A (mental health) Ode to Hadestown

It’s no secret that I love musical theater. It is just about the only music I listen to, and the Broadway station is the only radio station I use in my car. I am eagerly waiting for the re-opening of Broadway and local theater, community theater included, once COVID is better under control.

One of the hottest (pun intended) shows that was running before the shutdown was Hadestown. It won several Tony Awards last year, included Best New Musical. The plot merges the Greek mythologies of Orpheus and Eurydice with Hades and Persephone. There’s a sprinkling of Hermes and The Fates in there as well.

To oversimplify these stories: Orpheus is the one whose wife (Eurydice) dies; he goes to the underworld to get her and has to walk out without turning around to see if she was following. Otherwise, she stays in the underworld. Spoiler alert: he turns around. Hades is ruler of the underworld, and his wife is Persephone, a great beauty who makes things grow. Their story explains the seasons: Persephone spends half her time above (summer) and half her time below with Hades (winter).

I have listened to multiple versions of the Hadestown cast album many, many times. I was lucky enough to see the show in New York last December. I was in love with it then, and I am still in love with it now. Even though I press play on the album knowing Orpheus will turn around in the end, it still makes me emotional every time.

Anyway, long story short, a lot of the lyrics resonate with me in a mental health way. That’s not the main reason why I love the music, but it is a neat bonus. I wanted to share some of these words, written by Anaïs Mitchell, with all of you.

[HERMES]: It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy
It’s a sad song

[Chorus]: It’s a sad song!

[HERMES]: We’re gonna sing it anyway

“Road to Hell”

The musical opens with “Road to Hell,” an introduction of all the characters in the story. A theme repeated is that this is a sad song. Most everyone knows the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice; we know he will turn around. That makes it a sad song, but we still sing it. I love this because it shows that we cannot hide from pain. We cannot avoid “negative” emotions. They will always reappear, so it’s better to face them head on.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

[CLOTHO, FATES]: And there ain’t a thing that you can do

[LACHESIS, FATES]: When the weather takes a turn on you

[FATES]: ‘Cept for hurry up and hit the road
Any way the wind blows

“Any Way the Wind Blows”

The Three Fates follow Eurydice, hinting and taunting at her dark future. Not only do they have killer harmonies, but they also have some lovely lyrics, including those above. I can see The Fates as a metaphor for OCD or other unhelpful thoughts. They follow incessantly. What matters though is how we act.

Photo by Helen Maybanks

I was alone so long
I didn’t even know that I was lonely
Out in the cold so long
I didn’t even know that I was cold
Turned my collar to the wind
This is how it’s always been

All I’ve ever known is how to hold my own
All I’ve ever known is how to hold my own
But now I wanna hold you, too

“All I’ve Ever Known”

This is one of Eurydice’s solos. Again, we’re moving past the fantastic voice of Eva Noblezada and the beautiful melodies far too quickly, for the sake of discussing the lyrics. The song shows Eurydice as she falls in love with Orpheus, and realizes she has fallen in love. How often do we get so used to pain or suffering or sadness or depression because it is all we know? I know when I finally came out of my depression, I was shocked at what normal felt like. I was so low and so used to low, that I didn’t know I was low any more.

Why do we build the wall and then call it freedom?
(Oh, keep your head-)
If we’re free
Tell me why
I can’t look in my brother’s eye?
(Keep your head-)

“Chant (Reprise)”

Skipping ahead, this “Chant” reprise is sung by the workers chorus. They live in Hades’ underworld and work continually building his wall and infrastructure. At this point, Eurydice has died and joined the workers. And I think their chant is such a perfect metaphor for OCD. Doing compulsions feels safe. It’s like building a wall. It feels like we are reducing danger, but really we are shrinking our lives smaller and smaller.

Photo from Theater Mania montage

The meanest dog you’ll ever meet –
He ain’t the hound dog in the street
He bares his teeth and tears your skin
But brother, that’s the worst of him
Now the dog you really got to dread
Is the one that howls inside your head
It’s him whose howling drives men mad
And a mind to its undoing

“Wait for Me (Reprise)”

Okay, the “Wait for Me” reprise is my favorite song in the entire show. It’s a popular choice, too, because it’s just so dang good. And the choreography. Wow. Anyway…the song starts with an introduction by Hermes. He expains to Orpheus and Eurydice that they can walk out of the underword, but not together. And Orpheus can’t turn around to make sure Eurydice is still there. He has to ignore his doubts and just trust. This warning by Hermes is so poignant. It says it all.

[FATES]: Doubt comes in
The wind is changing 
Doubt comes in
How cold it’s blowing 
Doubt comes in and meets a stranger
Walking on the road below

[Eurydice]: Cause the darkest hour
Of the darkest night
Comes right before… [the dawn]

“Doubt Comes In”
Photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times

Orpheus and Eurydice begin their walk out of the underworld. The fates are ever-present to torture Orpheus with doubt. Eurydice tries to comfort him with reassurance, but he can’t hear her. Just like with OCD, reassurance doesn’t work, or at least not long-term. Still, I find Eurydice’s reassurance comforting. Though Orpheus turns around, it’s often true that “the darkest hour comes right before the dawn.” When we feel like giving up, we must keep going.

It’s a sad song
It’s a sad tale
It’s a tragedy
It’s a sad song
(spoken)
But we sing it anyway

‘Cause here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
I learned that from a friend of mine

“Road to Hell (Reprise)”

Hadestown then ends in the most beautiful way it could. It starts over. We tell the tale again. And though it’s a sad song, and we know it will be sad, we tell it again though. We continue to face our emotions and pain because that is the only way we can live life fully. That is where we can find beauty in life.

Morgan

Here is the Original Broadway Cast Album on Spotify:

I also love this live, pre-Broadway version:

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