When “Hadestown” returned to Broadway after shutting down during the coronavirus pandemic, it was with thunderous applause.
The show, which uses folk and jazz music to retell the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the story of gods Hades and Persephone, closed alongside the rest of the theater world in March 2020. In September 2021, it became the first Broadway musical to reopen — and when the cast first took to the stage, they were met with a two-and-a-half-minute standing ovation.
"That was heartwarming," Andre De Shields, 76, who has starred in the show since its 2018 London production, told TODAY. "When we walked out onto the stage, and the audience is on its feet, cheering, screaming for two and a half minutes. And that’s not an estimation. It’s online. The time stamp says two minutes, 30 seconds. ... Once that was done, the audience sat down. And we did the show. It was a memorable experience."
De Shields plays Hermes, the messenger god, who serves as a narrator and guide throughout the show. He's been with "Hadestown" since a 2018 London production, and through the ups and downs (and pandemic-related stalls) of its Broadway run. While the three years he has been with "Hadestown" on Broadway are the longest time he's spent in one show on the Great Bright Way, he said that there was "never a question" if he'd return to the Tony-winning hit.
However, after three years, hundreds of performances and a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical, De Shields is stepping away from the show, which runs at the Walter Kerr theater. His last performance is Sunday, May 29.
"I’m feeling good. I’m feeling strong and feeling energetic. I’m not dealing with any of the sadness of goodbyes yet," De Shields said, a few weeks ahead of his final performance.
I believe, as we continue to dream about the world that we want and compare it to the world as it is, we will wake up and say ‘OK, enough of that. Let’s move forward.’
Andre de shields
The story of "Hadestown" unfolds with metaphorical language and parallels to the modern day: Characters search for stability in an increasingly unstable environment, workers come together against a tyrannical boss, and Hades builds an endless wall to "keep out" the enemy.
While the musical sounds like it was written just yesterday, it had its first tour in 2007, years before cries of "Build the wall!" would become commonplace. De Shields said that the prescient politics of "Hadestown" are what drew him to the show in the first place.
"It appears as if it was written just last week," the Emmy and Grammy Award winner said. "It seems miraculous. It's answering the very questions that we've been asking."
One meaningful line in the show calls for a toast to “The world we dream about, and the one we live in now,” a line that De Shields calls “a promise” made by the show -- one that he intends to keep.
“Here we are in the 21st century, and we are witnessing something bedeviling, something that really hurts the soul, something that shouldn’t be occurring in a progressive modern world,” De Shields said. “There should not be famine, there should not be poverty, people should not be dying from bombs. We haven’t solved that yet. But slowly, but surely, I believe, as we continue to dream about the world that we want and compare it to the world as it is, we will wake up and say, ‘OK, enough of that. Let’s move forward.’”
The show's themes of climate change and finding love amid a changing word were especially appealing to De Shields, a self-described "unrepentant queer Black hippie" who was "part of the 60s' counterculture."
"We're in a global community, we are whether you like it or not. We have to take our lessons from nature: wind, water, fire, that sort of thing. Those elements don't have boundaries," he said. "Those elements don't build walls and say, 'This is mine, that is yours.' It's hard lesson to learn, but one we must learn."
"The context in which we are learning this, as artists, as audience members, as citizens, is that elusive multiethnic, multicultural democracy that we are always saying we are the greatest experiment in ... is listing away from democracy and toward autocracy," De Shields continued. "We have to take individual and community responsibility for that. It's not going to fix itself. It relates to us in the theater, very personally, because that is the foundation of putting a show together: You have to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That's the essence of democracy."
"Hadestown" isn't the only wisdom that De Shields relies on. During his interview with TODAY, he brought up the concept of "agape," a Greek word which has been translated to mean the "highest form of love." To De Shields, that is the kind of power that people need to use to build the world he dreams of.
"(Agape) means 'I subordinate my desires so that you can have what you need, and you subordinate your desires so I have what I need,'" De Shields explained. "And that exchange creates what Aristotle referred to as the 'golden mean,' because you're not living in the extremes. But everywhere, everybody wants too much. That's another line from 'Hadestown': 'If no one takes too much, there will always be enough.'"
The actor has also established three "cardinal rules" that he relies on in his life. After outlining them in his Tony Awards speech in 2019, he explained them to TODAY in greater detail.
The first rule, he said, is to "surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming."
"Why? Because then, you know you are being embraced by people who want to help, who want to cooperate," De Shields explained.
The second cardinal rule, he continued, is that "slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be."
"What's at the essence of that rule is time," De Shields said. "People always say things like 'Life is short' ... When indeed life is not short. It's how you live it that diminishes it. Time is longer than anything, so live your life accordingly."
"Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming.”Andre de Shields
The third and final rule, the actor explained, is to see the top of each mountain as the bottom of the next, so "keep climbing."
"There's no such thing as having 'made it,'" De Shields said. "I applied that to my own thinking, as I was considering leaving 'Hadestown.' I think I've gotten to the pinnacle of Mount Hadestown. But look up, there's another mountain.'"