Can art really change the world? You’ll be hard pressed to find a more enthralling argument around art’s potential than “Hadestown,” running through July 17 at the Paramount Theatre. “Hadestown,” featuring music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell, takes the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and layers into it conversations around capitalism, climate change and the ability for artistry to lead us to a better world. The challenge, however, is the same as it has been for the dozens upon dozens of retellings of this myth: How do you deal with the inevitability of the show’s tragic ending?
The baseline myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is fairly simple. Orpheus and Eurydice are in love. Eurydice winds up in the underworld with Hades and Orpheus goes to save her. Hades agrees to let her leave, but only if she walks behind Orpheus and Orpheus makes it entirely out of the underworld without turning around. It’s a test of trust — faith that his love is still behind him the whole way. It’s a test that, retelling after retelling, Orpheus fails. What sets “Hadestown” apart is that it manages to not only build the belief in its audience that this inevitable fall isn’t in fact guaranteed, but also show that, in that place of heartbreak, can also live inspiration and hope.
The 2019 Tony-winning best musical turns Orpheus into more than just a person seeking to rescue his love from the depths of the underworld. Here, Hades becomes a stand-in for capitalistic leaders, a king of oil and coal who preaches building a wall to preserve the freedom of those who work for him and keep out their enemies. Those enemies, in the eyes of Hades, are those living in poverty. He offers Eurydice a seductive deal, an escape from a cold, unyielding winter and an unending search for food and warmth caused by climate change. This musical (which actually got its start way back in 2006 before making its world premiere in New York in 2016) questions the freedom offered by capitalism and the way society condemns those who live in poverty.
Even writing that out makes “Hadestown” seem weightier than it ever feels as you’re watching it. Credit goes to director Rachel Chavkin and the design team behind the musical. “Wait For Me,” sung as Orpheus sneaks his way into the underworld, may be one of the most spectacularly staged musical numbers I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. (I don’t say that lightly, especially with “Hamilton” coming to town featuring a previous favorite in the double whammy of “Helpless” and “Satisfied.”) Lighting designer Bradley King’s work is dynamic, using headlights on the helmets of the coal miner ensemble, handheld lanterns and swinging lights hanging from the rafters. Couple that with Rachel Hauck’s clever set and David Neumann’s fantastic choreography and you have a technical marvel executed to perfection by this cast.
“Hadestown” is one of those shows where the cast is having so much fun that you almost want to jump on stage and join them. “Livin’ it Up on Top,” a number that features Persephone (Kimberly Marable) dressed in bright green against the muted colors of the ensemble around her, had many folks in the audience jamming out in their seats. Her counterpart, Kevyn Morrow as Hades, sings in a low rumbling bass in seductive and sinister “Hey, Little Songbird” as he tries to lure Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) to the underworld.
But at the center is an outstanding performance by Chibueze Ihuoma as Orpheus. After Orpheus makes his way past Hades’ wall and into the underworld, he sings, “I sang a song so beautiful the stones wept and they let me in.” It only takes one song listening to Ihuoma’s gentle falsetto to understand why. But what this whole musical boils down to is what Orpheus sings next: “And I can sing us home again.”
We all know the ending of this myth. And yet, in that moment, I absolutely believed him. Over the course of “Hadestown,” Orpheus is turned into a revolutionary whose words and songs are capable of changing the world. They make stones weep, they break Hades’ workers out of their industrial trances and they even manage to soften the coldest of capitalist hearts in Hades. When it comes time for Orpheus to lead Eurydice out of the underworld, it’s no longer just a hope for their future together, it’s hope for the future of all those enslaved by Hades. Watching that hope, knowing the inevitabilities, is heartbreaking.
So I wind up asking myself, if Orpheus is a stand-in for the power of the arts and of a leader capable of opening eyes and warming the souls of oppressors, what does it mean that he is doomed to fail? What does that mean, in a story so clearly talking about climate change and the perils of capitalism? Of course, because “Hadestown” is impeccably written, the musical has an answer for that as well. Hope isn’t in knowing he’ll succeed, it’s in knowing that even when he doesn’t, we’ll sing the song again and he’ll try once more. Yes, Orpheus always fails. But maybe, just maybe, next time he won’t. So we sing again. We keep going.