Way Down Hadestown

Underground musical turned Broadway hit stages Austin residency in 2022

Underground musical turned Broadway hit to stage Austin residency

Hadestown tour
The award-winning musical makes a tour stop in Austin in January. Photo by T Charles Erickson

The Tony Awards returned last month after a year off, with Hadestown finally passing the best-musical torch to another adaptation of a classic, Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

As musical theater starts catching back up, it’s branching out through Broadway in Austin, giving many Austinites their first chance to see Hadestown, the groundbreaking folk-alternative show that spent two unusual years on top.

In January 2022, Hadestown will come closer to its New Orleans-inspired sound than it ever did at its inception in Vermont or on Broadway in New York. The unique musical is praised for its freshness — blending folk traditions, pop approachability, and Broadway flair — and its unabated joy. It’s a triumph for, ultimately, an ancient tragedy exploring faithfulness despite destitution.

“Hope is definitely one of the most important themes,” says Nicholas Barasch, the touring lead coming to Austin as Orpheus. “The beautiful thing about the musical is that it’s, through song, a metaphor for hope and a metaphor for love. Everyone knows the score is exquisite, and I think that people are going to be taken by the story and the spirit. Hopefully [they] will leave feeling more hopeful and having faith.”

The story follows Orpheus, the lyre player whose performance influences the natural world, and Eurydice, his wife, who gets tangled in underworld affairs. In parallel, King of the Underworld Hades and his wife, Persephone — who begrudgingly travels back and forth between realms of the living and the dead — gain yet another layer of nuance in their already famously complicated union.

In Hadestown, Orpheus rides a delicate line between persistent optimism and naiveté. (His first-ever words to Eurydice before “Wedding Song” are, sweetly, “Come home with me.”) Reeve Carney plays the mythological musician on Broadway with a nervousness that is at once self-conscious and unflinching. Barasch speaks of his Orpheus as distinct, but not completely different from Carney’s.

“Rachel Chavkin, our amazing director, has been really open to our individual ideas as performers, but she also is maintaining the integrity of the show,” Barasch says. “I felt excited as a fan just being in the show and knowing that it will maintain all of its glory of the Broadway version.”

According to Barasch, aside from the cast and some set changes, both the brass tacks and the spirit of the show remain unchanged. The traveling production is not small-scale by any means; 17 actors and 16 crew are taking six trucks cross-country to more than 35 cities. Each show includes 32 songs accompanied by seven instrumentalists. It’s the manifestation of a dream that took songwriter Anaïs Mitchell 16 years to develop, from concept album (featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and folk hero Ani DiFranco) to Broadway stage.

Behind-the-scenes conversations around Hadestown nearly always include some mention of performers being fans first and foremost, not sparing Hades actor Patrick Page (of the Broadway version) or mandolin virtuoso and radio personality Chris Thile. Barasch had a similar experience. He auditioned for the touring version in 2019, before any talk of a pandemic, and found his plans shunted years into an uncertain future.

“The day after Broadway shut down was my final callback,” recalls Barasch. “I got the role when I was 21 and now I’m 23, and I think a lot of life has happened in between. I’ve been so looking forward to this for a long time. ... ​​As a performer, we need to live in order to express that onstage.”

Thankfully for Barasch and other actors on hold, Hadestown is both upbeat and evergreen. Like the myths made to contain timeless truths, the musical, while modernizing the style in which they’re told, continues the tradition of being just specific enough.

At NPR’s Tiny Desk, Mitchell announced the Broadway cast’s rendition of “Why We Build the Wall” by specifying it was written in 2006, long before that other wall was the one on everyone’s minds. The content of the song — rationale for creating busywork to develop a cult of worker identities — has been in many headlines as workforces have gone through change after change in the past couple years.

Thematic relevance aside, the score is endlessly impactful in a way only something that draws so heavily from folk traditions can be. “Livin’ it Up on Top” goes from spiritual to celebratory call and response to dance breakdown, and could easily sneak into a road trip playlist, even if your passenger isn’t explicitly into musical theater. With a lyre player as its lead and a magical song anchoring the plot, this show takes a meta approach to music that infrequent theatergoers may find more tangible than most.

“One of the joys of being an actor is getting to use different tools in your tool set for each job. ... It feels like I’m the lead guitarist of the band all of a sudden, and I don’t know how that happened,” says Barasch of his unique position playing a player. “I feel so supported as an actor in the show but also as a musician. It feels pretty exhilarating to be front and center for some of these numbers.”

Hadestown will visit Austin for eight shows between January 11 and 16 at the Bass Concert Hall. Check texasperformingarts.org for ticket options.

The show also makes a stop in Houston January 4-9, 2022, and in Dallas January 18-30, 2022.