The journey to Broadway can be a long road. Writer Anaïs Mitchell spent more than a decade developing the book and lyrics for Tony Award–winning musical Hadestown. It did not begin as the musical many of us know today. Mitchell, who started her extensive career as a songwriter, had a passion to tell stories that would connect people through music. “I’ve always wanted to move people at multiple chakra levels, that they are moved in their hearts for the characters and that they’re moved in their bodies by the music, and the band, the incredible orchestration, and that they’re moved intellectually by the story and the ideas that are inside of it,” Mitchell explained.
Thirteen years ago, Hadestown began its journey as a DIY theater project in Mitchell’s hometown in Vermont. “At first, I was trying to write a story through a cycle of songs and finding the collaborators in Vermont who could help to put on the very first DIY version of the show,” Mitchell said. After performing with the theater project for two years, Hadestown became a studio album with guest singers including Justin Vernon and Ani DiFranco, before becoming a fully staged musical Off-Broadway and beyond. Broadway Direct spoke to Mitchell, who took us through the journey to Hadestown.
Before even putting pen to paper, what was your hope for Hadestown when you conceptualized this show?
Before I worked on Hadestown, I really was just a straight-up songwriter. And then this idea materialized. If you had told me when I was 25 years old that this thing was going to end up on Broadway, I would never have believed it. At first, I was trying to write a story through a cycle of songs, and finding the collaborators in the state of Vermont, where I was living, who could help to put on the very first DIY version of the show that we did. And then it became the album and the guest singers, like Justin Vernon and Ani DiFranco. I’ve always wanted to move people at multiple chakra levels, that they are moved in their hearts for the characters, and that they’re moved in their bodies by the music, and the band, the incredible orchestration, and that they’re moved intellectually by the story and the ideas that are inside of it.
Greek mythology is made up of hundreds of stories. What was it about Orpheus and Eurydice that sparked joy for you and made you want to create Hadestown?
When I first started working on Hadestown, I really identified with the Orpheus character. I was right out of school and I was very optimistic, and a creative young person coming into the real world. I was up against a lot at that time, both politically and financially. I felt like Orpheus. He is this idealist and dreamer who then is put up against the way the world is. I loved getting into that story and that idea that the dreamer also has something to offer and can try to do the impossible thing. Then also you can’t tell the Orpheus story without telling the Eurydice story, but also, the Hades and Persephone story because in all of the ancient versions of the story, he goes to the underworld and he appeals to Persephone before he appeals to Hades. He uses his knowledge of love to speak to the king about his own love for Persephone. That’s such a beautiful part of the story. He puts himself in the shoes of the king and is able to remind him of his humanity and then almost succeed in achieving the impossible thing. I was telling my daughter, who just turned 8, that there are often two couples in classical musicals: There’ll be one couple that’s dramatic, and then there’s a second couple that is a little more comedic. I’m realizing that it became very important for us, especially in the development I did with [director Rachel Chavkin] in New York, that there were two couples in our story, and that it’s not just about Orpheus and Eurydice, but it also is about this marriage between Hades and Persephone and their struggles and their ancient love.
Talk a little about Hadestown as the DIY theater project.
I was 25 and living in Vermont. It was myself and one of the orchestrators who still is with the show, Michael Chorney, who arranged the songs. There was an early director named Ben t. Matchstick, who is a wild radical and comes from the Bread & Puppet Theater. If you don’t know what that is, it’s this radical street theater and puppetry company. Then, just a bunch of different friends of ours who were mostly singers and players in bands in Vermont got together. We had very little time or money to prepare for the productions, but everyone kind of came at it with their whole passion, and it was very magical, even back then. That version of Hadestown was much more abstract. There were a lot of long musical and visual sequences. This early version left more to the audience’s imagination, but it felt very special at the time. A lot of the songs that feel like the iconic ones of the show today are from that very early draft of it.
Did you have actors or was it just your musicians?
None of us were really trained actors. It was staged and I played the role of Eurydice, and I’m not an actor at all. I had this crazy confidence in my twenties that I wish I could regain now, but I’m pretty sure that I basically booked the theatres where we were going to perform this show and put the tickets on sale for it without even finishing the show. You could maybe count on one hand the number of songs that I’d written in full. In a way, it’s almost like the only way the show could have been finished was to create an occasion to rise to like that. After those initial productions, which we did two years in a row, I started to really want to make an album of the music. That became another phase of the project where I was working with Michael and Todd Sickafoose, who is the second orchestrator of the show today. We worked together for a year on that record and got those guest singers to sing the roles of the characters. At that point, the show really became an audio piece. We ended up performing it in different towns with guest singers, but it was just a radio novella. We would all be seated or standing on stage, and I would explain what was happening in between songs and then we would perform the music, but there was no acting or blocking or customary or sets or anything like that. It really was what moved into the music world and then lived there for a few years, which was pretty important in terms of its musical development. We put a lot of time and intention into the orchestrations by Michael and Todd, which are really huge part of the sound of that music. We were able to do that even before we started developing the show for Broadway.
Then you moved from studio album to creating this complete musical with visuals and actors. Walk me through that.
When I first moved to New York, I really started to set my sights on developing Hadestown further for the Off-Broadway stage. At that time, I was really nervous that I wouldn’t find the right partners, and that people would try to turn the show into something that it’s not. I felt like a real loyalty to the organic quality of the early project but I also wanted it to become bigger than it was. Like a godsend, I found Rachel Chavkin. I saw Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812, when she was directing it at Ars Nova, and I just flipped out for it. It was so entertaining that my first thought was like, “This show belongs on Broadway,” not knowing anything about Broadway. But it resonated for me in all of the kinds of gritty ways that the Vermont show had done. And just the folk music, the downtown vibe, that Rachel totally is in her DNA but is able to scale up to make it work on Broadway. It was amazing to meet Rachel, who is this relentless collaborator and developer. She demands the best from everyone who she works with and she usually gets it. She constantly was pushing for the best version of Hadestown without breaking the DNA of what the show was. Our first partners were New York Theatre Workshop, and that theatre has a very special place in my heart. It was like an incredible place to develop the show for its first iteration and a huge learning experience. We had some incredible cast members at every production of this who brought so much to the piece. After we did it Off-Broadway, it was like, “Do we want to try for Broadway?” That was the first time that that had really been spoken out loud, and immediately, I didn’t know how much I wanted it until somebody asked, and then I was like, “Yeah.” That required us going first to Edmonton [Alberta] in 2017 in, like, the dead of winter, it was very cold and dark and remote-feeling, but we did a lot of important learning there. Then to the National Theatre in 2018, and then finally landing on Broadway in 2019.
Let’s talk about Ken Cerniglia’s hand in the dramaturgical development of Hadestown from Off-Broadway to Broadway.
Ken was coming from Disney at the time. He moonlit as a dramaturg for other projects. He was always very concerned with the emotional arc in Hadestown. There were so many insights that he had about the emotional arc and taking care of consistency for the audience so that they are not standing there trying to solve problems from the very first scene. It was amazing to have Ken with us and to be an extra set of eyes. It was also useful for me to have two people weighing in at most of our dramaturgical meetings, because if Rachel and Ken both felt strongly about something, then I definitely considered changing it.
Now Hadestown is preparing to embark on a national tour, and I’m assuming that different audiences have influenced your creative process. Are you completely finished writing Hadestown?
I went back and forth with that for a while. I felt because we had put up this show on Broadway that everyone felt excited about, and then we recorded the album, I’m not going to making any writing changes for the national tour. I think there are changes that will have to be made for the staging because of the physics of the different theatres that we’re going to be in. Maybe someday we’ll make a film adaptation and I’ll get to rewrite the story to accommodate the film. It’s been very healing for me to say, “I’m going to set this down for now and allow it to take root.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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