By Erica Polevoy
Erica Polevoy is a student at Brandeis University. A twice published author, their poetry has appeared in literary magazines and won awards.
I was never a fan of musicals. The loud, energetic bursts into emotional song, the exuberant dancing, were about as enjoyable as a headache on a redeye flight, sandwiched between two screaming babies. Musicals all seemed to be marketed to teens in high school, too, not college-aged people or adults. There was an immaturity present in them, such as the oft-used comedy of errors turning tragedy plot.
I’d been dragged to enough of them that I could recite the major plot points of the average, inexplicably popular, musical with my eyes closed. Awkward boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t love him back. Boy does something morally dubious, the truth comes out, and he has to deal with the fallout and the world around them falls apart or changes entirely. Am I talking about Be More Chill, Heathers, or Dear Evan Hanson, three of the most popular musicals? None of the above. I had the Beauty and the Beast musical in mind.
Hadestown, a recent Tony award winner, is different, though. I was first introduced to it by a friend, one who insisted that I listen to it, that I would love it. I politely put it aside for a few months, assuring him that ‘Yes, I will definitely get to it’. To spoil the story, I did definitely get to it. I was bedridden after a knee surgery and had nothing to do. Bored out of my skull, I’d run out of music I’d been putting off listening to, run out of projects in easy reach to tinker on, run out of movies that looked distracting enough to hold my attention. Begrudgingly, I pulled up Hadestown and pressed play.
I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed it. The course of the play, for once, was different. It is a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, focusing less on their love and more on the results of their actions. Eurydice ‘dies’ (goes to Hadestown, a sprawling underground metropolis-cum-necropolis, ringed by an ever-growing wall) not because she was bitten by a snake, but because Orpheus’ musical career was not enough to sustain them through the winter. The act that kicks off the plot is not a passive act, like falling in love, but one of active self-reliance. Orpheus’ love of Eurydice is not enough to make her stay, so she, instead, leaves to find work.
As the story progresses, Orpheus follows Eurydice into Hadestown, where he finds that she has soul her soul to Hades and will be doomed to work on his wall for the rest of her life. Devastated, Orpheus appeals to Hades and Persephone, who accept his terms, provided that Orpheus can sing a song so beautiful it makes Hades weep. Upon success, Orpheus is to lead Eurydice out of Hadestown, but is given one stipulation: he is not allowed to look back to ensure Eurydice is following him. Predictably, just as the light of the surface comes into view, he looks back, and all is lost.
Interestingly, though the main motivations governing the major plot are those of love, love itself is not the focus. What truly matters are the actions the characters take. Hades and Persephone are a prime example of this: Hades loves Persephone deeply, but, from her perspective, that love has faded into possessiveness. Hades is insecure, afraid that Persephone will leave him, so, out of love, he crafted a gilded cage to keep her in. When she rejected this, wishing to be on the surface, he simply tightened his shackles. The strain that this puts on their relationship drives them apart farther and farther.
It is far from a happy story, the audience is warned about this from the very beginning, but it is a satisfying story. There is a noticeable departure from the usual musical formula, different from the typical ending of everything changing and going wrong. Yes, there is change for the worse in Orpheus’ life, but, in nearly all of the other character’s lives, things go on as normal or, in the case of Hades and Persephone, even for the better. The success or failure of Orpheus lies in his own mind, there is nothing external driving him. It is his obsession with music that drives Eurydice away, his passion for her that leads him into the underworld, and his mistrust that makes him look back. Aside from Eurydice, no one else’s life is profoundly affected by his choices.
It was this, the tale told a million times, in a million voices, that drew me to Hadestown. It set itself apart right from the beginning, spoiling the ending in the very first song. It is as much a tragedy as a celebration of an oral tradition, passed down through the generations for millennia. Hadestown is more than just a musical: it is the most recent stop on a journey of folklore, traveling all the way back to Hellenistic times. It isn’t an original story, though the reimagining is. The characters are not unique either.
So, what is it about Hadestown that captures the mind? The score, for one thing, with its melodic motifs and driving lyrics, is quite memorable and enjoyable. The relationships, too, hold themselves in the audience’s mind. The contrast of Hades and Persephone, a long-married couple that have lost the love they once held for each other, with Orpheus and Eurydice, a young, optimistic couple that would give the world for each other and more, is also fascinating.
Ultimately, the appeal of Hadestown, at least, for me, was none of the traditional hallmarks of musicals, not the dancing, not the bursting into song, not the high emotions, but the desire to see another version of a story that has been told and retold countess times. By watching and listening to Hadestown, the audience is taking part in a long tradition of storytelling, in which the story mutates depending on the person who tells it, and it is a vital part of the human experience that many are no longer a part of.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.