A Return Visit To “Hadestown” Reveals The Story’s Eternal Resonance
The last time I wrote something about Hadestown, in reference to the original Broadway production, it was when I found myself harnessing the show’s themes to attempt to make sense of the pandemic’s earliest, most terrifying days. Thus, I am pleased to report that it is under rather less dire circumstances than I find myself now contemplating the show once more after seeing the touring production of the musical this past Tuesday at the Kravis Center, where it is now playing until this January 8th.
First of all, though the show’s original cast set an extraordinarily high bar for anyone following in their footsteps, I’m also pleased to report that I was in no way disappointed by the talented group of actors who took on the roles this time around. Though one could probably say that certain cast members lacked the out-of-this-world charisma or specific qualities that made their predecessors so extraordinary, all certainly succeeded on their own merits in embodying the essence of the play’s characters.
Though the standout here may have been Chibueze Ihuoma as golden-voiced orphan Orpheus, every major cast member got their fair share of moments to shine, including Hannah Whitley as headstrong heroine Eurydice, Brit West as wine-sodden goddess of spring Persephone, Nathan Lee Graham as soulful narrator Hermes, and Matthew Patrick Quinn as the menacing underworld god Hades.
The show’s set and technical design were also quite effective and at least in the same vein as I remembered them—though I don’t recall the staging details of the Broadway version quite as well as the performances, I know there that on this viewing there were a few jaw-dropping moments involving the show’s lighting I was viscerally awe-struck by.
Though I’m not going to spend too much time explaining the plot since, like, already done that, the musical is basically an expanded retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice which it is loosely based on. The most prominent added element is a storyline about the troubled relationship between Hades and his wife Persephone, with Hades presented as a ruthless capitalist exploiting his army of underworld slaves to build a self-aggrandizing empire.
He’s also been exploiting the environment, which, along with his marital feud with the goddess in charge making spring come, is causing climate disaster and famine. But one of the things I was struck by this time around was how little actually happens over the course of the show’s two and a half hour run time, which amounts to a fairly simple series of events—beware spoilers ahead, but if you remember the myth, the outcome was probably obvious anyway!
Basically, Eurydice signs away her soul to Hades to save herself from starvation, and Orpheus follows her to the underworld to attempt to persuade him to release her by playing him a song, failing at his main mission but helping heal the world in the process. And while this slimness of story should perhaps have made me feel as if the show could’ve been trimmed down, it’s hard to point to any individual moment that felt tedious or superfluous.
This is perhaps because of how well the piece excels at creating a mood and exploring universally resonant themes in its haunting and evocative score, which wrings an incredible amount of emotional power from the characters’ circumstances. For instance, “All I’ve Ever Known,” perhaps my favorite of the show’s numbers, gives weight to the otherwise flimsy love-at-first-sight bond between Orpheus and Eurydice by describing how much of a revelation it is for her to have finally found someone who cares for her after a lifetime of going at it alone.
And this time, knowing rather than assuming that no deus ex machina was in the cards, I found myself not only moved by the show’s wrenching ending but choking up when Eurydice is about to descend to the underworld, singing before she does:
I’m already gone.
It’s a line that reveals what I view as the show’s major takeaways in highlighting her fate’s inevitability; that in a world where capital dictates survival, many of our “choices” are not choices at all. And though I use the “our,” here, I ironically enough find myself writing this at a moment where I’m particularly aware of all the choices I’ve had the chance to make only because I’m lucky enough to have had certain advantages. Which, in a way, brings me to the next thing I found myself thinking about during my latest train ride to the underworld, which is this: in a world where oppressive forces are lurking around every corner, is slaving away in front of a lyre as Orpheus does—or a computer keyboard as I do—really the best use of time and energy?
As I’ve said before, I honestly don’t know; and to some extent I think I’ve chosen art over activism not because I believe it to be the most defensible option but because I believe it to be the more fulfilling pursuit. After all, when I write an article, or help put on a play, I have tangibly done something, however negligible the impact; but I could spend my whole life fighting for a cause I stand behind without ever seeing the seasons change.
But the value of continuing to fight even what seem to be losing battles is something that the themes of Hadestown do seem to speak to. This is particularly true of the show’s post-curtain-call closing number, in which Persephone entreats the audience to “raise their cups” not only to Orpheus but to all the others who “sing in the dead of night” and “bloom in bitter snow,” as opposed to standing triumphant in the sun.
“To Orpheus and all of us,” the song eventually broadens its scope.
And another of the show’s most poignant lines, an earlier toast that Orpheus throws out, reminds us of why these good fights are still worth fighting:
“To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now.”
The implied difference between those two things is something that haunts me more or less whenever I tear myself away from my latest Playbill to think about it—and all of us, especially the most privileged, probably could and should be doing more to help realize that dream for the sake of the most vulnerable. And while even songs as beautiful as Hadestown’s are unlikely to themselves bring about the healing of any of the world’s most pressing ills, perhaps they can at least call to mind the urgency of the plight, or even just bolster our spirits for the struggle. Which, as the show’s closing number articulates, makes them songs worth singing—and listening to—again, and again, and….