Interview: Hadestown creator Anaïs Mitchell

We spoke to the singer-songwriter behind the Tony-winning musical.

by Jake Cline

Nine years before it opened on Broadway, Hadestown was a concept album released by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell on Righteous Babe Records, the independent label created by folk star Ani DiFranco. Before that, it was a folk opera Mitchell and a few friends staged in Vermont, traveling from town to town in, as Mitchell describes it, “a silver school bus full of sets and props.” And before that, of course, Hadestown was the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the ancient Greek story in which a man literally goes to hell to rescue the woman he loves.

Mitchell travels the long and winding road the show took from DIY theater project to Tony Award-winning musical in her 2020 book Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown. In great detail, Mitchell recounts the many rewrites and revisions her songs underwent over the years. The book offers an illuminating look inside the mind of an artist and a welcome reminder of the importance of collaboration to the creative process. It also serves as an enticing introduction to Mitchell’s show, which will make its Miami debut December 6-11 as part of the Arsht Center’s Broadway in Miami series.

Mitchell spoke to Arsht Magazine's Jake Cline in January 2021 by phone from her home in Vermont, where she had been living with her husband and two young daughters during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is it going to be like for you when Hadestown returns to the stage and embarks on its first national tour?

What a joyful vision to think about it. It’s a show that really is about resilience in a lot of ways. You know there’s a line that recurs in the show, “Spring will come again.” And we’re gonna sing it again no matter what happens. There’s a resilient spirit in the show, and I’m so excited for that kind of springing back to life that will happen when the performing arts can be happening again and especially when this show comes back to life.

People have been so hungry for it, and it’s going to feel so meaningful, really in a deeper way than entertainment. It will feel like a ritual, a community ritual.

[Your book] Working on a Song chronicles the many revisions you made to the show’s lyrics over the years. Was it difficult to revisit what at times could be an arduous process?

I was excited to publish the words on the page as sort of poetry, but what I really wanted to do was publish all these other drafts of things alongside of what is happening on Broadway. It was a sort of therapy for me. And once I got into it, I started to think this can be helpful for other writers or other people that are interested in what goes into making a show. But especially for other writers who are in the trenches. For me, the thing that came out of it, which I return to now when I’m working on songs, is when you’re in it and you’re banging your head against the wall and you’re like, “This is wrong. This feels futile,” suddenly the writing happens. And this book really was a process of realizing that the wrong things are not wrong. They might not end up in the final draft of the thing, sure, but that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. The right thing couldn’t exist without them. There’s value in that process, and it has given me a bit more patience with the writing process.

(Hadestown opened on Broadway on April 17, 2019. Photo courtesy of Broadway Across America.) 

Given your propensity for rewriting and revising, can you watch Hadestown now without thinking of further changes you’d like to make?

You’ve heard it said that a musical is never finished, it’s only abandoned? There is a way in which it was, “Pencils down!” at a certain moment, and it was like “OK, pencils down.” But I also have this feeling about the show that it was finished multiple times. You know when we made that studio record in 2010, that felt like a complete statement. And when we did the show off-Broadway, that also felt like a complete statement, although it left a lot more to the imagination of the audience than the Broadway version of the show.

It has felt sort of healing to put the show up and now be working on other stuff. I got so one-track-minded about Hadestown for years of my life. But who knows? It crosses my mind to make a film adaptation at some point, and I would totally rewrite that stuff.

What was opening night on Broadway like for you?

I have found that those moments of sort of symbolic fruition and attention are never what you think they’re going to be. It’s not what you do it for.

I was obviously so thrilled and so proud of our company and all of the collaborators who made the show happen, but I was like a deer in the headlights. I remember that I got onstage with Rachel [Chavkin, director] at the end of the show to take a bow with our company, and somebody gave me a big bouquet of flowers. That’s a thing that happens in the theater. And I just didn’t know what to do with them. So I just sort of put them on the ground. Have you seen Breaking Bad? I was like [Walter White] in a fugue state.

But for me, the moments you do it for are always less visible than that. It’s a realization that happens in the room. It’s a great lyric that comes in the middle of the night. Or it’s a beer at Hurley’s bar across the street from the Walter Kerr Theatre with the cast, and someone starts playing a song and everyone sings along. That’s it for me. Those are the moments.

Hadestown appears December 6-11 at the Arsht Center's Ziff Ballet Opera House. For tickets, click here.


Top: Photo of Anaïs Mitchell courtesy of Jay Sansone.