Anaïs Mitchell is a Genius & "Hadestown" is Proof

At the beginning of quarantine, as I scrolled through Twitter I came across a thread of someone’s favorite musicals. I of course looked through it and found a musical called Hadestown. The clip the Twitter user posted was of Eva Noblezada singing in “Doubt Comes In,” the third-to-last song on the album. I instantly opened Spotify and saved the musical. Later that night while I was embroidering, Hadestown transported me to a world of myth and magic.

I love Greek mythology; the only podcast I listen to regularly is Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby! Liv, the host, tells stories from Greek mythology through a feminist perspective. Listening to her, and especially how she tells the story of Orpheous and Eurydice, has admittedly oriented the way I listen to Hadestown. Red curtains closed on a stage Photo by Gwen O from Unsplash

Hadestown combines two myths: that of Orpheus and Eurydice and that of Hades and Perseophone. For those who may not know, a super simplified version of the first myth is that Orpheus and Eurydice get married, and on the day of their wedding Eurydice is bit by a snake and dies. Stricken by grief, Orpheus descends into the Underworld, becoming the first and only living human to do so. He finds Eurydice, and Hades is so impressed with Orpheus’ determination and love for his wife that he agrees to let Eurydice return to the living world—on one condition: Orpheus must not turn around to look at Eurydice before they are back in the world of the living. When Orpheus arrives back in the mortal world, he turns around to welcome her back, but Eurydice hasn’t entered the mortal realm yet so she’s immediately swept back to the Underworld.

In the story of Hades and Persephone, Hades falls in love with Persephone the moment he sees her, but her mother Demeter denies him when he asks for Persephone’s hand in marriage. Unwilling to accept that answer, Hades brings Persephone to the Underworld. While in the Underworld, Persephone eats six pomegranate seeds, which means she has to stay in the Underworld for six months of the year (she is allowed to return to Earth for the other six months). During those six months, Demeter, the goddess of harvest, becomes so depressed that no crops will grow. Ancient Greeks believed this is where the seasons come from.

Depending on which myths you’ve heard, Eurydice may not have been in love with Orpheus and was instead forced to marry him, or she may have been head over heels in love. Likewise, some myths say Hades kidnapped Persephone and tricked her into eating the pomegranate seeds while others say she willingly went with him, fell in love with him, and ate the seeds to get away from her mother.

Hadestown starts with Orpheus and Eurydice meeting for the first time. Orpheus, the son of a muse, is bright eyed and sees the way the world could be. His mother abandoned him, so Hermes, god of trade, sports, travelers, and also the guide to the Underworld, takes Orpheus under his wing. Eurydice has been running away from the ever-worsening weather trying to survive. She is quite the pessimist because she’s seen how the world is. Their relationship is strange for Eurydice because she isn’t used to staying in one place for long or having anyone keeping her in said place. On top of that, Orpheus has his head in the clouds and Eurydice isn’t sure he’ll really be able to provide for them. Hades has broken his promise, only allowing Persephone to live on Earth for three months of the year. Humans are starving and dying, and Persephone has started drinking to cope with how unhappy she is in her marriage and with what the humans are going through.

On its surface, Hadestown is a beautiful combination of two popular myths told with amazing music by extremely talented Broadway actors. I’ve watched a bootleg of Hadestown (I wanted to wait to see it in person, but I don’t know when that will be possible with the pandemic), and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sing like Eva Noblezada, who plays Eurydice. I get chills from every song she’s in, and watching her perform in the bootleg was truly something else. Everyone on stage is mind blowingly talented, but when Eva Noblezada is on, she rules the stage.

Looking deeper into Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell, the creator of the musical, seemed to predict the future when writing. The original version of Hadestown premiered in 2006, but some of the imagery is frighteningly applicable to the world we live in now. For example, many of the souls in Hadestown went to escape the horrible conditions they were living in on Earth. Once they enter Hadestown, though, they must work for eternity, building a wall. In the song “Why We Build the Wall” Hades asks the souls, “Why do we build the wall, my children?” To which the souls reply, “...we have and they have not / because they want what we have got / 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.” Every time I listen to this song, I’m shocked at the direct parallel between Donald Trump insisting the United States is going to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the country because “they steal our jobs” and how the souls in the underworld are building a wall to keep out some unidentified enemy that will bring poverty. In reality, many of the Mexicans that Trump wants to keep out of the country are doing grueling labor that Americans really don’t want to do. Similarly, the souls don’t have to worry about poverty anymore; they’re dead. They never have to eat or sleep, and there is no threat to them. Hades abuses his power to torture the souls for eternity just because he can.

When Eurydice arrives in the Underworld, she tries to introduce herself to the other souls there. When she asks the Fates why no one can hear her or will look at her, the Fates first reply, “They can hear / but they don’t care / no one has a name down here,” and then, “They can look / but they don’t see / You see? It’s easier that way / your eyes will look like that someday / ...That’s what it looks like to forget / ...who you are / and everything that came before.” The Fates explain to Eurydice what she really gave up in signing her life away to Hades. He promised her that she would never go hungry—her biggest problem during her life on Earth—but the truth is that she’ll lose everything about herself in order to be another pawn to Hades. At the end of the song “Way Down Hadestown,” Eurydice tells the Fates she has to go back, to which the Fates reply, “Oh? And where is that? / So, what was your name again? / You’ve already forgotten.” In this song, Eurydice learns that no matter how hard she fights or clings to who she was before, she means nothing to the machine she is now working for.

There are a million other things I could talk about in terms of her writing, but the genius of Mitchell goes far beyond her lyrics. The casting is equally important in how Hadestown is interpreted. Orpheus is a character who doesn’t spend too much time worrying about the bad things happening to people on Earth because they haven’t affected him much, and he believes that he alone can fix it; it’s no accident that Reeve Carney, a talented Broadway actor who happens to be a cis white man, plays such a character. (Mitchell’s casting here is brilliant, though she probably couldn’t predict just how accurate it would be. Throughout quarantine, Carney’s girlfriend Eva Noblezada has been posting pictures from Black Lives Matter protests while Carney has been posting pictures of celebrities wearing masks with the caption, “Article link in bio.” While he was encouraging his followers to wear masks, the link in his bio takes us to his website where we can buy his merch.) For the entirety of Hadestown, Orpheus is working on writing a song that will bring back spring since Persephone is unable to do so. He’s working on this song when Eurydice is blown away to Hadestown (what the Underworld is referred to in this musical). The myth is changed slightly, so instead of Eurydice dying by snakebite, she’s blown away by a storm and given the choice to go to Hadestown, where she will never be hungry. Eurydice calls for Orpheus as she is blown away, but Orpheus is so involved in his song that he doesn’t hear her calling.

Similarly, Hades is played by Patrick Page. Page is also a cis white man, and at 58 years old, he tends to be the type of person in charge. I absolutely adore Page; he’s very open about his struggles with anxiety and what he’s had to do to overcome certain obstacles. He’s extremely talented and has starred in a number of theater performances, and his voice is unlike anyone else’s. His incredibly deep voice makes his performance of Hades, especially in the more threatening scenes, pretty damn perfect. Casting Page as Hades makes the musical all the more real because the person in power—the person controlling the entire story—looks like the people in power in real life.

Contrastingly, Eurydice is played by Eva Noblezada. Noblezada, Filipino-Mexican-American, starred in the recently released film Yellow Rose, which tells the story of a single Filipina mother and her daughter struggling to remain in the United States. When Black Lives Matter protests were happening every day earlier this year, Nobelzada went to as many as she could, holding signs that said, “Asians for Black Lives Matter.” Like so many women do, Noblezada experiences issues with body image and self-love and acceptance—and she’s really open about it. I’ve only seen one other person with a platform like hers be so open about this. Noblezada also struggles with anxiety and depression and is honest about when she’s going through bad spells. In short, much like Eurydice, Noblezada has seen how the world is, but unlike Eurydice, who runs away, Noblezada gives much of her time and energy to try to fix it.

Amber Gray, a mixed-raced, phenomenally talented actress, plays Persephone. Gray has said she knows “that deep, deep sadness, self-medicating and self-numbing” that Persephone experiences in Hadestown. Gray is proud of herself for not being in that place anymore, but says it isn’t painful for her to revisit as Persehpone on stage. I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing Peresephone, as Gray’s voice and energy are unique and really bring the character to life. The fact that Gray is mixed race really brings a lot to the character. Persephone gives the humans her all in the short time she’s allowed to be on Earth; in parallel, we’re seeing and hearing Black women give so much of their heart and energy to everyone who needs it, and unfortunately, that energy is rarely returned. The casting decisions in this show reflect the real world and real-world issues, making the musical all the more captivating.

Hadestown is one of those shows where you can learn something new every time you listen to the soundtrack. My friend Hannah and I regularly message each other geeking out over a new thing we noticed or a new theory we thought of. I highly recommend that anyone interested in musical theater or Greek mythology gives Hadestown a listen; I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.