Tony-Award Winning ‘Hadestown’ Swings Into Pittsburgh

By Sharon Eberson

Pittsburgh’s introduction to the world of Hadestown is coming soon, so I wanted to know – how does the national tour differ from the Broadway experience?

In Hadestown, the Greek myth of star-crossed couple Orpheus and Eurydice gets a haunting, contemporary spin courtesy of singer-songwriter-musician Anais Mitchell, who transformed her album of the same name into the musical that won eight Tony Awards, including as 2019’s best musical.

Chibueze Ihuoma as Orpheus in the North American tour of Tony-winning best musical Hadestown. (T Charles Erickson)

The build up to the arrival of the Hadestown tour was drawn out by the pandemic shutdown, it was originally scheduled for the Benedum in October of 2020. Now Pittsburgh audiences finally will get to see a show infused with a New Orleans vibe and flavored with Mitchell’s indie rock/Americana flair. The set toggles between a seedy cafe, inspired by The Big Easy’s Preservation Hall, and a hellish factory-world of endless hard labor.

On Broadway, two of the most enduring impressions are of the stage’s literal sinking into the underworld and a “lamp dance” – a finely timed swirl of far-reaching, swinging lamps during the song “Wait for Me,” which choreographer David Neumann has described as coming from “an image of streetlights going by.  … And even though it looks simple, the scene was carefully constructed so no one in the audience or the orchestra gets hit!”

To find out how the national tour coming differs from the Broadway show, I talked with associate director/choreographer Katie Rose McLaughlin. New York-based McLaughlin has worked in directing and movement for theater, opera, film, music videos and viral TikToks. She was the associate choreographer for Hadestown on Broadway and has performed with the Tony-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune. In 2013, she co-founded and became artistic director of Designated Movement Co.

Besides her knowledge of all things Hadestown, McLaughlin spent two years in Pittsburgh when her then partner was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. “I came in and choreographed basically every show that the MFA directors did for the entirety of the time I was there. It was really cool,” she said.

Hadestown associate director/choreographer
Katie Rose McLaughlin

McLaughlin also spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh theaters, including the Benedum Center, where Hadestown will soon take up a weeklong residence, Nov. 15-20 

Hadestown’s swinging lamps are “exactly the same thing” as seen on Broadway, McLaughlin. That is, except for small details, necessitated by making it work in different-sized regional venues. “The difference is the way lines have to come in and out. They had to move the lamps in just a little bit. On Broadway, they’re a little bit wider.”

One thing you won’t see on tour is the rise and fall of the stage floor. Instead, the tour uses a DeLorean door at the back of the stage as the entrance and exit to hell. 

Another difference is a single turntable instead of the three concentric turntables used on Broadway.

“That was the major choreographic overhaul for the tour in general, just figuring out that movement,” McLaughlins said. “There were numbers where one actor would be on one turntable, and another would be on another turntable at the same time. And now we had to figure out, how can they share? Or do they need to go somewhere else?”

The movement and storytelling go hand-in-hand in Hadestown, which has a deceptively vertical set and minimal props. The musicians are onstage and integral to a particular number that introduces the goddess Persephone (Lana Gordon) – the wife of Hades who, in the show, hops the hell train to the living world, where she gets to “live it up” for six months – unless her husband has other ideas.

McLaughlin has watched Hadestown’s development since its earliest days.

“When we did it at New York Theater Workshop, it was basically in the round  and there were no Workers. It was just the Fates and the individual principles – it was much smaller,” McLaughlin recalled. “I’ve been with it as it grows, as it turned from in the round into a proscenium, when we went to Canada and added Workers, and all of the movement workshops in between. It’s been really exciting to watch it grow from the ground up.”

When she was offered the job, McLaughllin had never heard the music, but she found out it had some family history. In 2016, her cousin – not a regular theater-goer – texted her to say she was coming to New York to see a show at New York Theater Workshop.

“She said, ‘There’s this musical, it’s called Hadestown. It’s based off of this album that is the reason that me and my fiance are together,’ because they both put that Hadestown was their favorite album on OkCupid And here they are, they’re married, they have two kids. So that was the first time I had heard of Hadestown. But I didn’t listen to it until David [Neumann] offered me the job.”

Now, she can say, “The music is incredible. And I think what I love most about it is that it gets into your body very quickly. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show where I haven’t bopped my head or tapped my feet, so it’s been so thrilling to figure out how to embody that music.”

Our tour guide through the enduring myth is Hermes, so memorably played by Tony-winner Andre De Shields. On tour, Hermes – the herald of the gods – is played by Nathan Lee Graham, who was in the original Broadway casts of The Wild Party and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

Nathan Lee Graham as Greek god Hermes in the Hadestown tour. (T Charles Erickson)

To say that the retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is a cautionary tale is like saying the same about West Side Story – the messages may be similar, but the songs and staging and years that separate the newcomer from the source material brand Hadestown as a true original of musical theater.

“It’s interesting to me because it’s a myth that people might know, but I think it also is like being reintroduced to something both ancient and modern at the same time,” McLaughlin said.

“And the thing that’s most exciting to me,” she continued, “is that you don’t have to know anything about Greek mythology to appreciate the story and that it’s fundamentally about love. It’s about people who have been in love for millions of years and people who have just found each other. And so it’s this new love/old love story, which I find that you can tap into at most stages of life.”

Hadestown is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, November 15-20. Tickets: https://trustarts.org/production/75349/hadestown or 412-456-4800.

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