know Orpheus will look back. We know Persephone will return to the surface. But what if this time Orpheus doesn’t? What if Persephone stays?
The answer is simple. It stops being that story. That’s the power of this work. It shows that no matter what changes you make, and it changes so much top to bottom, the core must be the same or it isn’t the story of Orpheus. And if it’s not that story, why are you telling it? It’s just a boring heroic epic with no lesson. The point of this story is that death is unconquerable and humanity is weak. No matter how invested we are in a happy ending and hoping just this once things change, we KNOW they can’t or it’s useless.
I stress this is a brilliant musical. You’d think I’d have a lot to say about the music but I don’t. It’s just great. t’s all more or less one straight flowing work and so I can’t highlight individual songs. I can say I love the style of music it trades in. I love folk and I love jazz. So I dug this. It’s my kind of music and it’s well done.
The performances are great. Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada are fitting clean classic romantic leads as Orpheus and Eurydice. Patrick Page and Amber Gray are their dark opposites as Hades and Persephone. Andre De Shields fittingly won a Tony for Hermes, the narrator.
Actual discussion of quality of a work like this is hard as hell. It won a lot of awards. It deserved them. It’s a powerful two hours. Definitely worth a listen on Spotify.