Hadestown Playwright Draws From Past for Contemporary Resonance

If Anais Mitchell chronicles her journey from indie-folk artist to Tony-award winning playwright and composer, she might call it How to Get to Broadway in 15 Grueling, Setback-Filled Years.

Mitchell’s work places Greek mythological figures Orpheus and Eurydice in a dystopian world where the lure of stability draws desperate souls to the grim, cruel factory run by Hades and his deeply unhappy wife, Persephone.

Matthew Patrick Quinn as Hades (left), Chibueze Ihuoma as Orpheus (center) and Maria-Christina Oliveras as Persephone (right) in the Hadestown North American Tour (2022). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Mitchell first felt the spark that became Hadestown in 2004, but a staged version a couple of years later gave her pause. She focused her efforts on capturing Hadestown as an album, which she released in 2010 to favorable reviews.

Listen to the Hadestown concept album in its entirety here.

The album attracted the attention of director  Rachel Chavkin, and the two began developing Hadestown for the stage in 2012.

It was here that the arguably most arduous part of Hadestown becoming what it is now took place. Mitchell, primarily a singer-songwriter at this point, had to turn her song cycle/concept album into a full blown visual and musical work.

Anais Mitchell (left) and Rachel Chavkin (right) posing in front of the Hadestown Broadway stage.

It took time. A 2016 performance at the New York Theatre Workshop drew so-so reviews such as one from New York Magazine that called it “more of an illustrated pop concert. … The songs are sung and the story is told, but rarely are the two things one.”

Songs were reworked or dropped. Character development became paramount, clarity even more so. (Everyone loves the songs, Mitchell was told at one point, but no one knows what this play is about.)

Mitchell and Chavkin, took the production to Canada and then England. Revisions continued and didn’t stop until Hadestown was set for its Broadway premiere.

A musician/arranger working with Mitchell calls her a “serial reviser” who “worked on this until the very last minute.”

Hadestown finally premiered on Broadway in 2019, to rapturous reviews such as this one from Time Out NY which praised “the newness of Mitchell’s musical account-and Rachel Chavkin’s gracefully dynamic staging-that bring this old story to quivering life.”

Hadestown was nominated for 14 Tony Awards®, winning eight, including Best Musical, Best Original Score for Mitchell and Best Direction of a Musical for Chavkin.

Just imagine this moment 7 more times and you’ve basically watched the 2019 Tony Awards®.

Mitchell’s songwriting drew a great deal of praise for her ability to draw from centuries-old sources and still make the songs resonate with a contemporary audience.

Mitchell appreciates folk music’s history and tradition. The year she and Chavkin began working together, Mitchell also recorded several folk tunes from the 19th century anthology compiled by Francis Child.

“I’m inspired by traditional music,” Mitchell said in an interview with Town & Country, explaining that inspiration in words that could be used to discuss Hadestown itself:

“What I love about images that come from centuries ago is that they make you feel less alone in your time and place,” Mitchell said. “There’s a comfort in knowing whatever we might be going through in the present moment, someone else’s culture has experienced previously.”

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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