When acclaimed singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell first crafted the music, lyrics, and concept for what would become the musical Hadestown, there were few signs her journey would lead to Broadway.
“I lived in the state of Vermont for many years, and the first version of Hadestown was a community-theater project there,” says Mitchell, whose critically praised albums include Hymns for the Exiled, Young Man in America, and xoa. “It was basically a bunch of artists with cabin fever getting together to put this thing on.” Performances at town halls and other local venues followed, as Mitchell and her cohorts “traveled around in a silver school bus, playing the show for Vermonters.”
The songs were eventually recorded for a 2010 studio album that caught the ear of Rachel Chavkin, the innovative director most widely known for her Tony Award–nominated, Drama Desk Award–winning work on Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Mitchell, in turn, saw Great Comet in its original Off-Broadway incarnation at Ars Nova, and reached out to Chavkin through a mutual friend. A creative alliance was born, one that would steer Hadestown toward celebrated runs at New York Theatre Workshop, the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, and London’s National Theatre before the show arrived at the Walter Kerr Theatre, where it’s now in previews for an April 17 opening.
“It’s been a long and loving and aggressive dramaturgical process,” Mitchell says of developing Hadestown, for which she also wrote the libretto, inspired by the bittersweet love story of Orpheus and Eurydice and the related myth of Hades and Persephone. “When I first started working with Rachel, I thought, ‘Great, I’ll just write some more songs.’ But there still wasn’t enough connective tissue.”
The idea emerged to have Hermes, the messenger god — played by Broadway veteran André De Shields — serve as a narrator. Mitchell, who has described Hadestown as a folk opera more than a conventional musical, notes: “It made sense, since we still really have one foot in the concert world, to have Hermes as a sort of MC or guide.” Both Chavkin and dramaturg Ken Cerniglia “have been holding my hand for years,” she adds, “in terms if figuring out how I can satisfy the dramatic needs of the story and still have everything rhyme, and have it all be metered and musical.”
While Mitchell admits that musical theater is “not my background” — she listened to more rock and folk music while growing up — she did take part in a few school productions. “And there were certain shows, I discovered, that that made their way really deep into my heart. Les Miz was one, and The Fantasticks. My mom took me to see both, and they made a deep impression on me. Then I saw Sweeney Todd later, and that really hooked me.” As an adult, she fell for Great Comet and Hamilton; like Les Misérables, she points out, the latter shows are “sung through, so you’re always under the spell of the music. There’s never a moment when that spell is broken.”
Of being drawn to the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in particular, Mitchell says: “So many musicians have been attracted to this myth, because it has a musician hero. I’m not a mythology buff, but I remember reading it as a kid and being captivated by this story about an idealistic artist who believes in the power of art, and believes that if he just writes a piece of music that’s beautiful enough, he’ll be able to change the world.”
If Mitchell’s other creative efforts have taken a backseat to Hadestown over the past six years, she has no regrets. “When I had my first meeting with Rachel, I was pregnant,” she notes. “It was like there was this big transition happening in my life anyway, which would make leading the life I’d led before that challenging. I put out a couple of recordings, but it was a gift to have the structure of musical theater — the adrenaline, the meetings, all of it.”
The experience has left Mitchell excited to get back to her normal creative process: “It will be so much easier now to write a song that doesn’t have to check all these boxes.” Hadestown has provided her with “the education of a lifetime, working with Rachel and Ken and all the designers and producers to learn how to put this music that feels so intuitive to me in service of moment-to-moment storytelling.”
The musical’s arrival on Broadway, Mitchell adds, “is amazing. It’s not a dream I allowed myself to have until it came on the table. I hadn’t even realized how much I wanted it. I’m so grateful to the producers I’ve been working with all these years who believed in taking this piece as far as it could go, and believed we could do it on our own terms. It feels like people are hungry for alternative approaches to storytelling right now, so I’m grateful there’s an audience for us.”
Photo by Shervin Lainez.