×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Hadestown’: Inside the Musical’s 12-Year Odyssey to Broadway

Hadestown’s” 12-year journey to Broadway was an odyssey in its own right. 

Singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s buzzy musical, a folk-operatic retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician who ventures to the underworld to rescue his fiancée, Eurydice, was in development for more than a decade before arriving on the New York stage.

The show had humble beginnings, starting as a DIY theater project in Mitchell’s home state of Vermont before becoming a concept album that developed a rabid fan base. It took on new life as an Off Broadway production, making stops in Edmonton and London before finding a home on the Great White Way. The reward for all that perseverance came when Tony Award nominations were announced last month. “Hadestown” picked up a leading 14 nods, including one for best musical. 

“I feel so proud to be embraced by that whole world with a piece that comes from the wild woods and not from a boardroom,” Mitchell says. “It feels like a win for people who are taking the unconventional path with their art.”

Rachel Chavkin, the Tony-nominated director of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” played a major role in helping Mitchell adapt the show for New York audiences. That involved writing, rewriting and adding music to make the production more digestible.

Initially, Chavkin says, “Hadestown” lacked narrative momentum. “People were like, ‘The music is freaking great, but what’s happening?’” she says. “We still needed to get to know the characters better. [The musical] grew very, very slowly, and that’s why it feels so organic and so careful.” 

Of the show’s earlier incarnation, Mitchell says, “It was more abstract, and the audience had to fill in a lot more blanks. The first phase with Rachel was identifying what felt like missing story pieces.”

Mitchell took inspiration from sung-through musicals like “Les Misérables,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Hamilton” to enhance the storytelling “without breaking the poetry of what worked about it as an abstract piece.” She wrote more than a dozen new songs that helped strengthen the storyline and develop the relationships between characters.

The evolution of “Hadestown” extends far beyond just the sound. In between its run at the intimate 199-seat New York Theater Workshop and landing at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway, which houses approximately 1,000 ticket buyers, the production got a whole new look. 

“I wanted the visuals to be as beautiful and poetic as the music is, but it shouldn’t overlap,” Chavkin says. “The visuals don’t need to do what the music is already doing.”

While “Hadestown” was bopping around North America and across the pond, social media helped the show assume a strong presence online. A cast album introduced a global audience to the familiar story of a man who will do anything for the woman he loves.

“There’s so much beauty [in the fact] that music can travel the world on its own legs,” Mitchell says. “People who don’t have money to buy a record, much less pay what it costs to see a Broadway show, have access to that music and have been able to pass it around.”

A lot has changed over the course of the past decade. Mitchell began working on “Hadestown” in 2006, when Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie dominated tabloids and Brangelina was Hollywood’s “it” couple. George W. Bush was president and Donald Trump was the host of a reality TV series called “The Apprentice.” 

“I remember there being a moment when Bush got reelected, coming up against the reality that maybe this is what the world is,” Mitchell recalls. “A lot of those themes made their way into the show.”

The world certainly looks a little different now, but the play’s examination of politics and capitalism helps make the ancient myth feel relevant to the present day. 

“It’s a story about a leader who maintains their power by keeping us apart and making us feel alone and isolated and terrified. That is very familiar,” Chavkin says. “At the same time, people are moved by the idea that there’s hope in the act of simply retelling the story again.”

One song that Mitchell wrote in 2006 — titled “Why We Build the Wall” — found another meaning years later when Trump’s anti-immigration platform centered on building a barrier on the Mexican border. In the dark hellscape of Hadestown, the wall is meant to keep people in the underworld.

Hades, god of the dead, closes out the first act with a call-and-response not unlike something one might hear at a Trump rally. “How does the wall keep us free?” he asks. The workers answer: “The wall keeps out the enemy.”

“I really feel a chill go through the theater,” says Chavkin. “The song is so clear in what it’s doing. I feel people every night quite taken aback by it.” 

That universality is in part why the tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice resonates. 

“It doesn’t have a Hollywood ending,” Mitchell notes. “In a way, that’s why people keep coming back to it. It has a riddle people are trying to solve or dance around. Orpheus is a hero, not because he wins but because he tries.” 

Popular on Variety

More Legit

  • Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne

    Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne Starring in Broadway Revival of 'American Buffalo'

    Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will star in an upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” The show marks Rockwell’s first appearance on the Great White Way since his 2014 performance in the revival of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” The five-year absence saw him pick up an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content