Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See includes the best representation of love that I have ever read in a novel. The two main characters—a 16-year-old blind French girl and an 18-year-old German soldier—meet In Saint-Malo, France, after traversing each other’s paths for the entirety of World War 2. Marie-Laure and Werner are together for only a few hours after being trapped for days in near-death experiences. With each rereading, I always hope the conclusion of the scene will be different—the words in the book will change, and my memory of the actual ending will somehow be wrong. That is how much Doerr has made me care about these fictional characters and their bond.
I experienced this same emotion in the Walter Kerr Theater while watching Hadestown. One decision I have made as a theater-goer is to learn as little as possible about a play before seeing it. I do not listen to the albums or watch clips online or read summaries of the plot because nothing can recreate the lasting impact of something unexpected on the stage. In the case of Hadestown, the moment I will always remember is the dramatic shift from a beautiful song to complete silence.
Beginning with what I did know before seeing Hadestown, the musical is inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. From that starting point, I was unsure what to expect from creator Anaïs Mitchell (who wrote the music, lyrics, and book). In Ovid’s translated words, Orpheus can write songs powerful enough to open the walls of Hades and bring tears to a God’s eyes, but could Mitchell’s music live up to that standard? The music in Hadestown is, in fact, masterful—a sung-through opera combining elements of rock, jazz, and country. From the opening song “Road to Hell”, a jazz-style dance number performed by André De Shields as Hermes, I was convinced that Hadestown was going to be extraordinary.
Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) sings most of her songs in a country/folk style, which is fitting for a character who is a runaway looking to stay on the move. Orpheus (Reeve Carney) falls deeply in love with Eurydice at first sight. He often sings in a rock falsetto with his power ballads conveying his overwhelming desires to create beauty and light in a darkened world. He wins over Eurydice with the aptly titled “Epic I” only to lose her with “Epic II” before his last desperate attempt to win her back with “Epic III.”
Just as intriguing as the love story between Orpheus and Eurydice is the much more damaged tale that Mitchell creates for Persephone (played by Afra Hines at the performance I saw) and Hades (Tom Hewitt). While Persephone once loved Hades, the intensity of his attraction for her has overwhelmed her into a manic depression exhibited in blues songs like “Livin’ it Up on Top.” Hades, in turn, deals with his wife’s absence by using the dead souls in his domain to build a massive, lifeless industrial complex in the underworld.
I will not discuss every aspect of Hadestown beyond hinting that the setting and the choreography are grand achievements. However, the greatest compliment I can pay to Hadestown is to admit that throughout much of the second act, I was increasingly overwhelmed with a sense of dread because, like most of the audience, I know how the myth ends. I sat entranced as Mitchell first convinced me to believe in the immense love shared by Orpheus and Eurydice. Then she convinced me to believe that Orpheus’s song conveyed so much emotion that Hades relents on keeping Eurydice’s soul. I even remember a brief moment of denial, thinking to myself, “Maybe this play is going to cheat. Maybe it will just skip the part where Orpheus fails.” Without giving away the ending, Mitchell’s script does not cheat, and the result is a moment of complete silence practically the equivalent of sitting alone in an dark, empty auditorium.
Rest assured, though, just as every other aspect of Hadestown works, so does the conclusion. Yet, when I get a chance to see Hadestown again, I am sure I am going to still hold out hope that maybe it will end differently—not just for Orpheus and Eurydice, but for all of the very limited number of characters so brilliantly created that their love transcends fiction.