Growing up in a small Iowa town, the closest I was able to get to professional theatre of any kind was a collection of the best of Broadway anthologies in our public library. These books contained production photos and condensed versions of the plays for specific years. I remember reading Equus and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf in those anthologies and being dazzled by the glamor and sophistication. I lived through the ads in The New York Times and dreams of Times Square. My first R-rated movie was All That Jazz. And then one summer NBC broadcast a performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and I just thought that life couldn’t get any better than sitting in a basement and watching a Broadway show on an old black and white TV.
During my 2018 trip to New York, personal events transpired that made it clear it would be a long time before I’d get to go back to Broadway. On that trip, my favorite show had been Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, so I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see Rachel Chavkin’s follow up, Hadestown. I had that sweet ache I knew from looking at the ads in the Times and reading those anthologies. When the Tonys aired the following spring and that cast performed, I was grateful to see just that clip. As soon as the entire cast album was available, I bought it and savored every note.
Earlier this year, out of boredom, I checked the cost of a New York trip, and found that not only was it a bargain, it would be almost irresponsible not to go this year. As gifts, friends had given me gift certificates for TicketMaster, so the shows were virtually paid for already. I booked my flight and hotel and began scouting tickets. In those early days of the news that Broadway was reopening, tickets were unsure. I didn’t have any interest in seeing the behemoth productions, and as a rule I’m not interested in musicals, but pickin’s were slim and I jumped on what I could get.
And then Hadestown, WITH THE ORIGINAL CAST (!) went on sale and life became worth living again. Amber Gray’s performance had been a highlight of Comet. But it was the realization that I’d be seeing Andre DeShields that almost stopped my heart. When I was a teenager there were two performances that changed my life. His in Ain’t Misbehavin’ was one of them. It was fluid and funny and sexy in ways I’d never seen before and have rarely seen since. I knew he was gay. He knew I knew, and he was OK with that. Although he wasn't portraying a gay character, he wasn't NOT portraying a gay character. That performance brought me joy and hope in ways nothing in that small Iowa town ever did, or ever could. So, of all the shows I saw on this trip, I had the highest expectations for Hadestown, and Hadestown did not disappoint.
I sat next to a gaggle of high-school theatre nerds who’d taken the train up from Philadelphia with no agenda beyond seeing a show and they'd managed to snag tickets to Hadestown. The young lady who sat next to me had already seen the show three times, and she was intimately familiar with the details of the production in a way that only a high-school theatre nerd who dreams of being on Broadway can be. She was very, very pleased with our seats, declaring this was the best angle to see the show. I’m sure she was right.
This production was everything that theatre should be for me. Classical roots, high energy, a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Broadway! Elegant and astonishing. Unexpected and inevitable. Amber Gray is smooth and rough in all the right ways. And Andre DeShields is regal. No one dared breathe when he made his entrance, and he held the audience in silence for more than a minute like only a master performer can. He knew when to give focus, and how to take it without being needy. I was glad to see my old friend who I've actually never met. He looks well.
At intermission, the young theatre nerd next to me asked if I would see the show when it came to Chicago on tour. I said not. I don’t want to tarnish the memory of that experience.