Rachel Chavkin and Anaïs Mitchell on Hadestown
April 16th, 2019
I know quite a few young people—young people with different backgrounds and tastes—who have been very excited about Hadestown on Broadway (and by “young” I mean early to mid-twenties, meaning younger than me). I mean this as a compliment—and it is a compliment. The night I saw the show, there was a small group of such young people a few rows over from me who would sometimes move along with the music from the confines of their seats, and occasionally grab each other’s hands or whisper something to each other. A few rows in the opposite direction was a middle aged woman with smudged mascara, the type we are taught to feel a little bit of pity for, who I think also would have been reaching over to whisper to someone or grab their hand, if there had been anyone there.
Hadestown is poetry, not prose, as its creators—director Rachel Chavkin and composer Anaïs Mitchell—will tell you. The musical, which is sung through, is an interpretation and theatrical translation of the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and Persephone and Hades. It has been many years in the making including productions at New York Theatre Workshop, the Citadel Theatre in Canada, and the National Theatre in the UK. During each iteration the creative team made major changes and kept working on shaping the delicate piece, which is now on Broadway at the Walter Kerr. It is also (also!) the only musical in the 2018/19 season that is helmed by a woman and the only musical this season with a score written for the theatre by a woman (making its creative team far more normal than the musicals with all white, male creative teams, which are commonplace but not at all normal).
During previews, I spoke with Rachel and Anaïs about the development process, staging poetry, finding the specificity in myth, and more.
When you two first met, what were your initial conversations about Hadestown like? I know it’s been a long development process.
Anaïs: We met in 2012. I saw The Great Comet at Ars Nova and just totally flipped for it. I was like, “Who is this director?” We have a mutual friend who’s a drummer named Ray and he gave me Rachel’s phone number and I texted her. Then we got together.
Rachel: We got together a couple times. In my memory, we went on a couple dates. [Trying to find out] what collaborating would be like, which is an impossible question to know until you’re collaborating. Then we started collaborating and answered that question, and we continue to answer that question daily.
Anaïs: I think that is when we really got our feet wet. It was sort of like we were dancing around it until Rachel was like, “Here’s what I have in mind.” One of the first things that was in Rachel’s mind was this image of these swinging lamps in the song “Wait For Me” that was on this studio recording that she had heard. She described that six years ago and they’re really happening now.
Rachel: There’s no amount that you can talk about collaboration and have any idea what it’s going to be like because everyone means different things when they say, “I’m a really collaborative person.” We ended up having this four and a half hour Skype session when I was in London. I think I asked permission, “Can I just tell you what I’m picturing or what I would do?” Then I just remember Anaïs being like, “Yes please.” It was just like we finally broke through. We started by talking about the studio album because that was really the only thing that I had to respond to at that point. There was kind of a libretto and draft, but that was very drafty. So, we really just talked through song by song on the album. I remember talking a lot about “When the Chips are Down” and “Gone, I’m Gone,” which on the studio album goes “I’m Gone” and then “Chips,” which is beautiful musically but I was obsessed by how it didn’t make sense dramatically.
Anaïs: I remember that. I was resistant at first.
Rachel: It was our first argument actually.
Anaïs: I was like “that’s not how it goes,” but it is how it goes now and you would never know it was otherwise. I think a big part of this process has been me coming from the music world and Rachel from theatre, and trying to figure out where this piece is going to sit in terms of how far we’re going to take it towards being a dramatic piece of storytelling. It’s been incremental. Folks who saw the show Off-Broadway witnessed something that was a fully staged dramatic concert, in a way. It was a series of songs and we’ve just kept pushing and pushing toward the drama.
Rachel: Along the way, we’ve seen a lot of musicals. Anaïs would see musicals before, but I feel like she’s such a student of musicals now.
Anaïs: It’s been like a master class.
Once you started working together, were there any outside works that were particularly influential, in terms of other musicals, art, or films?
Anaïs: I have always really loved and responded to sung-through musicals, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Great Comet grabbed me right away. I also love Les Mis, Sweeney Todd, and Hamilton, and all of those felt so exciting to me in terms of them casting a spell that never gets broken. So those were certainly touchstones for this show, which is also sung though. I’m very inspired by all the other work that Rachel does. I’ll see anything Rachel does.
Rachel: We talked a lot about concerts also, which also is a world that Anaïs knows better than I. I would say I learned a huge amount on this show about poetry, certainly, which we’ve talked a lot about. Poetry versus prose and what the difference is between those forms. One of the first things that Anaïs ever said to me was, “This is a poetry piece, not a prose piece.” So, as we looked at expanding, that declaration meant both that it was all going to rhyme, which it does beautifully, but also that there’s an essentialism to everything. That, for me as a director, has been the biggest touchstone: its poetry. We’ve been talking about this one prop, an umbrella, and whether to go for a more glitzy, fun, really beautiful version, or go for a really classic black umbrella. I actually still don’t know, but I’m excited to see this middle thing that we’re looking at, which is this glitzy black umbrella. There’s something about the essentialism of it having to be exactly the right distillation that has been, for me, the reference point or touchstone.
With the idea of poetry versus prose and the show being sung through, have you found that there are other challenges, particularly in the staging of how an audience listens to that differently than they would something that’s with dialogue and more standard musical theatre?
Rachel: I’m working on this show, Lempicka, and I described it as, “I’m working on a [standard] musical for the first time.” I actually don’t have so much experience with comparing how an audience listens differently. I think what Anaïs said, that it has this continuous spell, is really true.
Anaïs: It has its problematic side too, and Rachel has been really smart about making me aware of this. There is a way in which, in a song, people tend to glaze over. Any information that is delivered in song kind of goes by because it’s lovely. We use the phrase “to hang a lantern on something” a lot. If you want someone to notice this is what is happening for this character, sometimes it needs to be distinct from the song form. We have the option because we have a narrator who’s able to tell us what’s happening when we need that, the Hermes character. He can literally hang a lantern and tell us what’s happening
Rachel: I remember talking early on about how the songs felt like these emotional portraits, and I’ve heard Anaïs use the word “portraiture” for songs, which I think is such a beautiful image, and that’s actually not often what traditional musical theatre songs do. It’s part of why this is piece is so delicate and feels like such an unusual act of music theatre to me. Anaïs used the word incremental in terms of process, and it really has been very slow and organic, and one of the initial steps was us talking through the album, and me going, “Okay, this is what I’m following and there are holes here,” and Anaïs writing a bunch more songs to fill in those holes and then me being like, “There are differently shaped holes, but still holes in the stories.” That’s how Hermes began to evolve as a narrator, and then there was a day where it was like, “Wait, can two characters talk to each other?” That’s totally allowed in theatre.
Anaïs: We did our very first workshop at Dartmouth College—it was the New York Theatre Workshop Dartmouth residency. That was our first real workshop together. I had written a bunch of new songs for it, and at the end there was a group feedback session and people were like, “Great songs but we have no idea what’s happening.” They just weren’t getting the information that they needed from moment to moment. So a long journey.
Rachel: Long journey, but organic and good. It’s been that way with the production as well, going from the in the round at the New York Theatre Workshop to proscenium in Canada to now still proscenium, but one that feels much more like the old New York Theatre Workshop set. That’s been a very slow learning process as well.
Anaïs, I read in New York Magazine that you started working on this piece with a community theatre in Vermont.
Anaïs: It wasn’t a community theatre, it was just a bunch of friends. That was 12 or 13 years ago.
I was going to say that’s a very different developmental process than a lot of musicals have.
Anaïs: The whole process has been pretty unconventional, I think. In Vermont, this early version of the show was total shoestring. We had two weeks of rehearsal and then put up the show a few different weekends. There was no money. It’s wild to think that it happened like that, but it did. After doing it in Vermont, I made that studio record and there was a whole era where I was working on the piece as a music piece. My collaborators on the music team, Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, are the orchestrators of this show and they’ve been involved with this music since the beginning. There was a lot of time when we were just working on the music and making that record. In that sense, the piece had a chance to live in the music world and have a lot of attention placed on the orchestrations and just the vibe of the songs.
Rachel: Which makes for a very different show than I think a lot of Broadway musicals. It is remarkable how different the sound is of this show than many Broadway shows. It doesn’t have any of that plastic sound that you sometimes hear or that very produced sound that’s sort of a new Broadway thing.
Anaïs: It’s also guitar-driven. The piano is really integral now. But a lot of the songs are guitar-driven in a way that feels different than piano-driven music.
How was working with the actors on this? You have the music aspect and it being sung through, but also with the Greek myths, you are dealing with characters who are traditionally a little broad.
Rachel: The Greek myths don’t give you much in terms of making a nuanced character. Anaïs has obviously done an enormous job of specifying who this Hades is and who this Persephone is, but then Amber [Gray] and Patrick [Page] have brought this bottomless well of imagination about that. One of the opening numbers in the show called “Come Home” has widely beautiful and challenging recits [recitative]. They’ve laid low every performer who’s ever touched this material. It’s so hard. On Comet, there was one sixteen bar phrase that was a [grim] reaper for 80% of the Natashas that we were considering for the show. Similarly, in Hadestown, you need to get the vibe of how these recits need to function and how much you need to organize in yourself as a performer, because you have to think in time with dialogue in a way that just is not present in most musicals. I find they are almost Olympic feats of acting slash musicianship.
Anaïs: I think we’ve gravitated towards performers that are pretty intuitive musicians. Certainly we’ve been looking for people that are kind of outside of the box and are bringing a musical spirit that is different than most musical theatre.
How was it working dramaturgically with the actors?
Rachel: I don’t know that’s necessarily so different from any show. I would say there’s more for them to fill in because of the myth aspect of it and the poetry aspect of it. [For example] Eva [Noblezada, who plays Eurydice] has to tell a huge amount of back story without a scene where she has a monologue about her backstory. That would be traditional for the musical theatre form, like, “Where’d you come from gal?” “I’ve been on the road a long time,” etcetera, etcetera. This piece doesn’t traffic in that. Not so much because of the sung-through nature particularly, but because of the poetry, because the piece is a poem, not prose. That’s probably the biggest dramaturgical difference in terms of the actors. There’s all of this undercurrent that has to be very, very present in order to fill the very essentialist language of the songs.
What was the genesis of the mixing in the American industrial, kind of southern-ish world into the piece?
Anaïs: From early on, the show took a lot of inspiration from the Depression era. It’s not set in a particular time or place. There’s the imagery, the train, the company town, the hammers and the pick-ax, and the mine and the dust bowl, all those things felt like they were real Americana images. I think part of the orchestrations took the music in a real New Orleans kind of direction. People started commenting on that pretty early on with the trombone and the twin string lines and the way the rhythm section is organized. It feels like a big band. That’s such a rich place to draw on image wise and in the south there is that kind of oil culture. Rachel has mined a lot of that.
Rachel: It really became the touchstone for [set designer] Rachel [Hauck]. In particular talking about Louisiana, and the two edges of Louisiana, one being New Orleans, so there’s our oyster platform of the raised balcony area, with the shuttered doors and the narrowness, the winding staircase and the wrought iron, which is totally straight out of the French Quarter. We looked a lot at images of Preservation Hall in particular. Really confined music spaces and the warmth of them. Then the other huge thing we talked about in terms of Louisiana, the flip side, is off the shore is the Louisiana oil drilling. Again, the show was not set anywhere particular because it’s poetry not prose. We looked at a lot of images of oil production facilities and I think about this set as a Preservation Hall inside an oil drill. I often think about Hades and Persephone as being the oil baron slash mob. We talked about Huey Long as an image for Hades.
I remember when we finally found the dress that was our key to Persephone. Amber put it on and she smiled after being in a series of rootless costumes that were beautiful but not right. She put on this green velvet dress and she was like, “Oh yeah, I feel like a mobster’s wife,” and suddenly it was like, “Oh! Okay if that’s that, then Hades should be in a double-breasted suit and Hermes is the middleman between that level of power and the ground. You can pay him for the entry around the back way.” So all of those pieces kind of began moving into place.
I read in that same New York Magazine article that the opening of the show changed a lot. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, especially if you felt there were challenges to how you teach the audience to watch the show?
Rachel: It used to open with “Any Way the Wind Blows.”
Anaïs: I remember some serious dramaturgical distress like, “What’s ‘Any Way the Wind Blows’ doing as our first song?” It didn’t make sense but I couldn’t cut the song because it’s so essential. The song that now begins the show is “Road to Hell” and now bookends it at the end, there’s a reprise of it. When it started out, it was just narration, and it didn’t have a chorus, it wasn’t a song at all. Then it just kept on developing and developing and becoming this whole animal. I think what worked about it and what works for us now is that it introduces everyone, and I would say it was influenced by Great Comet, which has its own song like that at the top. It also sets a space, which is sort of a concert space, as well as dramatic space, and it gives Hermes the role of emcee. That feels so welcoming for people, that they’re going to be taken care of and here’s the guy who’s going to take care of you and he’s the guide.
Rachel: In Canada we had a railroad track [as part of the set] and it was very beautiful and very grim, and it was a literal version of a mythic space and it was really bad. It was pretty but it was bad. Rachel Hauck and I were both were like that doesn’t feel good, and we’ve lost the vibe of it. We actually went back to Preservation Hall and music spaces as being the key and that was very in step with “Road to Hell,” I think.
Is it hard when you’re dealing with something that’s metaphoric and is specific but not set in a specific time and place, in the sense that you have so many choices, how do you narrow that down to the ones that you want?
Rachel: You could do anything, and you can’t do everything because of the essentialized nature. We’ve always found that you can’t have ten ideas going. You just need to pick one. It’s why there’s a lot of bad Shakespeare design, right? Cause you end up often thinking of it as “[period]-shmeriod” because it is rootless, but it’s not specific. I think for us the real key is related to the story of Amber and that green dress. She was wearing this beautiful, kind of Grecian thing, and it had a wonderful stomach clasp that felt very binding and it just it wasn’t right. Then Michael Krass, our costume designer, went rummaging in the basement in Edmonton and found this green velvet dress that had been used in a production of As You Like It that was set in the 40s, and he did a bunch of shit to it cause we were talking about Dolly Parton. I remember Anaïs was understandably freaked out about the Dolly Parton reference for a moment, but then we put her in this dress once Michael had chopped it and added these shoulders and done some glitz. It was right because it needed to be a real object. It actually felt bad for it to be this faux Grecian made up thing, like Patrick’s suit is a real fucking pinstripe suit, and it is in league with a relation to Huey Long. It’s an actual object, in a way that the chairs are actual objects. Scenically, being in this open, strange, apocalyptic setting of a railroad line wasn’t a real place. The reality of this club that we’ve now built on stage feels good in a way that attempt to literalize mythic space did not.
From New York Theatre Workshop on, was there anything where you felt fairly confident like, “Oh, I know exactly what this thing is, I know exactly how it’s going to work,” and then you found you were completely surprised and that it was in fact not at all what you thought?
Anaïs: That set situation in Edmonton. I didn’t even clock that we were on the wrong track.
Rachel: I don’t think any of us did fully. I knew there were some misgivings about certain small aspects of it, but the degree to which it was wrong slowly dawned on me in tech, and I was like weeping because I was like, “This is so awful.”
Anaïs: I’m so grateful to this women, Penny Ritco, who was leading that theatre at the time, for being totally supportive of us. And we did cut that set. It was like, all right, this is what we’re doing.
Rachel: We cut about three quarters of the act one set between first preview and second preview.
Anaïs: We staged, made sure we staged the entire Act One in one day. It was pretty wild.
Take me through that day.
Rachel: Well, it had been happening all week that I was unhappy and having small sidebar conversations with the design team one by one about how bad things were feeling and trying small things, that were getting increasingly large. I think on a Thursday night, which was the night before our dress rehearsal, I had spoken with Rachel about this and brought it up with the group. “I want to cut the train tracks and I want to cut…” There were several major automated pieces that I cut. We talked through what that thing would be and when we would make that change and what we needed to finish to get the show in shape for the first preview, and then we implemented it and then we made a plan to implement. There were several days of planning. The cast found out that day when they came into rehearsal, I think I had whispered it to Amber. The first preview had gone very well, but didn’t feel quite right. Then we came into rehearsal the next day and said, “We’re going to cut this, we’re going to do it,” and everyone remembered everything that we rehearsed [that day], which is like a real sign that it was the right thing. You remember a choice if it is right. We talked about the culture of New York Theatre Workshop, where everyone was on stage the whole time—in Canada people were making entrances and exits—so it was like, “Amber and Patrick, I think you’re just going to be under the tree, having oysters and reading the oil pages: and they were like “great.” Actually, it was immediately home to them because that had been the culture at New York Theatre Workshop.
Anaïs: Something else that has taken a long time to evolve, and Rachel has made a lot of changes since London, is the framing of and the specifics about who the Orpheus character is. Mythically, he is this character who attempts the impossible thing and then at the end is overcome by doubt, and it always felt like he should be supernaturally confident. The way that was playing out from various productions was that he was a little cocky. That’s not necessarily what I intended, but it’s what was in the text. Finally, between London and here, we turned the dial just a bit so that his faith and his crazy optimism comes more from this place of an artist who’s naïve to the ways of the world. He can see the way the world can be and he’s not entirely living on this plane, he’s tuned into a frequency that is different from most people. That sort of magical, touched by the Gods character, is the one that we’d been honing down with Reeve [Carney] for this production. It’s really exciting and has changed the chemistry of a bunch of scenes.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about working on Broadway?
Rachel: What is your conception of working on Broadway and I’ll tell you which one is wrong.
Does it feel like added pressure?
Rachel: Sure. I self impose a huge amount of pressure even when I’m working downtown, and even when I’m working on very, very small stuff. I think any artist is going to do that. I would say probably one of the biggest misconceptions from producers is that directing on Broadway is a prerequisite for directing on Broadway. I have not found that to be the case. If you know how to run a tech Off-Broadway for a big musical then you know how to run a tech on Broadway for a musical. I think it’s a really damaging misconception because it keeps reinforcing the majority of white male directors who are trusted with money on quote unquote “this risk averse forum.”
I think Hadestown has really grown slowly and it’s grown very carefully and at the end it is a radically new work and it sounds different than anything on Broadway. I think the story feels pretty different than things I’ve seen on Broadway. I think with that kind of careful growth, you can still get here and feel like you know what ground you’re standing on.
Anaïs: I’m not a Broadway person to know what the different houses are, but I’ve felt so at home here in a way that I didn’t expect to feel on Broadway. It just feels like it was meant for us and vice versa. So that has felt really cool and intimate. The show is locking tomorrow, and it’s the end of my time and I’ve been through that process before, but it feels so intense right now. Just to be letting go and letting it live in the world and I’m not allowed to change it. It’s been a very intense letting go process that is not over yet.
Rachel: You can make changes for the tour.
I’m sure you’ve gotten asked about this and are going to continue asked about it, but since this is the only female-led musical on Broadway this season: is there anything you want to say about that or are you tired of having to talk about it?
Rachel: I’ve already sort of spoken to it, in terms of the misconception that directing on Broadway is a prerequisite for directing on Broadway, and that it is overtly damaging to women and artists of color. I had the great fortune to see the opening of What the Constitution Means to Me, and I saw it downtown and I found it even more striking uptown. There’s a moment where [Heidi Schreck] plays that beautiful RBG quote of, “People ask when will it be enough,” referring to progress of gender diversity on the supreme court and she says, “and my answer is ‘when there are nine.’” I think there will be progress when there’s at least one, if not ten years to rival the 100, when every director is a female or person of color. Then we’ll be ready for a year where you get a ask a white man how it feels to be the only white man to be directing on Broadway.
Anaïs: I have a little five year old girl and she idolizes Rachel.
Rachel: I love her.
Anaiïs: She’s really into Rachel and when the marquee went up for Hadestown, I made a little pilgrimage with her and my husband and she looks up at me and she can read cause she’s in kindergarten, she’s like “Rachel Chavkin!” [And then] She’s like, “That’s you, mommy!” And I was psyched that there’s a sign with two women’s names on it on Broadway and that she doesn’t know that’s rare. Also, I didn’t seek Rachel out because she’s a woman. I saw Comet and thought, “Who’s that director?” and then we both happened to be female. We do have two female lead producers who have been really so supportive and I think it probably does take more producers who are women to trust women with money.
Rachel: Strongly agree.
I was here Wednesday night and there are a lot of young people in the audience and it was a pretty diverse audience, which was also true at Great Comet.
Rachel: What is exciting is this piece is coming to Broadway with a huge and very passionate younger fan base because of both the studio album and the cast album. It’s a piece about two couples, one old and ancient, Persephone and Hades, where I hear older audiences crying and who have gotten this incredible resonance with this ruined older couple finding new life. Also, there’s the young couple, who are vibrantly finding love and loss in very acute ways for the first time. So there is a real multi-generational aspect to how this show resonates, and to the fact it resonates on political levels—the wall song is highly commented on, but also just the political levels of solidarity and protest and change. I think the audience is a reflection of the show and our cast is beautifully racially diverse because these were the best humans for the roles, and it is artistically thrilling to have that breadth of humanity on stage and age and style on stage.
Anaïs: I was really psyched to see that we have all these options for people to be able to buy cheaper tickets. I’m staying uptown a few nights this past week and I jogged by and six in the morning and saw people lined up waiting for rush tickets.
Rachel: Oh my god. Really?
Anaïs: Yeah, yeah. They’re rushing this show, there are standing room tickets and there are options. I think that’s so important: to be able to get in the door, at all.
What are your hopes for the show and, in the next few years, what are your professional hopes?
Rachel: World domination is the answer to both. No. Well, it is sort of is my answer to the first one. I want everyone to know the show. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things that’s been written for musical theatre since like Euripides. I just think it’s gorgeous, it makes me cry more nights than it doesn’t. I find it gives me strength to greet another day and I’ve gotten a lot of incredibly beautiful emails from both distant and close colleagues saying that. My hope for the show is that it goes everywhere and is heard by everyone.
Anaïs: I hope that people catch the spirit of collective joy of music making, which I think is at the heart of what we’re doing and the spirit of the Orpheus character, who sings and the world sings back to him.
Rachel: And you. If you’re with Anaïs for more than hour, she’ll ask you to sing along.
Anaïs: I do like a sing along jam. We do a sing along jam once in a while. It’s a sad story, but I feel the tenor of the piece is joyful. And I hope people are inspired by the crazy, beautiful visual shit that Rachel has created with the designers. There are so many different creative energies that come together to make it happen and I hope people can just catch that vibe. As for afterwards…
Rachel: What are you going to do?
Anaïs: I am pretty excited to make some music that there’s no dramaturgy meeting about. I have been working on this for so long, I am frightened about what’s going to happen to my brain next week. But I am excited to find out. I have this folk band called Bonny Light Horseman, which is a sort of loose mystical interpretations of traditional folk music.
Rachel: I sort of have only ever thought about things in terms of projects. I don’t have a goal in a vacuum. It’s never worked that way. There’s a musical that I’m working on with Bess Wohl, who is a frequent collaborator of mine. It’s beautiful and very weird, about a seventeenth century castrato. I’m excited to work on that. I’m excited to do Moby Dick with Dave [Malloy]. I am in the early stages of a couple films, which I am very excited about. I don’t have an aspiration to direct a television show generally speaking, but there’s a miniseries that I would like to make some day about the founding of the community health center movement in this country as a microcosm of the civil rights movement of the late 60s. So I want to do that someday, but I don’t know if that’s the next five years.
Anaïs: I think you can probably achieve that in five years, knowing what your schedule looks like most of the time.