Hadestown, a reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth by American singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell, opens at the National Theatre on Tuesday night,and transfers to Broadway next year. But the show has its own near-mythic, shape-shifting history.
This “folk-opera” began life in 2006 as a homespun concert show, Mitchell touring it around her home state of Vermont with friends. A Hadestown album emerged in 2010–by which time it had gathered some high-profile talent. Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, was a lush-voiced the Orpheus to Mitchell’s Eurydice, while Ani de Franco sang Persephone and Greg Brown was a gravelly Hades.
The album achieved huge critical success, and a substantial cult following–especially in the UK.
“The album back in the day connected with people here in a way that was unprecedented in the States,” Mitchell recalls. “So it feels very right to bring it here,” she concludes over a glass of wine at the National Theatre after a busy day of rehearsals.
Mitchell no longer performs in it, but in writing new material and expanding the story, she has been involved every step of the way. Helping to turn the album into a full-scale theatre show is director Rachel Chavkin, founder of American theatre company the TEAM, and director of the pop-opera Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812.
And there have been many steps. Their collaboration was first seen off-Broadway in 2016; it then had a larger-scale production in Canada, which both Mitchell and Chavkin felt lost some of its magic. What London audiences will see is “a totally new production,” Chavkin says.
“We have gotten the vibe, and then got off the vibe, and now reclaimed the vibe,” she laughs. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever directed. I’ve never worked on a piece that’s so delicate.”
It’s been all about finding the right balance between theatre and gig, between dramaturgical clarity and poetic soul.
Die-hard fans of the record, rest assured–its original spirit should still sing, however.
“There’s so much more material, but the DNA is the same,” insists Mitchell.
And what spirit: the music of Hadestown, inflected with New Orleans jazz, should swing through the intimidatingly vast Olivier stage.
“It feels very Greek, and makes a lot of sense for this storytelling. I’m not actually worried about the size–it’s an epic tale,” says Mitchell.
Her version isn’t totally pin-downable about where and when it’s set–it’s mythic, after all–but there’s a Depression-era vibe to above-ground scenes, where penniless poet Orpheus and his lover Eurydice struggle to survive. It is hunger that allows the wealthy Hades to tempt her down to the underworld–to an economically secure but soulless industrial town, where men may be guaranteed work, but forgo contact with the natural world. Naturally, it is Hades who gets rich from their labor.
Since Mitchell wrote the original Hadestown album, however, various elements have come to seem weirdly prescient in regards to our present moment. Most obviously, Hades’ song Why We Build A Wall, which features the chilling lyrics “Because we have and they have not/Because they want what we have got…We build the wall to keep us free.”
Still, they’ll be no bad wigs or orange face paint here.
“We’re dealing with archetypes,” Mitchell says. “These things in the news are echoes of the archetype, not the other way round. It’s not like Hades is based on Trump–but Trump might be based on Hades…”
In fact, the song initially came from Mitchell thinking about climate change:
“I was looking forward and imagining a lot of displaced people knocking at the door.”
This theme is gently brought further to the fore in the musical. Persephone, Mitchell points out, is the god of the seasons, while her husband Hades, in the Greek, is called “the wealthy one.” Here, his wealth-gathering is through the literal underground industries of mining and oil.
“The troubled marriage of these two refracts light in different directions and [climate change] is one,” Mitchell explains.
So, how did Mitchell and Chavkin come to be working together? Mitchell saw the musical of Natasha, Pierre… in New York. Should be thought it was “so delightful,” she got in touch with Chavkin about working on Hadestown. It’s clearly been a challenging ride, but both speak of the other with an emotional earnestness that few Brits–even theatrical ones–would dare display.
“It’s hard! It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Mitchell, echoing Chavkin’s own comments. “Rachel has been a very loving–and aggressive!–dramaturgical partner. But it’s been an inspiration, she’s very ferocious and visionary.”
“No collaboration is easy I guess,” is Chavkin’s take, but she adds that their creative partnership has been “profoundly loving.”
“Neither of us could do what the other does by like a country mile. Anais’ role is as a poet and that’s one of the first thing she said to me: this is a poetry piece not prose piece.”
For Mitchell, it was important that Hadestown retained its lyrical roots–and the final show is sung-through, with no scenes of spoken dialogue. But this was also because of some strongly-held opinions on musicals.
“There’s some musical theatre that I love; there’s more that I don’t love. What I identified was that I love sung-through musicals, like Natasha. I love Hamilton, Les Mis, Sweeney Todd.”
Is it the moment where people go from talking to each other to suddenly singing that’s the problem?
“Yes. Yes! It’s so awkward, every time. Once they’re singing it’s fine, but it’s the change…”
Still, she’s psyched that her little DIY show is now set for Broadway.
“It’s not anything I set out to do. Then after we did off-Broadway there was a conversation with the producers…and I was like: ‘fuck yeah.’ I didn’t realize how much I wanted that.”
A subsidized British theatre and the ruthless commercialism of Broadway are quite different prospects. How is it opening the show here? Chavkin, who after Hadestown is staying in London to direct The American Clock at the Old Vic, reveals that she’s never had such a long rehearsal process–seven weeks seems like a luxury.
“That feels like a very strong way to be entering a space that is pretty risk-averse, like Broadway,” she says. “A new musical it is not an easy thing to make and so it’s quite a remarkable commitment on the part of the National, to support art as invention.”
Mitchell, who came over to be in rehearsals, also played a concert ranging across her back catalog at the theatre, evidently enjoying plays songs beyond Hadestown. So as an artist, is she longing to get back to writing a new solo album?
“I would love to do that–maybe next year, who knows?–but first we gotta see this through. It feels like we’re all working on something that has a chance to be a lasting, moving piece of art. And that feels more worthwhile to me than making another Anais Mitchell album.”
Hadestown is at the National Theatre, London to January 26 (020 7452 3000)
This article first appeared in iNews on November 12, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.