Creating the Underworld of Downtown’s Hit Hadestown

Special Features   Creating the Underworld of Downtown’s Hit Hadestown
 
Composer/musician Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin talk contemporary theatre, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and why immersive theatre is all the rage.
<i>Hadestown</i>
Hadestown Joan Marcus

Hadestown. Sounds ominous. Downtown at New York Theatre Workshop (through July 31), a haze lingers at the base of a twisted oak, escorting audiences to the red-lit underworld. Truth be told, it feels more like a comfortably dangerous dive bar.

If you’re familiar at all with the title, it’s likely from the 2010 album of the same name by Anaïs Mitchell. The album tells the parables of Persephone and Hades, Orpheus and Eurydice. When Hades (a fitting Patrick Page) tosses aside Persephone (Amber Gray) for Eurydice (Nabiyah Be), and Eurydice sells her soul to survive, Orpheus (Damon Duanno) must try to rescue his love from the underworld. But turns out, this isn’t another concept album-turned-stage play story. Mitchell actually wrote Hadestown as a folk opera ten years ago. The sound is a blend unlike any other musical theatre bouncing around the airwaves. It mixes the sensuality of jazz with the polished harmonies of Pointer Sister-like vocals, a punk rock vibe with an R&B smoothness—and a hint of Americana.

“It was a special time when it was just musical, but it did feel like an act of storytelling,” says Mitchell of her earliest performances of Hadestown in concert. When Mitchell witnessed Rachel Chavkin’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, she knew she found the person to help develop a true staging of her music. ”It was walking this line of a concert aesthetic and a totally satisfying theatrical storytelling experience,” remembers Mitchell of the show that transformed ARS Nova into a Russian vodka tent. “It's really unconventional, but also totally succeeded on a conventional storytelling level.”

Under Chavkin’s direction, the pair developed the story and created yet another portal to a distant time, this time all the way back to Greek mythology.

Damon Duanno as Orpheus and Nabiyah Be as Eurydice in <i>Hadestown</i>
Damon Duanno as Orpheus and Nabiyah Be as Eurydice in Hadestown Joan Marcus

What was your first reaction when you heard the music?
Rachel Chavkin: Oh my god, the album is incredible and so moving and evocative of character, but also one of the first things that Anaïs said to me is that this a poetry not a prose piece. And you can define poetry in so many different ways but actually in Between The World and Me, the Ta-Nehisi Coates book, there’s an incredible definition of poetry. One of the things he saysv[is] it’s stripping it down to the most essential way of describing an experience and most vivid. As we begin to put story together, how little is enough for these songs to do their work? When I came onboard there had been a libretto, but we immediately went back to the album itself, which funny enough in retrospect, was not the first thing, but it felt like the touchstone. From there we were like, “Here are all the questions that we might try to address before we hear ‘Wedding Song’ for the first time.” And then what has to have happened with Eurydice before, “Gone, I’m, Gone.” It was very slowly piecing together the story.

Is there one song in particular for either of you that you feel is like the anchor of that poetic essence of the piece?
RC: Not necessarily for me, because each of the songs is such a different music event, which is one of the things which makes it so glorious. But I know that “Wait For Me” was the first song around which I began visualizing actual productions, with the swinging lights…
Anaïs Mitchell: That was like the first thing you said to me, was “I’m picturing these swinging lights,” and the fact that that survived through the years and now it’s happening is now pretty awesome.
RC: There’s always one [song] that is not narratively communicative, in a way. It’s the emotional, it’s the inside, and it’s the essential.
AM: A song like “Flowers,” to me, that song sort of embodies or encompasses the ways in which the show is a poem in a prose piece and a metaphorical piece that resists certain kinds of literal detail. This is something that we’ve dealt with as we’ve been developing it: It’s Eurydice, and it’s after she’s made this decision to go to the Underworld and sell her soul, and she has a transaction with Hades behind closed doors. It’s somewhat ambiguous what the transaction is, but there’s all this imagery in that song. A lot of it is death imagery and a lot of it is sexual imagery and also drugs and numbness, flowers and allowing it to be all of those things and not trying to decide what exactly happened back there has been—
RC: Or even that Hadestown equals death. Every time we workshopped this piece the actors would try to do their job and say, “So wait, are they dead?” and it’s like, “You know what, for this production, that’s actually not important. What’s important is that she doesn’t exist in your world anymore.” That’s, for me, the difference between the experience of poetry and prose also, allowing things to live on metaphorical levels.

I love Greek mythology. Anaïs, are you a mythology nerd? What drew you to musicalize Hades and Persephone, Orpheus, and Eurydice?
AM: I’m not a nerd. I’m not very studied in it and I think actually, I’ve heard the Coen brothers say in an interview one time that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie that they made about the Odyssey—they never had read The Odyssey, and they just sort of knew all those things because they were just sort of in the ether.

There’s a lot of myths that I don’t know, or I wouldn’t be able to rattle off the different gods or anything, but certainly the Orpheus myth made an impression at an early age and the Persephone and Demeter one, too, that one especially because it’s a tale about how the world got to be the way it is. That’s a really interesting tale also because it’s so similar to the Adam and Eve story, right? The woman eats the fruit she’s not supposed to eat, and it makes the world more complicated. It’s so wild that that exists in both of those [liturgies].

Rachel Chavkin HR
Courtesy Rachel Chavkin

Speaking of Comet earlier, did you find parallels to Hadestown, going from this chapter of this great epic opus and then taking this character study from Greek mythology? Is there something that attracts you to honing in on the smaller than the larger?
RC: Definitely in my life the things I’m most obsessed [with] and moved by are iconic seminal stories or art pieces coming into contact with the present moment and sort of measuring yourself against it. It’s the mission of my company, the TEAM, it’s certainly what Dave [Malloy] and I do in Comet, and I think it’s a lot of what we do here and, in terms of parallels, I guess I’m always driven by character and [the question] “Who is that human?” For Natasha, as well, in Comet, I talk a lot with both Pippa [Soo] and Denee [Benton]—the two actresses who I’ve really worked with on Natasha—we should wanna both strangle her and embrace her. It’s like, “You’re a teenager! And you were 19 in 1812, and even though you’re wearing a costume from 1812, I recognize you now.” And that’s of course what allows us to identify with the story.

I think that’s what’s resonating with people with Hamilton is that you have those three guys rapping in a bar about chicks and you’re thinking, “Oh right, an 18-year-old dude in 1776 is the same thing as the 18-year-old who’s walking down the street now.”
RC: And it’s very refreshing. For me, I find it like balm to understand the past in that way. To have the past not be this distant, arcane inheritance that we don’t know what to do with. We can kind of forge our way through there. I think that’s in one of the Preludes reviews someone said Dave and I had opened a mysterious portal between Bushwick and 19th century Russia—that’s real! Yeah, we want to do that!
AM: I’m really into English and Scottish folk ballads and these are stories that have existed for hundreds of years, thousands of years, and there’s imagery in there. This image of “never trust a young man with a dark and roving eye.” In that image, you know that if you’ve seen that, and you know what that means.

Speaking of creating portals and worlds, I’m wondering about the creation of Hadestown and the world that the show lives in, not necessarily Hadestown the underworld. I mean like the flavor, the style, because you we use these very categorical terms—“folk opera”—but I’m hearing so much jazz in there and Pointer Sisters style with the Fates.
RC: I totally get that!

What is this world? How do you describe it? How did it come to be?
RC: I very often think about the silk-screening process. It’s like a way of thinking about process because you lay down one layer and then you lay down another and then another and like, we actually kind of literally did that in our technical process. We laid down the thirties, we laid down Americana depression, and it was like not correct. [It was] missing something. [It] didn’t have edge. [It] felt overly representational—but a base. Then we aggressively laid down a generalized rock and roll vibe on top of that. ... I hate the phrase “shmeriod.” For me, I’m always interested in the clash of a few different specifics. In this case that has kind of created a unique world that is tinged with all those things mentioned, plus a little of New Orleans.
AM: On the musical side, I think, there’s so much credit to be laid at the doors of the arrangers, because I wrote the songs on my guitar and they sound a certain way and then, Michael [Chorney] brings this whole other dimension of sound [through his arrangements and orchestrations], his background is really jazz music and kind of art rock music, and I think he brought a lot of that style and flare to the sound of the music. And then Todd [Sickafoose], who’s created additional arrangemetns and orchestrations, brought his own aesthetic to the sound as well—that sort of soundscapey stuff.

Anaïs Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell Jay Sansone

And your performers—
AM: The singers are all just sort of monstrous musicians, and musical personalities. We wanted to find a cast where you didn’t know where to look and who to listen to. There’s these really strong personalities flavor-wise, musically speaking. It was like sort of a lovely surprise that they also could become this really coherent ensemble coming together, so I think all of those things have created a musical that feels pretty diverse.

You also have this semi-immersive staging. What is it about putting the players in the audience that you most enjoy, and what is it about a certain piece that says to you, “This is right for that”?
RC: That’s certainly not always my approach. I think I’ll start with the latter half of the question, which for this piece—fundamentally wanting to keep a major leg of the piece in concert territory. The very opening moment where the band and the actors come out and they’re like [waving] “Sup!?” and everyone applauds in the way that when you go to a concert is like, “Yeah we came to see you!” and it’s like, “Yeah, you f***ing came to see us!” It ties to the music event. So that entrance was one of the very first impulses I had for staging the piece and then we sort of figured out how to segueway into the theatrical element from there. ... Whether I’m in Shakespeare or whether I’m in Hadestown, I always am interested in the audience connection and using the audience as confessor, as sister or brother or partner. And so removing the fourth wall felt very, very natural for this. It’s playful.

Do you think, in general, audiences want that more? To be immersed in it?
RC: It seems that with the surge of experiential shows like Sleep No More—being the iconic example—it feels like audiences are interested in an increasingly authentic experience. At least young audiences are, and they probably always have been. The Wooster Group, for the past fifty years, has been interested in authenticity. They don’t fake anything. I think that’s always been a principle of the avant-garde and then, separately, that’s always been a principle of youth, you know, searching for “the thing” and wanting it main-lined. Maybe now you just have a whole group of theatre artists who want that too and are working in mainstream platforms.

The ending of Hadestown has this epilogue about why we tell stories, even when you know the ending, especially when you know the ending. Why do you tell a story?
AM: It was something a ton of people had been asking for years. Why is Hermes telling this story to us again? And so the final lines that sort of came in the middle of the night were just Hermes saying, “To know how it ends and still begin to sing it again as if it might turn out this time, I learned that from a friend of mine,” his friend Orpheus. We do it because it’s how we want to live, you know, we gotta make art and love each other and believe in things. Whether or not it ends well, we have to still live that way. So I think that’s what Hermes was sort of able to express in that final moment.

Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.

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