Image Credits: playbill.com (Helen Maybanks)
Image description: Photograph of Eurydice (played by Eva Noblezada) from the musical “Hadestown” wearing a brown sweater and a patterned orange scarf singing and holding a red carnation on stage during a performance. In the background, other actors are also on stage but are not in focus.
TW: suicide, mental health
One notable feature of Broadway is its ever-shifting cast. Unlike movies, where there is one designated actor to play their specific character/characters, the ongoing runs of Broadway shows necessitate an eventual change of actors. Each new individual who is brought into any given role births a new iteration of the character, and it is not uncommon to see fans engage in debate over who interpreted the role best.
But sometimes, it’s not just the actual acting that makes up an incarnation of a character; certain roles are given new layers of interpretation when an actor of a marginalized identity steps into them. The most obvious example is “Hamilton,” which casts actors of color in the roles of the Founding Fathers and throws in some tongue-in-cheek lines to go along with it. The show’s race-blind casting has garnered both praise and ire from audiences. While many still view “Hamilton” as a revolutionary step forward for an industry widely known for its elitism and inaccessibility, a more recent wave of criticism has started to reevaluate its diversity as nothing more than a neoliberal fantasy. Simply casting actors of color as historically racist individuals sanitizes a history that is, in reality, very violent and is an easy way out of truly reckoning with the systemic nature of racism.
In a post-“Hamilton” world enters “Hadestown,” a retelling of the Orpheus myth that switches out ancient Greece for a post-apocalyptic Great Depression-esque world wracked with poverty and climate change. In Anaïs Mitchell’s rendition, familiar characters are given new life within this context. Orpheus is a starving artist. Hades is a stone-hearted capitalist who rules over a factory that represents the Underworld. Persephone’s status as the goddess of spring reframes her spoiled marriage with Hades as an allegory for the relationship between nature and industry.
And then there’s Eurydice, who we meet as an impoverished young girl, hardened by years of surviving on her own in an unpredictable landscape. Rather than simply dying and being used as a plot device for Orpheus’ journey, the musical returns agency back to her; she leaves Orpheus for Hadestown out of her own volition, led by Hades’ promise of a more stable life.
What’s even more special about Eurydice as a character is the fact that every major production of the show so far has cast her as a woman of color. In the 2016 Off-Broadway and currently ongoing North American tour, she has been played by Black women — Nabiyah Be and Morgan Siobhan Green — respectively. Eva Noblezada, who is Filipino and Mexican, played Eurydice in both the 2018 London run and the current Broadway production. While this may change with future castings as Mitchell has never said she intended for Eurydice to be a woman of color, it’s undeniable that the current casting choices add an extra political layer to an already very political story.
Eurydice’s arc is then easily analogous to the experience of many immigrant women in America who came to this country in hopes of creating a better future. In “Way Down Hadestown (Reprise),” the first song that gives us a true glimpse of the poor working conditions in Hadestown, Eurydice exclaims, “We’re free!” with genuine elation. And yet, as the song progresses, she comes to the slow realization that she has been deceived into working herself into the grave for Hades. She spends so much of Act I romanticizing the supposed security of Hadestown, only to find that the glamour surrounding it is simply a myth. The immigration allegory is reinforced by the fact that Orpheus’ journey is depicted as him having to cross a border, and once he is caught by Hades, he is beaten due to not having “papers” that allow him to be there.
Another facet of Eurydice’s character that is complicated by her being played by a woman of color is how her arc is intrinsically tied to mental health. “Hey Little Songbird” and “Flowers” both explicitly depict Eurydice’s suicidal ideation: “I want a nice soft place to land / I wanna lie down forever” and “What I wanted was to fall asleep / Close my eyes and disappear” are two examples of this. Much of her ideation operates on equating death to rest. But it’s not just depression she feels. It’s also utter exhaustion at having to exist in a world that is continuously cruel and unkind to people like her. Her emotional exhaustion also coincides with her physically exhausted state from being overworked. There is a lot of media nowadays that does explore the neurosis of female characters. The caveat is that many of these narratives, such as “Fleabag,” belong to white women who audiences obsess over and romanticize. In an era where white women’s mental illness is centered, Eurydice undoubtedly stands out.
Yet “Hadestown” doesn’t just triumph in its depiction of the struggles a woman of color faces, it also puts her in the center of a love story. It’s often rare to see women of color being loved and adored in romantic media, and probably even rarer to see one whose love interest would literally go to hell and back for her. “Hadestown” sweetens Orpheus and Eurydice’s story with the inclusion of the Working Chorus, the other laborers of Hadestown. This addition gives a political undertone to their love, which adds to its epic scale. Though the other workers had been resigned to their fates already, the effort Orpheus makes to save Eurydice ignites hope within them. This sentiment is echoed in “Wait For Me (Reprise)”: “Show the way so we can see / Show the way the world could be / If you can do it, so can she / If she can do it, so can we.” The love between them is at the heart of a blossoming revolution. Combine this with the grandness of the musical’s setting and its mythological roots, and you’ve got a sweeping cosmic love for the ages.
Though the musical ends the same way as the original myth, it boldly rejects more cynical interpretations of the story that see the ending as proof Orpheus’ lack of love for and trust in Eurydice or it serving as a testament to human fallibility. In the closing song of the show, the narrator Hermes remarks, “It’s a sad song / 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.” Rather than Orpheus being someone to ridicule, Hermes frames his hopefulness as a sign of strength and something to learn from. As this is sung, the actors reenter the stage and start setting up as if they were going to perform the beginning again. This is one of the truly ingenious aspects of the show. It uses the eight-show-a-week format of Broadway to enhance its messaging by providing a meta reason for why the show is performed over and over again. In addition, the narrative of the musical also seems to follow the cycle of the Hero’s Journey. These cycles evoke the feeling of repetition and predictability, yet the show also questions whether or not these things are fixed. The story is apparently set in stone, but “Hadestown” urges us to radically reimagine a world that exists beyond what we have often been told is unchanging.
This idea is the crux of Eurydice’s arc in the show. She starts off already cynical, and once her hope for a new life only results in her being exploited again, she becomes convinced that nothing will ever change. She doesn’t even think Orpheus will come for her until he does, and in the process, changes Hades’ mind and shows her that it doesn’t always have to be the way it is now. In that way, we are all Eurydice. We often go into the show knowing how it ends already, and despite that, there may be a moment when we’re watching Eurydice follow Orpheus out of Hadestown and think that they might succeed. We watch her struggle against the world and the silly part of us hopes that she’ll make it this time. Through her and with her, we start to see the world “the way it could be, in spite of the way it is.”