Now where she had been: only
a gaping hole in air,
an emptiness he could fill with song.
In the first song of Anais Mitchell’s song cycle-turned-musical Hadestown, Hermes tells the audience everything they need to know: “It’s an old song,” he sings. “It’s a tragedy...but we’re gonna sing it again.” The main (and side, such as exist in this mostly five-person musical) characters are introduced: Persephone, Hades, Hermes himself, Orpheus, and Eurydice. The audience, he assumes, already knows how this will all end. Boy meets girl; girl dies; boy tries to save girl; boy fails. But maybe, Hermes says, it will turn out different this time. So, we’re gonna sing it again.
Music is a strange thing, and musicals stranger still. Some things can’t be simply said, they say, and so they must be sung. Hadestown is a sung-through musical, meaning that if you listen to the 40-track Original Broadway Cast album, and are diligent enough to look up lyrics, notes, and even the occasional video to help you, you can more or less understand what is happening. Which is not to say that the theatrical version of Hadestown becomes unnecessary. Not that I have seen it, mind you, but I wouldn’t dream of saying that because I have listened to the cast sing on Spotify I know everything about the musical. Perhaps the exact opposite.
Anais Mitchell first began writing Hadestown in 2004, in the middle of the Bush years, and the songs were originally released in 2010 as a folk opera, with people like Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) as Orpheus, Ani DiFranco as Persephone, and Mitchell as Eurydice serving the parts that would later be filled by Reeve Carney, Amber Gray, and Eve Noblezada (with Patrick Page rounding out the Broadway cast as Hades). If you want, you can still listen to that original recording, and try to judge how Vernon’s Orpheus compares to Carney’s. If you are particularly obsessive, you can even compare them to Damon Daunno, who plays Orpheus in the Off-Broadway Cast Recording, which is also stream-able.
All of this has piqued my interest in the past few weeks, as I have been listening to parts of the Hadestown soundtrack over and over again (specifically: “Come Home with Me,” “Wait for Me,” any of the “Epic” songs or “Chant”.) This happens with me: I become obsessed with an album, or a musical, what have you, and I can’t stop re-listening.
Which is only appropriate for Hadestown, a musical that seems to be built around the idea of itself as a musical. It is a musical both about how art can save us and how, especially in an apocalyptic world, hope might be the only thing we have left. It is an idea that would probably resonate no matter when it came out, but it is particularly relevant to 2019.
It might be self-aggrandizing for a songwriter to write an entire musical about the power of music, but Mitchell does such a good job of folding those ideas into a musical that encompasses everything from love and tragedy to climate change and addiction and also, somehow, Trumpian ideas about how to build a society. It is an incredible thing to consider, and yet one of the things that sticks with me is the way that Hadestown embraces both the highs and the lows--literally: Patrick Page’s voice is diabolically pitched beneath the bottom of any normal human’s register for most of the musical, while Reeve Carney’s voice lilts to the upper reaches of his falsetto. Gray’s voice is like few others that you will hear--it is able to evoke the pain of heartbreak while also reveling in the vices that are used to ease those feelings--and Noblezada’s voice is clear and strong, giving Eurydice more agency than most adaptations of the story do, while still allowing her to be flawed and human. That the performers are able to convey all of this while singing through the entire musical only adds to their performances. (Also, many words have and should be said about André De Shield’s performance as Hermes, which is able to do so much with a character that could easily be nothing more than a kindly narrator.)
All the while
He only had to turn
and she was there.
Hadestown is about circularity, the recurrence (or not) of the seasons, of ideas, and because this is a musical, of songs and musical cues. Leitmotiv is something that Hadestown does very well, layering in melodies and lyrics that circle and cycle and return throughout the show until at the very end we realize that the returning is the point. The victory is not in reaching terra firma with your beloved; it is in striving to take that journey at all.
The music in Hadestown is mostly folk-inspired, which makes sense given Mitchell’s background, but they are also heavily influenced by old spirituals and the kind of song structure that feels primordial, as if it were gifted to humans along with fire from the gods. Many songs repeat ideas and add onto them, like “Why We Build the Wall,” whose refrain goes from a single line in the first iteration to a thundering chorus by the end of the song, with Hades bellowing the words along with all his workers in a way that would be rousing if it weren’t so terrifying.
Similarly, a song like “How Long” uses repetition in different ways, with each verse ending with some sort of rhyme with “-it” and the repetition of another word, as seen in this verse:
All of the sorrow won't fit in his chest
It just burns like a fire in the pit of his chest
This is repeated in each verse, ending with the line, “And the earth is a bird on a spit in the sky,” and then the repeated question, “How long?” The song is about Hades’ bitterness and greed, a self-defeating character trait that has driven Persephone to drink too much and depleted his most important relationship of any of its love (which has also plunged the world above into a climate crisis not unlike what the world is currently experiencing). It is only fitting that Hades’ circular thinking would be echoed in the circularity of the lyrics here.
Of course, there are also many versions and reprises of some songs throughout the musical, as is common in many musicals. I want to pay attention to one in particular though: “Wedding Song” and its answer in the 2nd act “Promises.” In the first one, Orpheus and Eurydice are planning their wedding despite the fact that they are both penniless. They dream about how Nature will provide the wedding table, the rings, and the wedding bed. After everything they have gone through however, they realize they don’t need any of that. “Promises” reflects the changes they have both undergone: they can’t promise each other anything except that they will walk beside each other. The song ends with each other saying “I do” and “I will,” completing the promise of marriage that was made earlier in the show. It is a very tender moment in the musical and one that the audience knows cannot last, but that doesn’t stop it from having power for the receptive audience member.
How can I celebrate love,
now that I know what it does?
When I told Mary I wanted to write about Hadestown, she asked me what I wanted to say about it, and I rambled off a list of about a half dozen ideas I had bouncing around. Like, do I mention that the Off-Broadway Cast Recording has Chris Sullivan (aka Toby from This is Us) in the role of Hermes? Or do I try to connect Hadestown to my favorite collection by the poet Gregory Orr, which is itself a lyric re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth? Do I just gush about how romantic the whole thing is, even knowing how it ends? I could spend an entire blog post talking about my favorite parts of the cast album. Or link to this truly wild performance by Patrick Page as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (which would also require me to link to this Comedy Bang Bang parody of the same performance, featuring Thomas Lennon). Or, of course, I could talk about Slumdog Millionaire.
Released in 2008, Slumdog Millionaire might be one of the more forgotten winners of the Best Picture Oscar, sandwiched as it is between No Country for Old Men in 2007 and The Hurt Locker in 2009. While I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing it is safe to say that for a few months in 2008 (and early 2009) I was obsessed with Slumdog Millionaire. I bought its soundtrack, a thing I rarely did then and certainly would not do now, and fell in love with its story of two people separated and then almost brought back together throughout the film. I became convinced that the movie was not merely a tale about how improbably one can be prepared to be on a quiz show, but also a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. In one scene, the main character, Jamal, is standing at a balcony in a busy train station, when he spots his childhood friend, Laitka (played by Freida Pinto). He smiles at her, she steps into a train, and then she is gone, returned to the Underworld she is being forced to live in.
The moral’s clear:
a mortal’s a blossom
the earth opens for.
The ending for Jamal and Latika is bittersweet; for Orpheus and Eurydice it is a tragedy. Orpheus loses his beloved and is torn apart by maenads. In Orr’s telling, his severed head sings as it travels downstream. I like this version best: the idea that Orpheus cannot stop making music, even in death, is a comfort, though it could also be a kind of prison, I realize.
Hadestown is a musical about recurrence, return, how stories shape us not because of what happens in them, but because of what happens in us when we hear them. As Hermes sings,
I learned that from a friend of mine.
That’s one of the great things about stories: they don’t ever change, but the audience does. How I feel listening to Hadestown now is not how I will feel years from now, and is certainly not how I would have felt if I had heard Mitchell’s original folk opera in 2010. This is not a new idea. Hadestown knows its moral is not apocalyptic--it is a simple idea, simply told, but in such a beautiful package that it becomes more beautiful. The main symbol for the play is a red rose, which Orpheus holds in his hands during one of the more moving songs, “Wait for Me,” a song about how he will do anything to get to Eurydice.
This same song, like many of the others, gets a reprise in the 2nd act, serving mostly as a song that Eurydice sings to Orpheus to let him know that she is right behind him. But Orpheus can’t hear her, or refuses to acknowledge her, because of the doubt inside of him. And so the story ends the way that it must, but not before it starts over again, Eurydice stepping off a train and asking a stranger for a light.