Anaïs Mitchell's 'Hadestown' Musical Makes Its Broadway Debut

Apr 22, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 7:28 pm

More than a decade ago, Anaïs Mitchell was running late for one of her shows. The singer-songwriter, in her 20s at the time, was trying to get from one gig to another and found herself lost. Along the drive, a song lyric popped into her head. "The lines that came were, 'Wait for me I'm coming. In my garters and pearls with what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld,'" she remembers.

Those lyrics never made it into one of Mitchell's productions, but as the musician says, they pointed her to the story of Eurydice, the Greek myth that follows two lovers, Eurydice and Orpheus. Eurydice goes to the underworld and Orpheus follows to bring her back. In the story, Orpheus sings a song so sweet, it melts the heart of Hades.

Mitchell's fascination with this story has taken her on journey across mediums, one that is as winding as her hero's quest. She's turned these lyrics into a song, then a concept album in 2010 called Hadestown, stage productions in the U.S., Canada and London and on April 17, Hadestown finally opened on Broadway.

In Mitchell's DIY folk-opera, Mitchell makes some changes to the myth. In Mitchell's version, Eurydice chooses to go to the underworld.

"The underworld is a place of wealth and security, in contrast to the above ground world where there's freedom but it's also unpredictable and the weather is unpredictable," Mitchell explains. "And Eurydice makes a choice. She chooses the security of Hadestown, which comes with this kind of lifelessness. So she chooses kind of her gut. She chooses her stomach over her heart."

When tackling the show's climax, Mitchell admits it was no easy task to write a song that melts the heart of King Hades.

"I just can't tell you how many times I've rewritten it," Mitchell says. "I mean, there's just like sheets and sheets on the cutting room floor of the epics. It's totally ridiculous. But I think that what we hit upon a couple productions ago that took some pressure off and made a lot of sense is that the gift that Orpheus brings to King Hades isn't necessarily like the eloquence of his poetry. It's actually that he has channeled this melody."

Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada play Orpheus and Eurydice in the Broadway production of Hadestown.
Matthew Murphy / Courtesy of Hadestown, The Musical

As Mitchell explains, there's no words that approach the simple beauty of his melody. "He even says that to the king: 'There were no words for the way that you felt. So you open your mouth and you started to sing.'"

Mitchell's song "Build The Wall," was written in 2006 and appears in the production when Hades sings it, supported by this chorus of workers in the underworld. With today's current debate over border control, reality has caught up to the fiction Mitchell created.

"That was one of those songs that just felt like it was a gift, like, I didn't even know what it meant when it came," Mitchell says. "For so long, I've played that song. Then to start to hear that language during the campaign. Here we are and it's still happening ... I don't quite understand it. It feels like a collective unconscious weird thing. And I'm not the first person to write a song about a wall. There's many, but I think that it's like an image that speaks to people and it's an image that works well on people who feel scared."

Mitchell spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the themes of Hadestown imitating life, the beauty of Greek tragedy and the road to Broadway. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than a decade ago, the singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell was running late for one of her shows.

ANAIS MITCHELL: I was driving in my car. I was, like, in my 20s. I was trying to get from one songwriter gig to another.

SHAPIRO: She was lost on a road somewhere, and a lyric popped into her head.

MITCHELL: And the lines that came were, wait for me; I'm coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Wait for me. I'm coming...

MITCHELL: ...In my garters and pearls. With what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld? Those words never made it into any, you know, production. But they pointed a finger towards the Eurydice story.

SHAPIRO: The ancient Greek myth about two lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice. Eurydice goes to the underworld. Orpheus follows to bring her back.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Wait for me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) I'm coming.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I'm coming.

SHAPIRO: Anais Mitchell has taken this project on a journey as long and winding as her hero's quest. There was a concept album, stage productions in the U.S., Canada and London. And now "Hadestown" has finally opened on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Way down in Hadestown, way down under the ground.

SHAPIRO: In the story, Orpheus sings a song so sweet, it melts the heart of Hades. And some critics are just as enchanted. The Wall Street Journal said after "Hamilton," "Hadestown" is the best new musical on Broadway. Anais Mitchell's version makes some changes to the myth. Like, in this version, Eurydice chooses to go to the underworld.

MITCHELL: "Hadestown," the underworld is a place of wealth and security in contrast to the above-ground world, where there's freedom, but it's also unpredictable. The weather is unpredictable. There's poverty.

SHAPIRO: Up above are starving artists. People down below are working themselves to death in...

MITCHELL: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Mines and factories.

MITCHELL: Exactly. And Eurydice makes a choice. She chooses the security of Hadestown, which comes with a kind of lifelessness. So she chooses kind of her gut.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

EVA NOBLEZADA: (As Eurydice, singing) It's my gut...

MITCHELL: She chooses her stomach over her heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

NOBLEZADA: (As Eurydice, singing) Oh, Orpheus, I'm hungry. Oh, my heart, it aches to stay. But the flesh will have its way.

SHAPIRO: Part of what makes the Orpheus myth so appealing for adaptation, I think, also makes it really intimidating, which is that if you're going to write it, you have to write a song powerful enough to melt the heart of Hades - (laughter) - which is a very high bar.

MITCHELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So what was it like to approach that challenge?

MITCHELL: Yeah. Oh, man.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: That is, like - you just put your finger on the thing because - so - so Orpheus, in all versions of this show, has been working on a song, which is called the epic. And I just can't tell you how many times I've rewritten. I mean, there's just, like, sheafs and sheafs (ph) of - on the cutting room floor of, you know, the epics. It's totally ridiculous.

But I think that what we hit upon a couple productions ago that took some pressure off and made a lot of sense is that the gift that Orpheus brings to King Hades isn't necessarily, like, the eloquence of his poetry. It's actually that he has channeled this melody that is the melody of the love of these gods.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

REEVE CARNEY: (As Orpheus, singing) Singing la, la-la-la, la la-la. La, la-la-la, la-la la. Oh, singing la, la-la-la, la la-la....

MITCHELL: So that he almost by chance has divined the love song of these gods that they themselves have forgotten. And he is able to carry that down into the underworld and return it to them so that they sing it again themselves and sort of restore the balance. In a way, there's no - there's no words - right? - that are going to actually approach the simple beauty of, like, a melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) La, la-la-la, la-la la. Oh, singing la, la la-la, la-la la.

SHAPIRO: And that's why you put it on la la la?

MITCHELL: Yeah, just didn't have words. And he even says that to the king. You know, there - there were no words for the way that you felt. So you open your mouth, and you started to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) La la-la-la, la-la la. Oh, singing, la, la-la-la, la-la la. La, la, la...

SHAPIRO: I have to ask you about the song "Why We Build The Wall," which you wrote in 2006 I think.

MITCHELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And then real life seemed to catch up to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

GREG BROWN: (As Hades, singing) Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?

SHAPIRO: It's this anthem that Hades sings, supported by this chorus of workers in the underworld.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Why do we build the wall? We build the wall to keep us free. That's why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

SHAPIRO: What was it like to see reality match the fiction that you'd created?

MITCHELL: Yeah, so bizarre. I'm a very, very slow writer - you know, very deliberate and methodical and rewrite things 1 million times. And that was one of those songs that just felt like it was a gift. Like, I didn't even know what it meant when it came. And - and then it was the song everybody wanted to hear at my songwriter shows. You know, they would ask for it. So I...

SHAPIRO: When you were doing concerts, that was a song everybody wanted to hear.

MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah. So I've played that song for a decade - or, you know, for so long I've played that song. And then to start to hear that language during the campaign - here we are, and it's still happening.

SHAPIRO: And, like, there was a government shutdown over building the wall. And there...

MITCHELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I mean, yeah.

MITCHELL: Like, all I can say about it is - and I don't quite understand it. Do you know what I mean? It's, like - feels like a collective, unconscious, weird thing that - and I'm not the first person to write a song about a wall, right?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

MITCHELL: There's, like, many - but I think that it's, like, an image that speaks to people. And it's an image that works well on people who feel scared, vulnerable.

SHAPIRO: Even if people don't know their Greek mythology, you tell us in the very first song that this is a tragedy. Like, we know Orpheus and Eurydice are not going to live happily ever after.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Persephone) You think they'll make it?

BROWN: (As Hades) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Persephone) Hades, you let them go.

BROWN: (As Hades) I let them try.

SHAPIRO: So why does that final moment, when we see what we knew would happen, happen, still work?

MITCHELL: Yeah. You sense from Hermes, the narrator, that he - he wants it to turn out this time, right?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MITCHELL: And maybe it will turn out this time. And he's going about the telling of it as though maybe it will. And so you do sort of feel disappointed again (laughter) when he turns around.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Hermes) 'Cause here's the thing, to know how it ends and still to begin to sing it again as if it might turn out this time.

MITCHELL: But I think there also is maybe just that feeling of the catharsis of the consummation of the myth.

SHAPIRO: It's why we read and stage and watch tragedies, even knowing that they're tragedies...

MITCHELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...And have been for thousands of years.

MITCHELL: Yeah. And there's a - you know, Hermes also talks about the whole show basically as a song. Like, it's a sad song, but we sing it anyway. And for me, as a songwriter, like, I've always loved sad songs. I just always love - I love - I love to cry. I love the...

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "HADESTOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Hermes) Can you feel it like a train?

MITCHELL: I love how powerful that response can be.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MITCHELL: Someone - someone said we should stop saying that songs make us cry and start saying that they let us cry, which I think is beautiful.

SHAPIRO: Anais Mitchell, congratulations on your Broadway debut. It's been great talking with you.

MITCHELL: Thank you, likewise. Thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: She is the creator of "Hadestown." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.