The set of Hadestown, the Broadway musical up for 14 Tony Awards on June 9th, incorporates wildly swinging lamps and a trap door that hurls people into the underworld. But as the show’s auteur, Anaïs Mitchell, demonstrates, the show wasn’t always so hi-tech. Putting down the iced beverage she’s sipping in a coffee shop in Times Square, a few streets south of the theater hosting Hadestown, Mitchell remembers the way the earliest version of the show tackled a scene in which one of the leading characters is bitten by a poisonous snake.
“I’m talking on the [landline] phone to Hades, and I’m turning around,” Mitchell says, standing up and imitating that movement, “and I’m wrapping myself in this phone cord, and it’s a snake. And then the Fates come up and cut the cord, and I’m dead!” She stops turning and laughs. “We went through a lot of phone cords.”
Mitchell and Hadestown have traveled a long, long way since then. The show’s book — written by Mitchell, who also wrote all the words and music — has remained more or less the same since it debuted in 2006: the Greek-myth tale of Hades and his wife Persephone and, concurrently, Orpheus and his doomed lover Eurydice, set in both hell and the world above it. As back them, the score is steeped in folk, pop, work-song and New Orleans. But what began as an indie folk opera, performed to small crowds in Vermont theater spaces, is now a full-on Great White Way show that’s been nominated for acting, directing, choreography and set design, among others. Mitchell herself — the first woman in years to have sole credit on a Broadway show — is up in the best book and Original Score categories.
Hadestown is currently playing in the same theater, the Walter Kerr, that hosted Springsteen on Broadway. Mitchell was able to see that show and, finally, see a Bruce set. “I had never seen him live before and I was so blown away by that performance,” says Mitchell, sporting a denim jacket and a bleach-blonde hair that makes her look more downtown than midtown Manhattan. “He would go off-mic, but you could still hear him. It felt really cool that he was in there before us. It was like a musical world passing of the torch.”
That torch-passing, however, took a while. Musicals based on non-show-tune pop songs are now a seemingly permanent part of the Broadway landscape, but few have an elongated origin story like Hadestown. Growing up in Vermont in the Eighties, Mitchell, 38, had been pulled into the heaven-and-hell tales of the dark, brooding Hades and the singing, guitar-playing Orpheus by way of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.
“It’s a tragic story that’s set up for the Hollywood ending and you don’t get it,” she says of the basic tale. “That mystery has brought people back to it again and again. There’s something about it that feels real, about the frailty of man.”
Her father — novelist, teacher and eco-minded home builder Don Mitchell — would often bliss out to Santana’s 1977 instrumental “Europa” (“he explained to me that it was a musical representation of that myth”), and Mitchell, who grew up on her parents’ Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell records, was also taken with Steely Dan’s “Home at Last,” a suitably twisted take on Greek mythology.
Mitchell studied violin in school and, like many an aspiring singer-songwriter, migrated to guitar soon after. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont in 2004, with a degree in political science, Mitchell, inspired by her singer-songwriter hero Ani DiFranco, made an indie folk album. But in a sign of her burgeoning ambition, she also began contemplating a conceptual piece built around the mythological characters she had once read about. She updated the setting to the Depression era, which allowed her to incorporate a wide swatch of American music (jazz, folk, swing) and touch upon cultural and political cross currents like the Dust Bowl storms of the Thirties (“a vintage version of what we’re seeing now with climate change”).
The project was also influenced by the re-election of George W. Bush. “I still remember that moment,” she says. “The first time I thought maybe it was a fluke, but the second time, I thought, ‘Maybe this is who this country wants and who this country is.’ So Hadestown became a mashup of me being an idealistic activist kid coming out of school, and then hitting the reality of the world and seeing this guy getting elected again and not knowing how deep the corruption was. All those elements exist in Hadestown — about this naïve artist and is it possible that art can change the world?”
From such thoughts and a few early songs emerged the first version of Hadestown. The original title was A Crack in the Wall, but after writing a song “Way Down Hadestown,” Mitchell realized one of those words would make a better title. To fund her project, she applied for a local arts grant and, to her surprise, was awarded a few thousand dollars. “I had a few songs but I wasn’t putting my focus on the project until I applied for that grant,” she says, “and then I was like, ‘Holy shit, now I have to write this opera!’”
With friends from the artistic community in Montpelier, Vermont, Mitchell put on the first version of Hadestown in 2006 in hundred-seater theaters in the towns of Barre and Vergennes; Mitchell herself played Eurydice. The staging was threadbare — think of those phone cords — and the show featured fewer songs and more instrumentals than it does now.
“We felt like we making something out of nothing in the middle of nowhere, and the audience was kind of hanging on for dear life in terms of what was happening in the plot,” she says. “It was just a bunch of friends coming together, and we made it happen on very little money with very little time.” The following year, she and her troupe took the makeshift musical on a seven-day, 10-city tour of Vermont and a bit of Massachusetts, schlepping costumes and instruments.
Mitchell herself stopped performing in the show after 2007: “I’ve always been more ambitious as a writer than a performer. I love that idea of writing a song for someone else to make famous or writing a song so good that no one knew who wrote it, but everyone knows it.”
Unsure what lay ahead for Hadestown, she opted to turn it into an album. (Jesus Christ Superstar, which also started as a record but moving to the stage, followed a similar route.) Raising a few thousand dollars by way of an early version of crowd-funding — emailing her fan base and asking them to pitch in in exchange for T-shirts and other merch — Mitchell worked on the audio version of Hadestown for over a year. By then, she had already met DiFranco, who signed her to her Righteous Babe label and released Mitchell’s second album, The Brightness, in 2007.
The connection had begun when DiFranco caught a dive-bar gig by Mitchell in Buffalo. “I thought, ‘This girl had something,’” says DiFranco, who soon learned about Hadestown as well. “It wasn’t nearly as developed as it is now, but the core songs were there and I thought, ‘Good songs, man — this girl does it.’ So I got behind it.” DiFranco became one of the guest singers on the Hadestown album, along with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. (Mitchell had opened for Bon Iver on a European tour and, one drunken night, worked up the courage to ask Vernon to contribute to the record.) To make sure they were able to sing on the record, Mitchell put her hard drive in her car and drove to New Orleans, to record DiFranco, and Wisconsin, for Vernon.
Thanks to its guests and fleshed-out arrangements that encompassed cabaret, choral pop and jazz, Hadestown shone like never before on record. The story could have ended there, but in 2012, Mitchell met director Rachel Chavkin, and the two began workshopping the show, resulting in additional songs and dialogue.
“I wanted to take it further, and I was looking for a way to do it,” Mitchell says. “Rachel is fierce, and I remember an early workshop where I said to Rachel, ‘I’ve been working on this for six years,’ and she said, ‘You’re going to have to find a way to move forward.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa!’ And it was true. I needed the wind in my sails again.”
After an Off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, the idea of Broadway was floated, and Mitchell didn’t discourage the thought. “I didn’t realize how much I wanted that until they said it,” she says. “I said, ‘Hell, yeah.’ The idea of putting this story and this weird music in front of more people was something I wanted to try.”
Engagements in Edmonton, Canada and London followed, and Mitchell and Chavkin tinkered with it almost to the end. Compared to those primitive performances over a decade ago, the show that opened on Broadway in April has almost double the number of songs, an intermission, and more elaborate staging, although the arrangements stick to the small, acoustic-band feel of the earliest days of the show (formulated by arrangers Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose).
Hadestown also has a newly resonant moment in the dirge “Why We Build the Wall,” which Hades (played by Patrick Page) sings to rally his underworld crew. The show’s 2016 Off-Broadway period coincided with Trump’s campaign, and Mitchell realized that song’s lyrics — “The wall keeps out the enemy/And we build the wall to keep us free/That’s why we build the wall” — were suddenly in tune with “build that wall” cries at Trump rallies. That eerie connection has only grown stronger during the actual Trump presidency. “I never expected it to feel as relevant as it does now,” she says. “I’m not the first person to write a song about a wall. Pink Floyd has one. People have asked, ‘Did I start to tailor the show after the Trump administration?’ I never wanted to do that.”
Lightening up a bit, Mitchell adds, “Also, Hades is no Trump. Hades for me is a much more interesting character.”
Mitchell no longer records for Righteous Babe, having moved on to another indie label, but DiFranco remains a Mitchell supporter and attended the show’s opening night. “I’m so impressed with Anaïs having the patience and the maturity to see that project through more than a decade of development,” DiFranco says. “I don’t think I had that kind of maturity at her age.”
True to her outsider roots, Mitchell, who lives with her husband and grade-school daughter in Brooklyn, isn’t planning a follow-up musical any time soon. After working on Hadestown for well over a decade, she’s again veering back to music for her next project. With Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson and guitarist Josh Kaufman, a recurring member of Josh Ritter’s band, she’s formed a band, Bonny Light Horseman, and is cutting an album of songs rooted in British folk, a genre she explored on her 2013 album Child Ballads. This time, the songs are a blend of traditional and original, with arrangements that expand upon the sparseness of the earlier disc. People keep asking me about [a new musical], but I’d to make solo records and songs,” she says. “It’s nice to be in the world of music again.”
On the far more immediate horizon are the Tonys. Mitchell hasn’t yet sketched out what she may say in the 90 seconds that winners are allowed onstage. Given the long gestation of Hadestown, the list of people Mitchell could thank promises to be massive, so, in the event of a win, she’s considering alternating between her husband’s suggestion (talk about climate change, another underlying theme of the show) and addressing novices who may be watching.
“We got some advice from someone at a Tony nominee thing,” Mitchell mulls, “who said, ‘There’s not a lot of time and there are too many people to thank to thank them all,’ so I may think about that kid in Akron who’s in high school drama program and watching the Tonys. What do they need to hear?”