The Myth, The Musical
First performed on Broadway in 2019, Hadestown is a modern retelling of the Greek tragedy, Orpheus and Eurydice.
The musical takes place in a post-apocalyptic New Orleans. In a world full of Gods, because of the deal made between Hades and Persephone in the ancient fable, only two seasons exist, summer and winter. For half of the year, the goddess of spring visits the mortal world, providing her blessing of summer and wine. For the other half of the year, Persephone returns to Hadestown (the underworld) to be with her husband and the world turns cold as poverty plagues the protagonists, Orpheus and Eurydice.
The two main characters are differentiated by their backgrounds and worldviews. Eurydice is a girl who has been alone and starving her whole life, flitting from place to place in order to survive. She is very practical and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Orpheus is the son of a muse, in the process of writing a song so beautiful, spring comes again. He is gifted with the ability to plant hope into the hearts of others, confident that the world can return to the way it was before it fell into ruin. The two fall in love almost instantly.
Summer comes and they are swiftly married but soon Persephone returns to the underworld. They are ripped apart as Eurydice is caught in a snowstorm and makes a deal with Hades. Starved and dying, Eurydice agrees to go to Hadestown to be free from poverty, leaving Orpheas to come and find her.
In the underworld, Eurydice joins the souls who have sold themselves to Hades, only
to mindlessly build the wall surrounding Hadestown. She slowly realizes her mistake as she begins to forget herself and the life she once had. Eurydice is forced to participate in non-stop labor without any benefit or reward, besides never going hungry or cold again.
Orpheus makes his way to the underworld with the power of music, which shakes the walls of Hadestown, allowing him to enter. Orpheus and Eurydice share an emotional reunion but it’s soon squelched by an angry Hades. Orpheus is attacked by the mindless slaves and in defeat, he sings a song about the corruptness of Hades’s power and how he believes the slaves could rise up and overpower the king of the underworld. With a single song, the slaves slowly begin to come out of their cursed trance and listen to Orpheus, who manages to build a rebellion out of them.
Hades, frustrated that his own people and wife have turned against him, requests Orpheus to sing him one last song before he kills him. Orpheus sings the finished song he’s been working on throughout the tale, titled, “Epic Three.” The song is about how Hades and Persephone fell in love long ago. Hades and Persephone are so moved by the song that they share a dance and their love is rekindled once again.
Hand in hand, Orpheus and Eurydice ask to leave the underworld and Hades is faced with an important decision. To let them go would be to show weakness but to kill Orpheas would be foolish, for he would become a martyr. So, Hades tells the couple that they may leave on one condition. Orpheus has to lead Eurydice out of the underworld, but she must walk behind him, and if he turns around to make sure she’s following, she returns to Hadestown, and Orpheus can never see or come for her again.
Orpheus believes Hades’s condition is a test and is wary when he agrees, but he leaves the underworld with Eurydice in a single file line. As they walk, Orpheus suffers from his own internal turmoil. He’s convinced Hades has tricked him into leaving by himself and that Eurydice would not willingly walk back into the cold and dark again after selling her soul. Eurydice, on the other hand, feels hopeful and ready to restart her life with Orpheus as she follows him back into the mortal world.
Just as they’re returning to the light, Orpheus suddenly turns around and the world goes quiet. He sees that Eurydice is actually following him and in realization, he calls out her name just before she vanishes, taken back to the underworld.
The final number expresses how despite the tragedy and pain within their story’s outcome, we still tell the tale over and over, in hopes that it will turn out differently. The story continues as Persephone returns to the mortal world and spring comes once again. Orpheus wanders the world alone, despite restoring its balance, for he’s lost the one thing worth singing for.
Hadestown is still showing at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City today. Over this past spring recess period, I had the opportunity to see Hadestown live on Broadway. With a background in musical theatre, I was already familiar with the story and soundtrack but quickly realized it was an incredibly different experience to see in person. Overall, I enjoyed the performance considerably.
The production value is sufficient, with an initial investment of $11.5 million. The set consisted of several platforms and stairs within a three-wall structure, all surrounding a moving circular floor at the center of the stage. The circle was separated into three moving sections, two of which orbited the centerpiece that submerged into the orchestra pit. The jazz band was set up to surround the stage on the uppermost platforms. The tone of the set was rustic, represented by simplistic bar-style furniture, aged walls, bright, industrial lighting, and stained, wooden walls, floors, and platforms.
The costumes followed a modern yet specified style, depending on the character. The most distinguishable costumes throughout the show belonged to the chorus workers in the underworld setting. They wore worn overalls, caps, and goggles, which presented them as industrial railroad workers. I found this specific artistic choice to coincide with the reflection of the working class. Despite the age of the story, Hadestown was plunged into the future in order to represent modern themes interpreted throughout the tale.
Themes & Conclusion
Hades works on industrializing his city throughout the show, calling it his, “electric city.” His character represents the corruption of power in a capitalist society, taking advantage of impoverished people by manipulating them into becoming his mindless slaves. There are several hints hidden within Hadestown that suggest it reflects the Gilded Age. When Hades approaches Eurydice, he presents Hadestown as a gateway to freedom and comfort when in reality, it is only the rich (Hades) who reap these benefits from the working class.
Industrialization, depression, and capitalism all coincide with the underworld setting, despite the view of Hadestown being an escape for our protagonist, Eurydice. When she fell prey to Hades’s misconceptions, she represented a society of suffering people who fell prey to the materialistic schemes of large business owners and corrupt employers.
The show went deeper than its roots with the help of the creator’s choices in production, music, and visual tones, creating a larger meaning that exemplifies and broadens the original story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
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