‘Livin’ It Up on Top’: To the Worlds We Dream About
If you live in the U.S., or are in any way, shape, or form active on social media, you’ll know that Tuesday is a big day for us Americans. But I want to briefly talk about what happens after the election — no matter who wins.
People familiar with my work know that I love the award-winning musical “Hamilton.” I’ve written column after column about the impact it has had on my life. But I’m sad to say that while “Hamilton” means a lot to me, I’m currently obsessed with everything “Hadestown” — from the concept album by Anaïs Mitchell to the Broadway recording that swept the world by storm.
“Hadestown” is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Set in a post-apocalyptic imagining of the Great Depression, “Hadestown” follows not only the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, but also the reconciliation of Hades, the god of death, and his wife, Persephone.
Orpheus follows his lover, Eurydice, to Hades and dooms her to a life in the underworld. In the process, however, Orpheus reminds the estranged Hades and Persephone of their love, thus ensuring that spring will come again.
In the penultimate “Road to Hell (Reprise),” the narrator, Hermes, brings the audience back to the opening song of the musical: “It’s a sad song / But we sing it anyway.”
The power of the narrative lies in dramatic irony: We know the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. We know how the story ends. But we still engage in the mythic tradition of storytelling. Hermes puts it perfectly: “To know how it ends / And still begin to sing it again / As if it might turn out this time.”
There are no happy endings in “Hadestown.” But even the tragedies are laced with hope. Eurydice is a hungry young girl, disillusioned with the world she was born into. Orpheus is a poet and a musician. He’s poor, but his gift is eternal: “He [can] make you see how the world could be / In spite of the way that it is.” His power is that of imagination, and the hope — the gritty, fatigued, eyes-on-the-horizon hope — that fuels our collective dreams for a better world.
One of my favorite lines in the musical is from “Livin’ it Up on Top.” Persephone has just arrived, bringing with her the long-awaited spring. The cast of characters, including Orpheus and Eurydice, gather to celebrate the season of renewal and bounty. Orpheus thanks Persephone for returning to the surface and blesses a round of drinks: “To the world we dream about and the one we live in now.”
In my favorite rendition of the musical, a live recording from the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), Orpheus says something a little different. He still thanks Persephone for returning to the surface, but ends his blessing with, “Let the world we dream about be the one we live in now.”
It may not seem like a big difference. But it’s a line I keep returning to, especially now, with the pandemic and the election and the tensions of a world in the process of great upheaval. The Broadway incarnation of Orpheus differentiates between the world we live in and the world of our dreams. My Orpheus — the NYTW incarnation — maintains the separation between reality and dreams, but includes a call to action:
We are responsible for bringing the world of our dreams to life.
This is, of course, applicable to politics. But I think it’s even more applicable to our daily lives. To how we see ourselves. How we care for ourselves and our communities. The dozens of options available to us at any given point in time. Do we live like Eurydice, who has been so burned by the world that she can’t bring herself to fathom change? Do we live like Orpheus, who is maybe a little too optimistic, to the point of dismissing the realities of the world we live in? Or do we find a balance? Do we acknowledge the darkness of the world — all the ways we have been disappointed, sidelined, or full-on discriminated against — while intentionally living out our visions of something better?
This looks different for all of us. For me, it’s writing, even when I don’t want to, because I know it’s revolutionary to show up for myself and for my work. It’s pursuing community. Claiming abundance in my personal and professional relationships, even when I feel jealous or threatened or anything close to “a hungry young girl.” It’s witnessing the ugliness of my disability and choosing to love it anyway. It’s trusting and trying and refusing to give up on hope.
Today, my invitation is this: Let the world you dream about be the one you live in now.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.
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