Could Hadestown writer and composer, Anaïs Mitchell have subconsciously predicted key elements of the world’s most devastating global crisis? The show’s world is one of suffering. Power and wealth reign supreme; the poor go hungry; seasons are unstable; and love is lost. In the real world, COVID-19 wreaks havoc, systematic racism forces persistent protest, border security fuels contentious debate, unemployment skyrockets, and climate change happens in real time. These challenges engulf our world beyond the theater as much as they do the musical’s dark side, sparking the show’s revolutionary score.
The fact that Hadestown feels so relevant may seem surprising, considering that its composition started more than a decade ago. Mitchell conceived “Wait for Me,” a fiery declaration song at the center of the score, several years before Hadestown saw a Broadway stage, early in her singer-songwriter career. “I was driving from one tip gig to another when the melody of ‘Wait for Me’ dropped out of the sky,” says Mitchell, who wrote Hadestown’s book, music, and lyrics. “It came with some long-lost lyrics that seemed to describe the Orpheus & Eurydice myth, which had been a favorite of mine as a kid.” Like his Classical predecessor, Mitchell’s Orpheus can change the world through music. Viral videos of hopeful Italians singing from their balconies during COVID-19 quarantine show that Orpheus’s ethos thrives throughout the globe. “I think what inspired me most about retelling that story was the idea of pitting young, creative, optimistic Orpheus against an underworld where ‘the rules are the rules,’” Mitchell says. “At first it was the idea of Orpheus, who believes if he could just write something beautiful enough, he could move the heart of stone. He could change the way the world is.”
Embracing music’s ability to trigger a spectrum of emotions, Mitchell wrote Hadestown to encompass healing powers, inviting audiences on a sacred pilgrimage to Hell and back. The musical’s more distinct lines, like “To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now,” and “If no one takes too much, there will always be enough,” offer hope to many in the present moment. “To me, those first lines are a reminder that even in hard times, there’s beauty and bravery and cause for celebration. There’s beauty in the struggle for a better world even if we can’t yet see the result,” Mitchell explains. “Orpheus is a hero not because he succeeds—but because he tries!”
Orpheus offers a glimpse at humanity’s fullest power by following through on his conviction for goodness and beauty. “Orpheus was by far the hardest character for me to write, in part because he’s more ‘pure’ than any other character,” Mitchell explains. “Hades, Persephone, and even Hermes and Eurydice have a sort of jaded quality, a world-weariness that is much easier to grasp and to write for. Orpheus is a dreamer, a genuine optimist, and that has been a challenge to discover and to express in writing. It’s hard to take an optimist seriously! For a long time, his optimism came across as overconfidence, which wasn’t in keeping with his sensitive soul.” Orpheus is the blueprint for optimism accelerating healing. His character urges audiences to look a little deeper for the good in the world, even if that search appears foolhardy.
As its characters quite literally travel the road to Hell, Hadestown encourages audiences to experience that which feels harsh and might seem inevitable, but cautions against letting such a harrowing journey breed fear or despair. “Why We Build the Wall,” the show’s bombastic Act 1 finale sung by a domineering Hades, for example, highlights the exclusionary powers of borders. “I wrote that song in 2006, and it’s one of the few songs that I wrote very quickly, all in one sitting, almost before I understood what it meant,” says Mitchell. “I was imagining a climate in crisis, a world in which many places had become uninhabitable and there were large populations of migrants knocking at the gates of the places of relative wealth and security. And the thought that popped into my head was, ‘When that happens, who among us is not going to want to be behind some kind of wall?’ Leaders (like Hades in Hadestown) have found it effective to use the language of the wall because it speaks loudly to a scared citizenry. The next thought that crossed my mind was the way walling others out has the equal and unintended effect of walling ourselves in.”
Mitchell’s concern has proven prescient. Since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, leaders around the globe have ordered citizens to remain locked within the walls of their homes while also shutting down borders to immigration and travel. During mandated stay-at-home orders, the world watched in horror for 8 minutes and 46 seconds the murder of George Floyd, another un-armed Black killed at the hands of police. Floyd’s unjustified death by those paid to protect and serve, sparked a universal outcry of “Black Lives Matter,” and “Enough is Enough.” Hadestown offers dogged hope in the face of seemingly endless gloom. As the pandemic rages and citizens of the world remain “walled in,” we have the same opportunity as Orpheus to focus on making the world a better place. He reminds us not to use material goods as the only source of satisfaction and happiness, but to look deeper for the music striking cords of love, humanity, equality, peace, and spirituality.