Theatre: Why ‘Hadestown’ Is So Good

Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney as Eurydice and Orpheus in ‘Hadestown’. Copyright goes to Hadestown, The Musical.

Hey! Hallie here!

Up until now I haven’t talked about Theatre at all. Which is actually weird for me because I have a college degree in Theatre. Musicals have always captured my interest more than straight plays. They can convey deep emotions and have a spectacle to them that plays hardly ever have. However, over the years a lot of musicals have followed a very old-fashioned way of thinking. Predominantly white casts are common, women sing songs that ask them to hit near-impossible notes, and men are still writing the majority of shows that make it to Broadway. Then ‘Hadestown’ came along. ‘Hadestown’ captures attention with their New Orleans-style set, jazzy folk songs, and interesting characters. It’s absolutely my favorite musical of all time and It’s worth exploring why this musical stands out amongst all the others that were brought to the Broadway stage. Let’s start with some background on the story.

Original Story:

‘Hadestown’ is a retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology. In the original story, Orpheus is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope. Because of his heritage, the music he created was so beautiful that no one could resist it. He falls in love with, and marries, a beautiful woman named Eurydice. However, after being married for some time, she gets bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus uses his music to make his sorrow known to the gods, and with the protection of the gods he manages to journey down to the Underworld without dying. His skills with his lyre win over every creature of the underworld. So much so that when he presents himself in front of Hades and Persephone, Hades agrees to give him a chance to escape the underworld with Eurydice. Hades tells Orpheus that Eurydice must follow him out of the underworld, with the catch that Orpheus can’t turn around to look at her until they have escaped. Of course, Orpheus begins to believe Hades tricked him and turns around, trapping Eurydice in the underworld. This story has been brought to the stage before, but none of the retellings have done as many important things with the story as ‘Hadestown’ has.

Characters:

Orpheus: Orpheus isn’t an amazing musician with heroic characteristics and very few flaws in ‘Hadestown’. Orpheus is a young boy who doesn’t know much about the world. He’s a talented musician and his genuine hopefulness in dark situations draw others to him. But he’s really awkward and often needs Hermes to look after him. Initially he comes off too strong when talking to Eurydice and he falls in love with her very quickly. When they finally decide to start a relationship, he ignores her when she’s suffering in favor of the song he’s working on. His love for her is genuine, though. He completely understands why she chose to go with Hades to the underworld and even feels guilty for ignoring her. He decides to go after her without hesitation, and unlike the original story, he doesn’t have the divine protection of the gods. He also doesn’t instantly win over Hades. Orpheus has to rally the other souls in the underworld against Hades and complete a song to repair the relationship between Hades and Persephone, in order to earn the chance to free Eurydice. And he still fails. All the work he had to do to free Eurydice makes him distrust Hades, and the once naïve boy becomes so skeptical of the people around him, and so worried about Eurydice, that he turns around.

Eurydice: As you can tell from the story above, Eurydice isn’t a very active character in the original mythology. Her main role is to be pretty, die, and make the tragedy of the story more potent. ‘Hadestown’ introduces an entirely new character with Eurydice. She’s only known poverty for most of her life and is initially skeptical of Orpheus’ life, apparently free of hard work. Eventually she is won over by his idealistic view of the world, but when he spends a harsh winter working on a song that won’t ultimately provide warmth or food for either of them, she becomes frustrated. When Hades offers to take her to a place where she won’t have to worry about poverty, she finds it difficult to turn down. She isn’t happy to accept. She knows she’s leaving Orpheus behind. But ultimately her fear of an unstable life and likely a miserable death causes her to choose to follow Hades. Eurydice is active in this story by choosing to go to the underworld herself. She does regret the decision after realizing what working under Hades is really like, but she stands by her reasoning. She doesn’t hate Orpheus for turning around, either. At the end of the story she has already accepted the fate she chose for herself.

Hades: Hades is much harsher in ‘Hadestown’ than he is in the original tale. From the beginning of the musical characters speak about longer, harsher, winters as a result of Hades’ reluctance to let Persephone leave the underworld for the warmer seasons. He’s also a tyrant who overworks all the souls in the underworld in order to build factories that will bring himself and Persephone more wealth and comfort. However, he doesn’t do these things because he’s cruel. He doesn’t want to part with Persephone for half the year because he fears that her time away has caused her to love him less. The wealth and comfort he wants are meant to be gifts for Persephone to prove his love. He simply doesn’t understand that these things are harming other people and causing Persephone to distance herself from him. He becomes angry at Persephone for ignoring him, brings Eurydice to the underworld in an effort to make Persephone jealous, and feels threatened when Orpheus begins rallying the souls of the underworld, including Persephone, to his cause. It isn’t until Orpheus completes a song reminding Hades that he’s been ignoring Persephone in his efforts to please her, that Hades realizes that he’s been wrong. He allows Orpheus and Eurydice to leave, but with the same task that Orpheus is given in the original mythology. In the musical Hades openly admits that if he and Persephone were to switch places with Orpheus and Eurydice, Hades himself would turn around. However, he has to balance his compassion with the reality that the rest of the souls shouldn’t be able to easily leave the underworld.

Persephone: Persephone, once again a very small presence in the original story, is probably the most entertaining character in ‘Hadestown’. She spends most of the musical drunk as a way of escaping how miserable her life has become. She enjoys coming to the living world to deliver Spring, but she hates how stifling and boring the underworld is. She also hates how harshly her husband has been treating the souls of the underworld, and the way he disregards the suffering of living humans when he keeps her in the underworld for too long. She argues with Hades frequently and even opens a speakeasy for the souls of the underworld, offering them sensations from the living world that they have missed since their death. Persephone becomes even more vocal about her opinions once Orpheus arrives in the underworld. She’s instantly angry at Hades for not letting Orpheus and Eurydice leave immediately after they arrived and openly admonishes him for being self-centered. She doesn’t hate Hades, though. She’s obviously very depressed about the strain in their marriage and becomes emotional when Hades decides to make amends. Persephone doesn’t completely forgive Hades, but she does appreciate the opportunity to put down the alcohol and work with him to create a healthier relationship.

Hermes: Hermes is a character brought into the musical to be a narrator. And he’s a very fun narrator. His only role in the story is to watch over Orpheus and to tell him how to get to the underworld. However, he sets the stage for many of the scenes throughout the musical. He also helps drive home the theme of the musical. Despite it’s sad ending, Hermes always praises Orpheus’ idealistic and hopeful nature. He points out that the reason the story is worth telling every time, despite it’s tragic end, is the hope that it will have a better ending next time. Despite the ways things are, there’s a hope that it can all be changed. Hermes presents himself to the audience as a teacher and a friend. And with all the dramatic flair he brings to the stage, you couldn’t ask for a better narrator.

What ‘Hadestown’ Did Differently:

Aside from boasting a diverse cast, it also brought a female writer-director team to the front of Broadway. Anais Mitchell wrote the music, and it’s very obvious the music was written by a woman. In shows like ‘Wicked’ the music written for women is ridiculously high. So high that many Elphaba’s have talked about vocal issues caused by the show. ‘Hadestown’ has beautiful music written for women that sits at a comfortable spot for both of it’s female leads. Meanwhile, Rachel Chavkin has used her strong influence on ‘Hadestown’ to demand that more women and POC get to take their directed pieces to Broadway as well. Between the strong female characters these two built from initially miniscule appearances, to the inclusion of POC leads, dancers, and musicians, the show they’ve created tells a very clear message. The world as it is can be dark, but we all have the imaginations to envision the world as it could be and take steps to make it better.

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!

Hallie

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