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I saw it first: Hadestown and the relevance of myth

cameron cravings

I always tell people that my first concert was The All-American Rejects when I was fourteen, at Higher Ground in South Burlington, Vermont.  That was a great show, but in truth my first concert was a different performance at the same venue a few years prior.  

My dad took my older sister and I to see Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown,” a gritty, still-developing, folk opera concept album that retold the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a setting somewhere between post-apocalyptic steampunk and Great Depression-era New Orleans.  

For years, it has been far easier to skip over “Hadestown” and tell people that my first concert was The All-American Rejects instead of having to list this jumble of quirky descriptors.  But since 2007, this unconventional project has evolved into an extraordinary Broadway musical that just won eight of the fourteen Tony Awards it was nominated for, including Best New Musical.  For the first time, if I were to mention Anaïs Mitchell, someone might actually know who I was talking about.

I was only ten or eleven when I saw “Hadestown,” and remember the night as a series of vignettes against a hazy background.  I remember clearly the excitement and freedom of being out with my dad, free from younger sisters at a real, grown-up concert.  He gave me a twenty at intermission and I bought a root beer and Mitchell’s “Hadestown” CD, which we listened to in the car ride home.  I felt so adult to be able to walk up to the bar in the dark corner of the room and order a drink, even if it was just a soda.  I remember the bizarre costumes the performers wore (lots of gas masks and utility belts); the stage lights making Mitchell’s hair glow copper; the unusual, sweet quality of her voice.

But most of all, I remember the story.  This show caught me when I was in the middle of a deep classical mythology phase that I perhaps never fully grew out of.  I was that weird kid who absolutely devoured the Percy Jackson series, as well as every other book Rick Riordan added afterwards—if we’re being honest, I have continued to buy and read his books, well into college.  Sue me.  

I was the girl who was actually excited to read Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in tenth grade; the girl who added Latin as a second foreign language; the girl who is now writing a senior thesis in the Classics Department at Duke. And when I saw “Hadestown” in fifth grade, I was enthralled by the idea that an ancient myth like the story of Orpheus and Eurydice could be retold and recalled to relevancy in a medium as dynamic and unexpected as this production.

I have not been fortunate enough to see “Hadestown” on Broadway, and from what I’ve read, it seems like the show has developed substantially in the ten-plus years since I saw it in Vermont.  But listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording, I’ve found that the same songs I listened to on CD, then on my iPod Nano, appear in an entirely new light just a decade later, although most of the lyrics are unchanged.  

The words of Eurydice’s heartbreaking lament, “Flowers,” echo differently in the post-#MeToo world: “Dreams are sweet until they’re not / Men are kind until they aren’t / Flowers bloom until they rot and fall apart / Is anybody listening?”  Hearing this song, I cannot help but think of the women I know who have been sexually assaulted, the physical and emotional pain suffered by them and so many others, and the names of actors, producers, CEOs, senators, and Supreme Court Justices who have inflicted that pain.  It wounds me to consider how many people could also sing Eurydice’s words.

And had I not personally heard it performed back then, I would find it hard to believe that Mitchell wrote the song “Why We Build the Wall” over a decade ago.  Hades’ philosophy of separation resonates profoundly in a country where thousands of people were recently unemployed for weeks because of an argument over a wall.  With a president who ran his campaign on promises to construct a wall between the United States and Mexico and to stop immigration from majority-Muslim countries in the interest of national security, the words of the charismatic, totalitarian Lord of the Underworld resound differently in my ears: “The enemy is poverty / And the wall keeps out the enemy / And we build the wall to keep us free / That’s why we build the wall.”  In this particular time and place, the songs of Hades and Eurydice strike an eerily parallel note.

These topical lyrics combine with a blend of musical styles, a female-led creative team, and a diverse cast to coax this ancient myth into 2019.  The musical concludes with the narrator, Hermes, beginning to recount the same story once more.  Wistful, he explains that even though we’ve heard this tale before, and already know how it ends, we keep telling and retelling it, always hoping that it might have a happier ending this time.  Through his songs, “[Orpheus] could make you see how the world could be / In spite of the way it is.”  The music and story have a power of their own, a magic that enchants and creates and has intrigued me since my ten-year-old, Percy Jackson-obsessed self first encountered “Hadestown.”  From that night, I recall the fiery stage lights illuminating otherworldly costumes and characters; the sweet fizz of root beer in a plastic cup; and the old story that I find even more compelling as an adult than as a child.  

Today, women are continually stripped of their bodily autonomy; walls regularly tear families apart; people are relentlessly oppressed by the systems that profess to lift them up.  But in the telling and retelling of stories like “Hadestown,” maybe we, like Orpheus, can see how the world could be, in spite of the way it is.  

Gretchen Wright is a rising Trinity senior who promises that the rest of this column will be more about food and less about her obsession with classical mythology. Her column, "cameron cravings," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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