If the title of Broadway’s Hadestown is a destination, it only makes sense its opening number kick off a journey.
“The Road to Hell” seems the obvious way to begin Broadway’s Hadestown—given the title. The song now sits in the number one slot, introducing the audience to the characters of Anaïs Mitchell’s Greek mythology-inspired folk musical and establishing the concert-like realm of the show. But it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, the book writer (and composer-lyricist) originally set a song called “Any Way the Wind Blows” as the opening number when the show bowed at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. But that was one of the first changes she made to her script after that Off-Broadway run. “It started out just as a narration,” says Mitchell of “Road to Hell,” “and then it just kept gaining momentum and then finally I wrote the chorus for it and then it felt like ‘This is really the opening number.’”
In setting the structure for the show, Mitchell meticulously wove the book so seamlessly with its score it’s nearly indistinguishable. Nearly. But look closer at Mitchell’s script below (and her hand-written annotations transcribed especially for Playbill) and you’ll notice the difference. Every word is determined to be sung or spoken. “We used this phrase a lot when working on this show: hanging a lantern,” she explains. “Like if you want to ‘hang a lantern’ on something—really get the audience to pay attention to moments—it’s good to have it spoken.” That’s not to say her lyrics should be ignored—or could be if you tried. But it changes the audience reaction.
“If Hermes would sing the name of the characters he was introducing, people wouldn’t applaud for them,” says Mitchell of the earlier days when her script called for singing those lines. “But if he would say ‘Persephone!’ people would applaud because it feels like more of a button” in the midst of all that music.
Even minute details like punctuation change the entire meaning of one word.
“When I first wrote ‘Alright,’ it was just a statement from Hermes like, ‘Alright, I’m going to take care of you and I’m going to tell this story,” says Mitchell. But with the change to a question mark, it sets in motion an entirely different relationship between the players and the audience from the outset of Hadestown—one different than any show on Broadway. André De Shields, who plays Hermes, described it as a contract. “He said, ‘Here’s the contract: Will you come on this journey? You might be challenged, you might be changed, but you won’t be harmed.’”
Having worked on the musical for 12 years, you might think “The Road to Hell” feels like an old song to Mitchell, but she says it “feels alchemically different now than it did before”—as does the full production. Mitchell describes the Broadway iteration as the “fullest version.”
“This one has a lot more specificity in it, but it doesn’t feel like it’s broken the magic of what it was as an abstract piece,” she says. “That was always my fear with going further with dramaturgical development, like suddenly there’ll be no mystery left. But I still feel the mystery in this show.”
Take a look behind the mystery as Mitchell points out unknown details and clues in the epic opening number (the first six pages) of her Hadestown:
Watch below as the cast of Hadestown shares their favorite lines of poetry in Mitchell’s story: