At the end of Broadway’s Hadestown, Hermes praises the virtue of singing an “old song” even though you “know how it ends.” It is best to sing “a sad song,” he tells the audience, “as if it might turn out this time.” Hadestown is such a song—an adaptation of the Orphesus and Eurydice story from Greek mythology.
Though the story is now over 2000 years old, and the tragic ending well known, it remains irresistible to writers working in many genres, including theatre. At The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, you can find artifacts from many of the previous times the story has been told (and sung).
Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice
One of the oldest musical theatre adaptations of the Orpheus myth is Gluck’s 1762 opera, Orfeo ed Euridice (or Orpheus and Eurydice). Originally produced in Vienna, this opera quickly entered the repertory and continues to be staged today. In 1959, the opera was presented at the Vancouver International Festival with a first-class creative team including orchestra conductor Bruno Walter (whose name graces the Library’s auditorium), Hanya Holm (who choreographed Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, and Camelot), and Donald Oenslager (namesake of the Library’s largest exhibition gallery and the designer of many Broadway shows, including the original production of Anything Goes). In Oenslager’s papers, which are preserved at the Library, there are five full folders of material related to this production, including this letter and fabric swatch for the material to be used for the male dancers’ costumes.
Jacques Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers or Orpheus in the Underworld
Jacques Offenbach was a mid-19th century European composer of comic operas and operettas that pushed the form along the path that would later be continued by Gilbert and Sullivan in England. His first full-length operetta was a retelling of the Orpheus myth, Orpheus aux enfers, literally “Orpheus in Hell,” or sometimes translated as “Orpheus in the Underworld.” In this version, Orpheus is a music teacher who is not in love with Eurydice (his wife), but is actively seeking to lose her despite the interventions of the character Public Opinion who insists that decorum requires them to stay together. In 1953, the Library Theatre Division’s namesake, Billy Rose, announced his intention to create a Broadway musical adaptation of the operetta with lyrics by Yip Harburg (The Wizard of Oz, Finian’s Rainbow). The musical never made it to Broadway, but the Library preserves a letter from Rose’s lawyer passing along the contract (and referring to “Yipper” Harburg).
The Living Theatre’s Orpheus
In September of 1954, Julian Beck and Judith Molina’s experimental theatre company, The Living Theatre, produced a stage version of the 1949 film Orpheus directed by Jean Cocteau. Unlike Hadestown, the particularities of this adaptation were strange and convoluted, but akin to Hadestown, the action begins in a café. The Library preserves the records of the Living Theatre including several handwritten notes outlining the shape the production might take. The first note sets the scene:
“In a very neutral environment located on the second story above a fruit + vegetable market, one feels oneself suddenly enchanted. As soon as the curtain of this tiny stage parts, we live in the world of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus and are unbound by the unrealistic poet Orpheus + his modern realistic wife Euridice. There is much humor in this play and the lightness with which it is handled transforms mythological tragedy into a modern fable.”
Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending
Tennessee Williams‘ 1957 adaptation, Orpheus Descending is the playwright’s attempt to rewrite his earlier, unproduced play, Battle of Angels. The connections between the play and the Orpheus myth are somewhat more subtle than many of the other adaptations, but elements of Williams’ play are easily recognizable in Hadestown. Like the Hadestown, William’s play is set in the American South, and features an Orpheus character who carries a guitar around for much of the first scene. Rachel Hauck’s Tony-winning set for the Broadway production of Hadestown is not unlike Boris Aronson’s for Orpheus Descending (pictured in the above archival photograph by Robert Galbraith). In the archive, along with Aronson’s set designs, we preserve a letter from Carousel, Guys and Dolls, and Death of Salesman designer Jo Mielziner expressing his disappointment that he was not selected for the project. The note is a nice reminder that rejection still stings, even when you’re at the top of your field..
John Austin’s 1967 opera directed by Ken Dewey
In the 1960s, Ken Dewey rose to prominence (or notoriety) as one of the early producer/directors of “happenings”—what we might now call site-specific theatre or flash mobs—in which groups of performers play games like tug-of-war or capture the flag in public spaces. Some of his work was slightly more traditional, though, including a 1967 operatic adaptation of the Orpheus myth for Chicago Opera Theatre. The opera, written by John Austin, was, in the words of this early program “inspired by rock and roll” (and has sometimes been called the “first rock and roll opera”).
Craig Lucas‘ Orpheus in Love
In 1992, the Circle Rep presented the opera Orpheus in Love with a score by Gerald Busby and a libretto by Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza). This adaptation portrays Orpheus as a music professor at a community college who falls in love with one of his students who dies in a car crash. Busby’s score and Lucas’ libretto are documented in the Library’s Circle Rep papers, and scenic designs for the production can be reviewed in designer Derek McLane’s papers here. This page is the beginning of the manuscript score for the Cello Lecture scene in which the professor awkwardly attempts to give a lecture for which he is missing his notes.
Doug Reside is the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.