Broadway took its next step toward reopening Thursday night, carefully and deliberately on the backs of two shows telling stories of fear and resilience. “Hadestown,” the 2019 Tony-winning best musical, and “Waitress,” returning again for a revival engagement starring Sara Bareilles, welcomed audiences into their theaters for the first time in nearly 18 months — the third and fourth Broadway shows to do so.
On 48th street, where “Hadestown” is home, the sound of the trombone — of the New Orleans funeral march —echoed through a still silent theater district. Red carnations — a symbol for the show, romantic and memorial —crawled up the side of the Walter Kerr Theatre like crimson ivy, and inside, Tony-winner André De Shields took the stage as Hermes and brandished his wings. The house leaped to its feet for an ovation, refusing to take its seat, and Amber Gray, perched above the audience as the myth-inspired Persephone, shed tears and wept as “Hadestown” received its applause.
“Before big shows, we always do a hands-in, and tonight we spoke about grief and the need for love,” Tony-winning director Rachel Chavkin told Variety after the performance, standing outside the theater just after the cast, still singing, gathered on the marquee and rained carnations down on the audience. “Tonight I’m thinking about Orpheus’ line in ‘Promises,’” she said. “It’s a long walk back into the cold and dark. Are you sure you want to go?”
“Hadestown,” folk singer Anaïs Mitchell’s adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada), is a tragedy — a sad song we sing again and again in hopes for a different ending, as Hermes tells us. Because “Hadestown” is myth — because it’s allegory — every moment can stand as representation for something else, its audience able to realize in Persephone’s joyous springtime and dead winter the unpleasant realities of our own world. “And right now,” Chavkin continued outside the theater, “the myth can take it. The story can meet every moment of our time. Different things will come out, like a gem under light.”
True, on Thursday, Carney’s Orpheus, lovestruck and wilting, more easily surfaced a cautionary tale for the instability of making art. In Eurydice’s choice to sell herself to Hades (Tom Hewitt) were the difficult decisions we make in wartime — or in plague. Hades’ “Why We Build the Wall” wasn’t as much a reflection of demagogic presidents — like it once was — as a tale of scarcity and sacrifice in global catastrophe. At the performance’s end, “I Raise My Cup,” the show’s reprise, was a bittersweet memorial.
“I’ve always found that song to be a necessary coda to the inexhaustibility of the story,” Chavkin told Variety in summary, “that spring will always come, but there’s always mourning.”
Just a block away, as the cast of “Hadestown” sang its finale, “Waitress” took a similarly exuberant, though melancholic first bow since closing its four year run in January 2020. At curtain call, composer, lyricist and lead actress Bareilles offered a sobering tribute.
“We want to take this moment to honor one person who’s part of our ‘Waitress’ family and who’s not here with us anymore, Nick Cordero,” she said of the original cast member, who passed away from a long battle with COVID-19 in July 2020. “He’s still a brilliant spirit and a brilliant soul, and we hold him near and dear to our hearts,” she said, joined onstage by the cast and Cordero’s wife, Amanda Kloots.
“Sometimes, like right now, something that just brings you joy is so precious,” Bareilles, who earned a Tony nomination for penning the musical, told Variety before the performance on Thursday.
“The things that bring me joy — things like ‘Waitress’ — I see so differently now, because I’m carrying so much grief all the time,” she measured. “Giving people permission to laugh, or to sing, or to watch others experience joy is part of how we’re going to heal.”