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A lot of musicals tend to play out like you’re watching something on TV, a series of scenes in a box, unaware of the audience. If the characters are aware of the audience, it’s typically brought up in throwaway lines and jokes. Once again, this isn’t a bad thing, but it’s common. “Hadestown,” a musical written by Anaïs Mitchell and originally directed by Rachel Chavkin, takes both of these tropes and flips them on their head.

“Hadestown” production photo by T. Charles Erickson and courtesy of Broadway in Atlanta/Brave PR

How the Use of Lighting Helped Turn ‘Hadestown’ into a Tony-Winning Broadway Hit

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Throughout time, music has been regarded as one of the most notable things that brings humans together. Easily created, whether by humming or an instrument, people tend to agree on its emotional value.

Perhaps this is the reason we love musical theatre so much. We love watching the experiences of humans told through song. However, the thing is, large musicals are supposed to be a spectacle, an experience. This is why musicals are on stage, with defined characters and intricate sets. It’s all to heighten the value of song, to visualize a message to the viewer. From “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Hamilton,” musicals are always an extravaganza. “Hadestown” is a notable example of this principle of performance.

Stage plays often need more than just a song in a spotlight to compensate for the size of the stage. There are many tools a stage director could use to bring the audience a good time, but one used most frequently is lighting.

Colored lighting is what you’ll see in most character-focused modern musicals. It’s often used to distinguish character motives and themes. Vibrant greens, reds, purples, and blues will wash the stage as a character delivers a soliloquy, or as a song begins to crescendo. It’s never boring but the use of meaningful lighting could hardly be described as novel. 

A Best Musical Tony Winner

A lot of musicals tend to play out like you’re watching something on TV, a series of scenes in a box, unaware of the audience. If the characters are aware of the audience, it’s typically brought up in throwaway lines and jokes. Once again, this isn’t a bad thing, but it’s common.

“Hadestown,” a musical written by Anaïs Mitchell and originally directed by Rachel Chavkin, takes both of these tropes and flips them on their head. Unsurprisingly, the production won the Tony for Best Musical in 2017.

On  January 12, I saw “Hadestown” at the Fox Theatre. The musical tells the Greek story of Orpheus (played by Chibueze Ihuoma) and Eurydice (played on opening night in Atlanta by understudy Courtney Lauster), two lovers whose story ends in tragedy. This tragedy is brought on by an agreement made between Orpheus and the King of the Underworld, Hades (played on opening night in Atlanta by understudy Will Mann). 

A great deal of the conflict in the musical comes from Hades’s capitalistic tendencies. He works his employees to the bone to build industrial masterpieces — foundries, power grids, and more. It’s a practice that’s eerily similar to what the workforce, industrial or otherwise, looks like today.

The Audience as Narrative

Without a doubt, the musical is very aware of this. It forces the audience to become a part of the narrative, and this is where the lighting comes in.

In the baroque era of art, there was a stylization of painting called tenebrism. This, according to Britannica, is “the use of extreme contrasts of light and dark in figurative compositions to heighten their dramatic effect.” 

“Hadestown” uses this technique for two reasons — to create the musical experience of shiny lights and to rope the audience into the performance. It can be seen in the musical with its swinging lamps, solitary lanterns, beaming spotlights, and more. Bradley King won the Tony in 2017 for “Hadestown” for Best Lighting Design in a Musical for this incredible showcase.

The most prominent instance is in the song “Chant (Reprise).” In this song, Orpheus has united the people who work under Hades, performing what is pretty much the Ancient Greek version of a unionization, opening their eyes to the way they’re neglected and overworked. Hades is acknowledging Orpheus’s nerve, proclaiming that, despite his persuasive nature and song, Hades himself still rules over the underworld. 

Lights stream into the audience during these moments — ones where the lyrics are timeless, where the tragedy is not a story of just two lovers and the entourage of workers, it’s the story of pretty much our whole society under capitalism.

Washed in Blinding Light

“Young man, you can strum your lyre/I have strung the world in wire/Young man, you can sing your ditty.”

And then, always capitalized: “I CONDUCT THE ELECTRIC CITY!”

Floodlights beam, washing the stage, audience, and entire auditorium in absolutely blinding light. 

If this were a normal musical, these lights might have hit the first row or so, but “Hadestown” took a different route, expanding Hades’s reach past the stage and out into the real world. Because the audience is also affected by these lights, it can be easily interpreted that he is speaking not only to Orpheus, but to all of us.

Flaws in Capitalism

Capitalism and the ruling class are subjects that have been discussed through the ages. The workers’ chant about keeping your head low brings imagery of working class conditions to mind.  Industrialism getting in the way of love and life certainly wasn’t a concept pulled out of the blue. 

It’s clear that one of the central themes in “Hadestown” is the flaws and selfishness inherent in capitalism. By bringing the audience into the scene, our status as workers who are under “The Electric City,” controlled by people like Hades, who build momentous empires at the expense of us, is exposed.

VOX ATL is grateful to our community partners Brave PR and Broadway in Atlanta for supplying opening night press tickets to out teen arts staffers.

 

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