How Hadestown and the underworld came out on top in 2019
“It’s an old song, and we’re gonna sing it again.”
The opening hymn of the hit musical Hadestown offers a promise — not just to the eight shows a week for the folk musical that dominated Broadway in 2019, but to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that, even now, still demands to be retold.
Over the past 13 years, writer and composer Anaïs Mitchell has taken her tale of Hadestown — an idea that came to her as if handed down by the Muses — from DIY upstart to concept album to full-fledged theatrical production. The trick all of it was making an old fable feel new again.
“The story has appealed to artists for many years because it has this hero who’s an artist… But any of these myths, if you went deep enough, they’re like a prism that refracts light in different angles on the present day,” Mitchell tells EW.
Much has been made of how the show taps into present-day concerns like anti-immigration rhetoric and the #MeToo movement with songs like “Why We Build the Wall” and “Hey, Little Songbird.” Themes of wealth disparity and climate change feel strikingly prescient. Yet Mitchell stresses that none of this was deliberate; instead, the show’s 13-year-evolution has always born out a contemporary resonance.
“It almost is baked into the myth, in a strange way,” she reflects, citing performances circa 2008 that drew a laughs recognition as audiences found parallels between that year’s recession and the show’s themes of economic downturn. Then there’s the way “Hey, Little Songbird,” originally played as a humorous business transaction, took on a more sinister note in the wake of increasing conversations about sexual misconduct and abuse of power.
Mitchell says part of what made Hadestown so unique throughout its development was that so much attention was paid to the music. “People are so obsessed with text in the theater, and then once there’s a production on the books, they’re like, ‘Oh let’s get an orchestator in here,’” she says. “But with this piece, the sound of the music — the big band with the trombone and strings and stuff — that is the work of the orchestrators, and that was baked into the show from very early on.”
So much so that the biggest challenge was moving the work from a musical tone poem of sorts to a narrative work of theater. “[There] were moments where a character would step out and have a monologue. They were poetic, but they weren’t necessarily an active scene where A leads to B,” Mitchell says. “It took a lot of years to figure out how to take those songs and build them into the kind of storytelling that would help us feel we were moving forward in a linear way, and not just spacing out on some beautiful music. How can we generously tell the story and also preserve what the thing is as a music piece?”
Thirteen years is a long time to stick with any creative project, but Mitchell says she kept coming back to it because it “never felt finished.” Bringing actors and director Rachel Chavkin onto the project unlocked a new dimension that shifted how she thought about the work.
But the music itself is unlike almost anything else on Broadway, folksy and steeped in something ancient. Mitchell partly chalks that up to the fact that she writes on guitar, not piano, unlike many musical theater composers. Her biggest influences came by way of folk songs and traditional music, particularly from the British Isles. “I’ve always been really inspired by that stuff, and I love the way that the lines that were written hundreds of years ago still resonate today,” she muses. “It’s all about figuring out where it resonates emotionally. How can I sing this song in a way that feels like I’m connected to it and it’s not just a research project?”
Part of that came through the myth itself, an opportunity to breathe new life into a story that had always resonated with Mitchell. The show performs a magic trick every night, getting audiences to hope that this ancient myth might somehow end differently this time. Mitchell found the emotional heart of the show in that bittersweet yearning.
“We’re talking about this young, naïve idealistic artistic character,” she says. “What that parallels for me is with youth, the younger generation comes up and they’re able to see the way the world could be. They’re able to see beyond the world that is because they haven’t been living in it their whole lives.” Orpheus starts in that place, but by the end of his journey he has lost his innocence.
“He’s seen too much of how the world is,” Mithcell says. “But his attempt has inspired another generation of people, and it moved the heart of Hades. There is something simultaneously tragic and hopeful about it.”
Her own journey as a creator has parallels with Orpheus: Both found salvation in community, from collaborators to audiences. Mitchell wrote the core of the songs alone, but the dramatic shape of the production was forged by her work with her orchestrators, her director, and the cast.
“It’s only when Orpheus can hear the world singing along with him that he comes into his powers,” Mitchell says. “[Fans] have a relationship with this show I will never know. The thing is, at some level, bigger than all of us who have worked on it.”
As any great myth should be.
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