We frequently look back to Orpheus by retelling his tragic story over and over, always with the same result. He loves, he doubts, and ultimately he loses; such is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. This adaptation trend poses the question: why do we consistently return to tragic and old stories, particularly those where we already know the ending? Anaïs Mitchell’s 2019 Broadway musical, Hadestown, tries to answer this question by emphasizing our need for Orpheus and storytelling. The musical refuses to distance its classical subject from 21st century problems, such as climate change and capitalism. The musical focuses on the timeless quality of these issues and of Orpheus’ myth and cultural value. This focus suggests that our ongoing relationship with myths like Orpheus are indicative of a larger social need and optimism, or the hope that a tragic story may end differently if we just tell it right.
Hadestown is thus not simply an adaptation of Orpheus, but a self-aware commentary on our need for adaptation and storytelling.
The musical opens by inviting its audience to participate with the story and the act of adaptation. Before the music begins, Hermes walks to edge of the stage, smiles to the audience, and asks “A’right?”. He waits for our response, taking this moment to highlight how we participate with stories. We are waiting on him to begin, but he is also waiting on us. This creates a traditional storytelling circle, one which does not just talk around the audience but directly to them. Once he is satisfied by the audience’s response, Hermes returns to the stage asks the players. What follows is a wordless hum, a call and response melody which opens the musical’s first number; “Road to Hell”. These initial moments illustrate that the musical is an exchange, one which will involve both the players and the audience. It levels its characters with the viewer to suggest that the narrative will impact both and teach them something which they had forgotten; hope.
In his first lines, Hermes tells us that “Once upon there was a railroad line, don’t ask where brother, don’t ask when” (“Road to Hell”), which demonstrates that there is no specific time or place to distance his story or its engagement with us. The story of Orpheus, and the other figures Hermes introduces in this song, exist both then and now. Hermes later notes that his tale is “an old song from way back when…And we’re gonna sing it again”, which tells the audience something they already know; this is an adaptation of a familiar story – one where the viewer already knows how it should end. It also means that the musical relies on the Western cultural value of Orpheus, or the audience’s general familiarity with the story, in order to suggest that the act of retelling a story carries as much meaning as the story itself.
Mitchell’s musical emphasizes the function of storytelling through the motif of looking back, just as Orpheus ultimately does. Although it is a tragedy, Hadestown implies that there is something beautiful about returning to a story “as if it might turn out this time” (“Road to Hell”). So, while it might be “a sad song”, as Hermes suggests, “We’re gonna sing it anyway” because the act of returning is important. By turning back, as the musical and its characters do, perhaps we can see things we did not before.
Hadestown indirectly poses the question: why do we return to myths? Myths are born and circulated by generational retelling, meaning that this tradition relies on adaptation. While our culture often dismisses adaptation projects by suggesting that they are secondary to the original work, myths are treated differently. They function unlike any other kind adaptation, as they have been culturally integrated in a more widespread sense. Hadestown’s focus on retelling gestures to the oratory traditions of myths, where no one source is responsible for the story, and it exists cross culturally without an ultimate authority. (a type of transmedial exchange) Because mythology undergoes changes which reflect the audience and storyteller, myths are unique, not simply because of their age and cultural impact, but because they are difficult to track and often exist in both cultural memory and text. This means that myths are malleable, as we trade them and use them to define our culture versus another. Therefore, myths do not simply impact culture, but they change alongside it.
Mitchell’s musical incorporates these adaptation politics by focusing on Orpheus’ iconic position. While the Orpheus myth pits the hero against Hades, the King of the Underworld, Hadestown pits a penniless poet against a capitalist industrialist, one whose industry has desolated the world. This maintains the basic plot of Orpheus while introducing new dynamics and anxieties. One significant change is how the musical recontextualizes Hades. Traditionally, Orpheus is afraid of Hades because he is a God, or King. The musical changes this by making the character Hades represent something contemporary society is anxious about; global warming and industry. This effectively modernizes the dynamic between power and poverty, moving it away from Gods and Kings and into a discussion about proletariats and factory owners. By changing this emphasis, Orpheus’ story functions as a broader economic and social commentary. It is still about love, but also the forgotten love and optimism which Hades’ industry has stolen.
Likewise, Mitchell’s work is not just an adaptation of this traditional Orpheus model, but also an adaption of itself, and the various albums, casts, and productions it has undergone. Although the musical opened on Broadway in 2019, it has gone through various iterations over the last ten years. Hadestown was originally a 2010 concept album performed by Mitchell and her friends. The musical thus came from the music world and only later moved into the theatrical. Because the musical has been recorded three times -each with different performances, casts, and lyric- its framework is easily accessible. Each of these iterations are different versions or adaptations of the same musical. There is no definitive version of the musical as each album has some authority and popularity. Mitchell even suggests that the Broadway version will continue to adapt, noting “I’m still gonna rewrite…Maybe for a national tour, I’ll change a few things” (Mitchell in Lee) based her current opinion and the political climate. This means that Hadestown is both an adaptation of a myth and of the earlier versions of the musical. As such, both its subject and form highlight the process of adaptation.
Eurydice’s decision to go with Hades, rather than dying tragically, is the musicals most significant departure from Orpheus’ traditional framework, as outlined by Ovid and Virgil. How she arrived in the Underworld is less important than why she left. Eurydice faces a difficult choice of whether or not to go with Hades, rather than having the fates choose for her. This choice also troubles Orpheus’ journey and actions, as the traditional version justifies his trip to the underworld by suggesting that Eurydice died before her time. The same cannot be said of Hadestown’s Eurydice, as she was the one to pick the underworld, and Orpheus has no legitimate claim. Therefore, the narrative presents a more complex and ambiguous reading of these characters, where no one is guiltless, and all have made choices which they must claim responsibility for.
Another notable change is Orpheus’ characterization, which strongly differs from both Virgil and Ovid’s narratives. The musical attaches a recognizable contemporary trope to Orpheus by describing him as “a poor boy working on a song” (“Chant”). This makes Orpheus relatable, despite his god-like powers and actions. Traditionally, Orpheus is an accomplished hero who has already defined himself as an adventurer and musician, something he is still struggling with in Hadestown. Therefore, the musical positions Orpheus as ordinary person fighting for what is right, and not a God-like hero. In doing so, Hadestown fills in what Ovid’s narrative leaves out, particularly character’s emotional state. Ovid is interested in how things happened, why Hadestown focuses on why. Why did Hades let Orpheus try try and lead Eurydice out of the underworld? Why did Eurydice leave in the first place?
Ultimately, Mitchell’s work refuses to distance its characters as Ovid and Virgil do. We see their reactions and hear their thoughts. This means that the musical is not daunted by its own mythology. While its characters and source myth are epic, Hadestown transforms them into relatable and familiar shapes. In doing so, the musical illustrates that the act of storytelling and adaptation are necessary tools for interpreting our cultural world.