Do you believe in divine inspiration? Talk to indie singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell about Hadestown, and you just might.
To hear Mitchell tell it, the first flash of what would become Hadestown, her buzzy, Broadway-bound musical, burst from her mind fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.
“Some lyrics came out of nowhere,” Mitchell remembers. “I was driving alone across many states, thinking of my love at home, and these lines came into my head: ‘Wait for me, I’m coming / In my garters and pearls / With what melody did you barter me / From the wicked underworld?’ They seemed to me to be about the Orpheus and Eurydice story, and that was enough to set me on the path somehow.”
As in the original classic Greek story, Hadestown follows the musician Orpheus as he journeys to the underworld to bring back his fiancée, Eurydice. But in this version, the underworld is a subterranean factory town ruled over in hard times by the tyrant Hades.
This spirited, surprising take on one of the best known stories of Greek mythology attracted an enthusiastic following of fans well before the Broadway production that premieres in March. Audiences only had a three-month window to catch a limited run of the show at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, but the cast recording caught fire online. While the musical has continued to develop during successful stints in Edmonton, Alberta, and then at London’s National Theatre, the recording has logged a massive 8.8 million streams across the album, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
As the show made its way to Broadway, composer-lyricist–book writer Mitchell worked closely with Rachel Chavkin, the Tony-nominated director who made Broadway more immersive with her all-around staging of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Along with a cast that includes Reeve Carney (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), Eva Noblezada (Miss Saigon), and André de Shields (The Full Monty) — as well as fan favorites Patrick Page and Amber Gray, who have been with the show since the New York Theatre Workshop run — the creators of Hadestown conjure a world onstage feels both mythical and startlingly contemporary.
“For me, the most astonishing thing about Anaïs’s adaptation is that she’s fused this metaphor of walking alone into the darkness, this very intimate relationship that Orpheus has to Eurydice, with these larger messages about solidarity,” Chavkin says. “Whether, when we speak truth to power, we can maintain the faith that our fellow humans will be standing beside us.”
Despite origins that stretch back more than a decade, Hadestown has only grown in topicality. By the time the musical arrived at the New York Theatre Workshop, “Why We Build the Wall” — a song “that Anaïs wrote 13 years ago in 10 minutes,” according to cast member Gray — had taken on an entirely new meaning as the 2016 presidential election heated up.
That Off-Broadway production had the feel of a hybrid concert, with the audience seated in the round. The musical has changed a lot since then: The version opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre will be staged on a proscenium, with a set that evokes storied music clubs, like New Orleans’s Preservation Hall, as well as factories and oil rigs. There is a number of new songs, and the cast has expanded to include a separate chorus of performers, added to give full voice to the workers of Hadestown.
All of this work has been undertaken to strengthen the story and underscore the musical’s universal themes. “The libretto has expanded radically,” Chavkin explains. “The running time is about the same, but the storytelling that’s happening is much richer now.”
Even with all those changes, the feel of the piece still harkens back to the scrappy, vibrant production that wowed critics at the New York Theatre Workshop. “Because Rachel gets and loves music so deeply, she loves to create and dwell in a culture that is somewhere between theater and rock show,” Mitchell says. “She has concocted some really deep, vibey, visual staging that resonates at the level of poetry, myth, and metaphor.”
The show’s collaborators regularly describe Hadestown as a musical that’s more poetry than prose. But the enduring themes and questions it raises are unambiguously vital.
“To me it’s sort of summed up in the chorus of one of its songs: ‘What you gonna do when the chips are down?’” Mitchell says. “Each character in Hadestown has their own approach to living in the world, living in hard times. And the question is not ‘Who is correct?’ but rather ‘How do we want to live?’”