Hadestown, the Orphic musical by folk singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell has just begun performances at the National Theatre after about six weeks of rehearsal. But really it’s more like 60. Or 600. Hadestown has been gestating in one form or another for over a decade. To illustrate the point, one of its songs is called How Long? and another is Wait for Me.
The show began, more or less, in 2006 when Mitchell wrote a myth-based song cycle with folk, jazz and indie rhythms and toured it around Vermont in a school bus with an anarchist puppeteer on board. Those lo-fi performances became an album featuring Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and was a small sensation.
In 2011, a producer suggested it could become a musical, and Mitchell, who wasn’t a regular theatregoer, began to see as many musicals as she could, searching for the right collaborator. In 2013, she went to Ars Nova, the tiny theatre hosting Rachel Chavkin’s dumpling-fuelled production of Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which would later come to Broadway. “It worked,” Mitchell says, “on all my chakras.” A few coffee dates and a five-hour Skype call later, Hadestown had its director.
So yes, this is a story about Orpheus and Eurydice, about fate and love and death and snacks. But it’s also a story about how two women – one of whom had never made theatre, the other who had come to musicals late and accidentally – have worked closely, fiercely and indefatigably to make a show that feels like something more intuitive, elemental, finely woven and seriously DIY than a traditional musical. “It isn’t a classical musical,” the National’s artistic director Rufus Norris says, “but that’s not what we want. We want the new thing that Rachel and Anaïs are making together.”
Their collaboration has included preliminary workshops, an enthusiastically received run at the New York Theatre Workshop (The New York Times said: “gorgeously sung”), more workshops, another generally successful run at the Citadel theatre in Edmonton, Canada (The Globe and Mail: “swings sublimely”) then more workshops. After its three-month run at the National, the production, starring Reeve Carney and Patrick Page of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and Eva Noblezada of the recent Miss Saigon revival, will head to Broadway. Will that mean more tinkering, more gestating?
“Oh yeah,” Mitchell says. “We’re going to work on this thing until the moment it opens.”
“There’s like a pathological hunger for improvement,” says Chavkin. That’s fitting for a musical arguing that if everyone sings along, the world might change.
Chavkin and Mitchell are speaking in Brooklyn, in the tiny office of Chavkin’s company, which used to be called Theater of the Emerging American Moment, but now settles for the TEAM. That tiny office is made tinier by a jumble of wigs, action figures, guitars, a drum kit, a purple exercise ball and the Guerilla Girls’ Advantages of Being a Woman Artist poster, but there is still room for a bottle of wine, a bag of popcorn and a box of chocolate-covered almonds. (Full disclosure: Mitchell and I live near each other in Brooklyn and our daughters both attend a weekly gym class called Ninja Training. More disclosure: I probably should have brought a second bottle of wine.)
While a zumba class thrums next door, Mitchell and Chavkin discuss the winding road that has delivered the new musical out of the school bus and into a three-revolve rehearsal space at the National – “a dream”, Mitchell would write in an email two weeks later, “we feel so cared for” – and how they’ve kept their collaboration going for five years and counting.
Karaoke helps. “I think we’ve definitely done like half of the Indigo Girls catalogue.” Chavkin says.
In 2013, when they began to work together, Chavkin’s approach was fairly radical. “I am most turned on by projects that are going to require my pretty deep investment,” she says. Mitchell had been working on a libretto; Chavkin had her abandon it. Instead, they decided that the songs themselves would carry the story, helped along by passages of recitative, most of it chanted by the character of Hermes, the messenger god. The show would be all lyric, no prose, its spell unbroken.
There was a moment when Mitchell quailed. She’d already been working on the show for seven years. How much more could she do with it? Chavkin, who is big on eyeliner and tough love, told her: “You’ve got to find a way to deal with your fatigue with this piece.” Mitchell did.
They worked together to understand the tension between songs, most of which Mitchell had written as a kind of sonic freeze frame – “a dilation of an emotional moment” – and scenes, which had to start the characters in one place and end them in another. There were new songs that fleshed out the story and new verses to help the old songs along. That was the version they brought to New York Theatre Workshop, in an immersive staging that drew performers and audience together under the same bare and spreading tree.
That version, Chavkin felt, was still stuck somewhere between concept album and full dramatic event. For Edmonton, they added a male worker’s chorus, retooled the set for a proscenium staging and made that set more luxurious. By the time the first preview arrived, Chavkin knew that had been a mistake. “The set was quite beautiful and it felt like the piece was dead,” she says. “It stopped being a live, muscular music event and started becoming this well-behaved story musical which it never wanted to be.” She cut three-quarters of that set between the first preview and the second. The show revived. That stripped-down design – “Grecian amphitheatre meets Vermont barn” – is the one they’ll use in London.
The choreography, by David Neumann, has also been enhanced, bringing, Chavkin says, a “visual lusciousness”. Songs that Mitchell had left inviolate a dozen years, she has now broken open. “I was like: How did this song never have a bridge before?” she says.
Orpheus’s journey has different emphases and so does its destination. The show had never clarified the reasons that he turns around, abandoning Eurydice to the Underworld, but they are clearer now. “The revisions between Canada and London have just been explosive,” Chavkin says. London is busy making its own revisions. The National’s low-cost ticket initiatives skews the audience to a younger, more diverse one, mirrored in the casting of the chorus.
When Mitchell first wrote Why We Build the Wall, which has been taken up as a protest anthem, the idea of a Trump presidency was ludicrous, unthinkable. That song has since become more literal, the shivers it induces more pointed. The dustbowl world of Hadestown has crept closer.
Work continues. It will continue until the official opening night at the National. It will continue as the musical moves to Broadway, either this spring or next autumn. “The work is so fucking far from being done,” Chavkin says. “I would only ever say that if I thought the work was extraordinary. Because it’s not worth revising crap, you know?”
Mitchell has been offered other musicals in the past year; she has turned them down for now. A couple of residencies this summer moved her to write some new, unrelated songs and she has begun to think about a new album and how comparatively easy it would be. “Our vibe has also been Rachel kicking my ass for five years,” Mitchell says. “But it’s been joyful.”