MY THOUGHTS: Why An Orpheus & Eurydice Musical Still Resonates
There's something about the human desire and our constant hope for life's outcomes to be different than what they turn out to be. These themes are all too familiar in the tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has been adapted into a musical by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell in the form of Hadestown. Originally a folk opera album released in the early 2010s, it paved the way for a stage production which has been developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin of The Great Comet fame.
The show was produced by New York Theatre Workshop in the summer of 2016 with multiple extensions and played to sold out audiences. This off-Broadway production was later preserved for a live cast recording, captured at a June performance with legendary composer Stephen Sondheim in attendance, and was released in 2017. That same year, Canada's Citadel Theatre partnered with the producers of Hadestown to bring it to new audiences and give Chavkin's team the opportunity to re-conceive the staging of the production in a more traditional proscenium space. (The off-Broadway production was mostly in-the-round.) The journey of Hadestown continues as London's National Theatre has announced that the show will be part of its 2018/19 season and run from November to January.
I had the opportunity to see Hadestown in its off-Broadway incarnation a few weeks before it closed and it is the only higher-profile show, in my opinion, to come along recently that has given me reason to want to revisit it in any capacity with each and every incarnation that has come along so far. (Most shows follow the formulaic pattern of off-Broadway or out-of-town tryout; usually just one, then a Broadway run, and a tour. The vast expenses could be the major determining factor for most shows that follow this format, but one can only assume.) However, the most intriguing thing to think about is why would anyone, as an audience member, open themselves up for the opportunity to live through the phases of Orpheus and Eurydice's story over and over again when we all already know how it concludes? The way myths and stories are told constantly change over time like a never-ending game of telephone with multiple interpretations. But important facets, especially the ending, are usually the same no matter who tells it.
The show plays on this motif within several of the songs, including its opening number, "Road to Hell," in which Hermes begins the tale by introducing each of the major players. He lures in the audience to the familiar tale: "It’s an old song / It’s an old tale from way back when / It’s an old song / But we’re gonna sing it again." Then, leading us into Orpheus and Eurydice's first encounter, Hermes reminds us of their unfortunate end: "It’s a sad song / It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy / It’s a sad song / But we sing it anyway."
Hadestown, avant-garde in its nature, straying away from the boffo-like aspects of most high(er) profile productions, is embedded with a simplistic nature in its storytelling that eases and welcomes an audience into its open arms to tell a story of love and trust with a fresh musicality in this generation of pop and rock musicals with anthemic numbers that sound ready for radio. Trust, one of the biggest tests of all of human nature, is the biggest, and most existential, takeaway from the myth, but also in the story of how Hadestown has been developed.
With three previous major productions under its belt, and an imminent Broadway arrival slated for 2019, according to the show's website, the team behind Hadestown has definitely taken advantage of time during their process to allow the show to breathe, develop, be exposed, and reset itself for a new lens or two... at least until it starts all over again with each new incarnation. The same could be said about the reason we return to this ill-fated story of lovers who don't necessarily have the perfect ending that we long for in our own lives.
This shouldn't come as a surprise or be labeled a "spoiler" to anyone, but as Orpheus ascends the staircase, turning over his shoulder to ensure that his love is behind him, the audience is met with agape expression and mournful sighs from one another; Orpheus has broken the one rule that forbids Eurydice to return to earth with him. That brief glimpse he makes symbolizes a lost in trust that we, as an audience member, would have been able to affirm in Orpheus as if we were the embodiment of 20-20 vision. The moments that follow become hindsight for this tragic lover; a lover who knows that he knew better, but gave in to his human instinct, and must now live with regret for the remainder of his days.
When things happen in our lives, we subconsciously wish that we could see what Orpheus could not. Mostly, so we can reap the benefit of knowing how to make decisions that keep us from going on the journey that allows us to learn from mistakes. As painful as those mistakes can be, whether we make them or not, in some cases, that may be the only way to gain strength, whether it be in your mind, heart, or spirit. When we go in knowing the choice that we actually don't see Orpheus make until the latter half of the show, we also reap the benefit of empathy and being in a better position, if only for a brief moment, than what unravels for that man - an every-man, at that - in just one glance. We also become stronger and more hopeful than Orpheus because we think we knew better and were smarter than he. But as soon as we walk out of the theatre, there we are, faced with life's challenges, possibly even just as extreme as the lover and his lyre.
For me, personally, what resonates about Hadestown is not only what has been aforementioned, but when we feel that we've been through the trudges and despairs of what life has thrown at us, we can always use a little bit of strength to keep us going on that journey of life, whatever shape we are in. We should continue to use the gifts and talents that have been bestowed upon us to create a better world than the one we are living in. (Orpheus says,"May the world we dream about be the one we live in now," a powerful and moving line, especially in the state of our nation.) And even when things do not work out in our favor, sometimes it is up to our trust in the higher powers like the universe, God, fate (same as the three female Fates in the show), and, ultimately, ourselves to pick up the pieces and continue moving and working, just as stronger and more hopeful, if not even more so. Then, to quote Hermes, our story shall begin again... the story "about someone who tries"... us.