by Laura Leebove
Anaïs Mitchell and the Hadestown Orchestra
(le) poisson rouge
Sunday, November 20
Better than: Watching Occupy Wall Street protesters on TV.
Anaïs Mitchell’s show on Sunday night began on a crowded stage at (le) poisson rouge and ended in a singalong-propelled march to nearby Washington Square Park. First on the docket was a performance of Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown, a powerful—and extremely relevant—telling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hades’s Underworld that takes place in an post-economic-apocalypse American town. Hadestown (presented last night as a “radio novella concert”) incorporates Americana, sultry jazz, old-time show tunes and contemporary folk, and it was released in recorded form last year; the album was unfortunately overlooked, despite assists from the likes of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (Orpheus), The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller (Hermes), Ani DiFranco (Persephone) and Greg Brown (Hades).
The tale begins with the young lovers Orpheus (Sean Hayes) and Eurydice (Mitchell) wondering how they’ll pay for their wedding: “Lover, tell me when we’re wed/ Who’s gonna make the wedding bed/ Times being what they are/ Hard and getting harder all the time.” Eurydice dies on their wedding day and is transported to the Underworld, where the king, Hades (Tim Gearan), has built a wall to keep out the poor; Orpheus attempts to find and rescue her, although Hades fears that in helping one person, Orpheus, the underclasses will take over. In “Hey, Little Songbird” he sings about having “walls to build” and “riots to quell,” imagery that brings to mind the barricade of police officers who surrounded Zuccotti Park late last week and the entire foundation of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was chilling to hear the 15-plus musicians on stage and most of the audience singing the words to “Why We Build the Wall”: “And the war is never won/ The enemy is poverty/ And the wall keeps out the enemy.”
Last night DiFranco reprised her role of Persephone, who tries to convince her husband Hades to help Orpheus return to Eurydice. She’s known as “our lady of the underground,” which echoes her real-world status as a notoriously political, expectation-bucking artist. Others who have been instrumental in the production’s early success were on board, too: Ben Matchstick, who staged the theatrical version of Hadestown, was the harmonica-playing “hobo-guy poet” Hermes; Michael Chorney, who wrote the phenomenal instrumental arrangements, provided the guitar foundation; and Todd Sickafoose, who produced the record, played piano. And then, of course, there’s Mitchell, the creator of and driving force behind the entire production, and who sang double-edged lyrics like “Mr. Hades is a mighty king/ Must be making some mighty big deals/ Seems like he owns everything/ Kinda makes you wonder how it feels.”
Hadestown tells a dark story that doesn’t end well, but moments of optimism hold it together: “The darkest hour of the darkest night/ Comes right before the dawn,” Eurydice reminds Orpheus during “Doubt Comes In.” After the story’s end, the group returned to the stage for a rowdy singalong of DiFranco’s update of Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On?”, then gathered in the middle of the venue’s floor to sing a few songs—Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” and “This Land is Your Land,” Art Garfunkel’s “Woyaya.” Then it was off to Washington Square; outside, Matchstick announced, “And now, a message from Mr. Hades, the 1 percent,” before leading the crowd in a passionate, viola-backed reprise of Hadestown‘s “Why We Build the Wall,” which seemed even more utterly suited to the cries of the 99 percent.
Critical bias: Huge Ani DiFranco fan; third time seeing Hadestown performed in full with an orchestra.
Overheard: “They’re gonna bring Ani out here. It’d be funny if no one knew who she was.”
Random notebook dump: Why isn’t “Why We Build the Wall” an Occupy Wall Street anthem?