Warning: Spoilers ahead for Hadestown the musical.
You could say I was a musical theater nerd in high school. My phase started with Hamilton and lasted a good few years before I just didn’t have time for musicals anymore. I enrolled in college, I found new things to enjoy. I found it hard to get into new musicals, until Hadestown came along.
Hadestown is a retelling of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. Other notable characters are Hermes, Hades, and Persephone. The musical's sound is folk and jazzy, and its tone swings high to low as the story unfolds. Located in the Walter Kerr Theater, one of the most memorable things about the musical is its custom stage. The actors stand on a round stage with three concentric rings, the centric one able to be raised and lowered far below the stage. This function is first revealed when Hades comes to take Persephone to the Underworld, or Hadestown.
Hadestown has no delusions about the nature of its tragedy, and even if you do not know the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hadestown warns the listener “its a sad tale” in the opening number — The Road to Hell.
See, someone's got to tell the tale
Whether or not it turns out well
Maybe it will turn out this time
On the road to Hell
On the railroad line
It's a sad song
It's a sad song!
It's a sad tale, it's a tragedy
Sounds like a downer, but it’s the tone that keeps this opening so engaging. Actors sing and clap jovially on beat with “it’s a sad song” before jumping into the story. Maybe it will end differently this time.
The story is self-aware of its future. The motifs of cycles and rotation and repetition play into the fact that the story has been told many times before, and that it will keep repeating. The circular stage rotates, sometimes sending characters in opposite directions, or sends them fighting against the direction. The way the pieces of the stage can move clockwise and counterclockwise reminds me of the flow of time, and how Hadestown does not adhere to it. The musical unfolds linearly, but repeats itself at the end. During the final song before curtain call, Orpheus and Eurydice speak lines that they said in the beginning of the show.
Their story starts like this: Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love and Eurydice dies. In Hadestown, she dies by being tempted into the Underworld by Hades and his offer of a full belly. Orpheus, a prodigy with the lyre, plays a song that opens the way to the Underworld, and he pleads with Hades to free his wife. Hades in Hadestown will not let Eurydice leave, but after Orpheus’ song touches Hades’ heart, he offers to let the lovers leave under one condition: Orpheus has to walk out of Hadestown alone, with Eurydice behind. If Orpheus can make it out without turning around, then they will be free.
But it’s a tragedy, remember? Doubt creeps in and during the show’s climax, with Eurydice singing “I’m right behind you”, Orpheus, unable to take it any longer, turns to face her. The lights come up, blinding, revealing his fatal mistake. The stage lowers, and Eurydice disappears.
After a long moment, Hermes comes on stage and starts the reprise of The Road to Hell. It’s an old tale, he sings. “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.” Hermes guides the narrative of the ending, reflecting that we know how the story ends, and we keep singing it “as if it might turn out this time.”
And we’re gonna sing it again.
What could have been a somber ending accepts its events and turns hopeful. The chorus continues to sing as Orpheus and Eurydice join them on stage again, repeating their introductions from the beginning.
I can’t be the only one whose favorite play was Hamlet in high school. Something about the angst and the melodrama drew me to it. Hamlet is a tragedy, and further, Romeo and Juliet may be the most read play in high school. Like this pair of ill-fated lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice do not end happily.
There’s something magnetic about Hadestown. We know what will happen from the beginning, that the story will end badly.
But why do we watch, if we know it ends in tragedy?
David E. Rihas in his TED Talk theorizes that in the highs and lows of tragic stories we find catharsis — “a feeling of relief and emotional purification.” This theory of catharsis comes from Aristotle.
Tragedies can make us feel “at least that’s not happening to me”, or “I should hug my cat more.” We feel introspective and grateful for what we have, and can use tragedy as good distraction from our own lives.
What do I get from Hadestown? The satisfaction of watching Orpheus’ song evolve. Vindication when Orpheus and Eurydice make a plan to walk out of Hell together. Yes, I think, it’s going to work. The gut-punch of the bright lights coming up when Orpheus turns around. I watch Eurydice disappear, having fallen for Orpheus almost making it out. Somehow I hoped that this time, Orpheus will not turn around. But he does. And there is relief in that too.
Hadestown has taught me that there is satisfaction in tragedy. That even if a story ends sadly, it is still worth telling. And, that there must be a grain of hope in tragedy. Without it, Hadestown would not continue, and it would not have seen the success it has. Hadestown has won 8 Tony awards and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.