Hadestown Rises Again

Sarah Crompton
Thursday, March 28, 2024

Almost 20 years after its genesis, this Greek myth-based ‘musical poem’ continues to evolve and resonate with modern-day audiences. Its latest incarnation, now making its West End premiere, is no exception, finds Sarah Crompton

Hadestown – Original Broadway Company (photography: Matthew Murphy)
Hadestown – Original Broadway Company (photography: Matthew Murphy)

The road to Hadestown has been long and winding. It began as a song that leapt into the mind of its composer Anaïs Mitchell as she drove home late one night, premiered in Barre, Vermont, in 2006 and became a concept album in 2010. By 2016, with director Rachel Chavkin onboard, it got as far as Off Broadway. By 2018 it had travelled to Canada and been performed at the National Theatre in London.

At each stage of its journey, this sung-through musical won new admirers. Then, in March 2019, it arrived on Broadway – and became an overnight sensation, winning eight Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Director. ‘I felt like a dog who had been chasing a mail truck for years and suddenly catches it,’ Mitchell, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, has said. ‘I was stunned.’

What has been so extraordinary about this genesis and development is that at each stage of its journey, Hadestown has changed. And now it’s finally back in London, where it’s being transformed once again. ‘This is a new production we are making,’ says Chavkin, a look of pure pleasure spreading across her face. ‘We’re not just simply remounting the Broadway show, though obviously it’s been guided by the staging from there, but we are talking about this play anew with these new artists. Our cast is luminous.’

Composer Anaïs Mitchell continues to tweak the musical (photo: Craig Sugden)

The joy of Hadestown from the beginning has been its originality. It mixes two Greek myths: the story of Orpheus, the man who could charm the stones with his singing and his journey to hell to save Eurydice, the woman he loves; and the tale of Hades, god of the underworld, and Persephone, whose hellish captivity for six months of the year is responsible for the changing seasons.

Then it gives the narrative a thoroughly modern wrench, setting the action in what feels like a Depression-era speakeasy in New Orleans and turning Hades into a factory boss. In this version, Hades and Persephone are a long-married, warring couple and Eurydice is a hungry girl trying to survive in a tough world, while Orpheus is the dreamer, the artist who believes that he can write a song to change the world. The metaphorical resonances of the plot and the score have to be heard to be believed.

For Chavkin, this was one of the qualities that made her want to take on the project – and left her happy to stick with it for so many years. Her work has always been eclectic; she enjoyed her first Broadway success with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, an electro-pop opera based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and her next show, Lempicka, about the Art Deco painter Tamara Lempicka, which begins its run on Broadway in March, has been in development for a decade.

‘I’ve only ever been driven by what individual projects might be like,’ she says. ‘I never had the kind of ambition of wanting to do a show on Broadway. But with Hadestown there were three things that made me want to do it. First and foremost, the music is unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a musical. It is stuff that I would listen to in my spare time – so melodically beautiful and the orchestrations are extraordinary. It is so accessible and moving.

‘Secondly, I would say the show’s capacity to balance tragedy with hope and fellowship is pretty unique, how it is able to hold the bittersweet. But it was also about the politics of the show for me.’

The politics are summed up in the song ‘Why We Build the Wall’, which Mitchell wrote early in the process, and in which Hades explains his plan to keep his slave labourers behind a wall to keep them free – and to keep away poverty. This topical idea of the powerful holding on to their privilege by using the tactics of divide and conquer combined with the sense of a world out of balance, expressed in the song ‘Any Way the Wind Blows’ which features the line ‘Weather ain’t the way it was before’, gives the show a prescient power.

‘It’s not agit prop,’ says Chavkin. ‘You’re not going to leave with a slogan. For me what Anaïs has done in taking this story of a lover who can’t turn back and see their partner and making it into a metaphor for solidarity is just exquisite. That’s why we tell myths and use myths to think about things now.’

All of the ideas were embedded in the songs from the start. But it took a lot of tough love to turn the thoughts into a show. At the November 2023 press launch in London for this production, Mitchell provoked laughter when she described an early meeting with Chavkin, whom she approached after seeing Comet. ‘I had always wanted to develop the album for the stage and when I saw that show I was just blown away by the production,’ she explains. ‘I reached out to her, and she became a very important kind of midwife.

‘But I remember going to New York, with a small baby, for a table read, and when it was finished Rachel came at me with a laundry list of what needed to be improved. By this point, I’d been working on this thing for six years. But Rachel has a way of saying tough things with a smile on her face. She said, “If we are going to work on this together, you have to move past your fatigue.”’

Grace Hodgett Young and Dónal Finn (photo: Craig Sugden)

Chavkin admits that Mitchell’s willingness to work hard was one of the reasons she agreed to develop the show. ‘After that early conversation, she proved herself ready to do the amount of work and revision required. And now, she never stops. I’ve had three emails from her today with different variations on things she wants to change. That willingness of a collaborator to get into the mud of the process and open themselves to time, which very few people have, was important to me.’

She admits that she pushed hard on occasion. ‘I would hope that I’m like a sports coach. To me, giving a note is a love language.’

It is fascinating that the two are still honing their ideas even after such success. For the new London version of the show, they are looking again at the relationship between Orpheus and Eurydice. When I saw the show at the National Theatre, my only criticism was that the characterisation of the musician was its weakest link; Orpheus came over as too confident and not entirely engaging. The creators agreed.

‘We’ve actually radically rewritten the characters of both,’ Chavkin says. ‘Finally, we got to the core of this young man who is a poet, and who is touched somewhere in his heart, and is such a creature of faith, and he meets Eurydice, who is a survivor from a very, very hard life, and is this creature of doubt. He can offer her something beautiful and that has ended up being our key.’

The beneficiary of this rethinking is actor Dónal Finn, perhaps best known for his role as Mat Cauthon in Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time, who plays Orpheus with his native Irish accent. ‘Anaïs has encouraged us to bring our own voice to it as much as possible,’ he says. ‘That’s a really great thing, being encouraged to make it our own. The whole musical quality of the show kind of creeps up on you. There are these big musical numbers, but then there is a lot that feels home-grown and raw, with a soulful quality that makes it feel like this is sincerely coming out of the characters who sing it.’

Finn sees Orpheus’s optimism, his desire to change the world, as the key to his character. ‘He sees the way that the world could be rather than the way it is,’ he says. ‘I think that sense of hope is a beautiful idea to have in the theatre because theatre itself gives us a sense of how we can do better for ourselves and each other.’

His own journey has taken him from school in Cork, where ‘in primary school it seemed like a great thing to do to get 500 kids in the chorus of Oliver! and get everyone to go and see it’ to training at LAMDA in London. The experience of the kind of courage it takes to be an artist makes him sympathise with Orpheus’s reluctance to be practical.

‘In the world we’re in, it is hard to be an artist and to make a living and to provide. But I feel our younger selves need to forget that argument because if you think of the odds and the practicalities of being a performer for too long, it’ll swallow you. You need to have an emboldened kind of hope. Music really has brought some positive change to the world. It can bring people together. Just look at that time at Glastonbury when Lewis Capaldi couldn’t finish the song and people sang his words back to him. In that moment they were united.

‘I don’t think Orpheus is some totally hopeless romantic. You want to hold on to that wishing for things to be different.’

This chimes with something Mitchell says about Orpheus’s role in the show. ‘This world we live in, young people have a look and say this is wrong, and this should be different and let’s change this. Then they’re older and have kids and mortgages and have to work.’ Yet as their idealism fades away ‘the beautiful cyclical nature of things is that there’s always another young person. There’s always a new generation. There’s always a springtime which keeps coming around.’

This renewal of spring is represented not only by Orpheus, but by Persephone who keeps returning to Hades. For Gloria Onitiri, who plays Persephone, the strength of the entire show is that it uses myth to pose a series of eternal question which relate to both past and present. ‘You might say Hades represents Trump and all those kind of dictators who exist right now. But underneath that, the show asks who Hades is. It’s a question. Why is he doing what he’s doing?’

She appeared in the original National Theatre production as one of the chorus of Fates and is now relishing taking on the part of Persephone. ‘It’s a dream role and I feel like I am just continuing my Hadestown journey. It’s a show about a community of people, and once you are part of the Hadestown community you never really leave.’

Onitiri, who has previously starred in The Bodyguard, reiterates how the show has evolved over the past five years – and how it is changing now to become a completely London production. ‘It’s a different show. Each time they’ve done it, each version, they’ve learned so much from each challenge to keep creating. When we did the read-through, it was so unusual because not one person was speaking to each other in the same accent. It felt weird at first, but when you really start to sit in your own voice, it becomes something about you trusting your voice as an individual within the community and that is fascinating. It adds another level.’

She is enjoying singing Mitchell’s music once again. ‘She writes so beautifully for women, right in the pocket of your voice, and you don’t have to do any of that screaming at the rafters to impress everyone. That’s a rarity in Musical Theatre for females. It’s a joy. But it’s also so wild and free – it allows you to do what you want. You can do anything.’

Traditional musicals, she says, ‘are much more expositional in their storytelling. This is a poem. It’s a musical poem. That’s the difference, I think. The story happens to come in the form of a poetic gesture. I think that allows the audience to put themselves into the poem as well. That’s why people get so attached to it.’

Hadestown is very directly poetic, in that it rhymes. But its quality is something more than that. Onitiri says she doesn’t see it as a set of individual songs. ‘I always describe it to people as one song. When they ask me what’s my favourite number, I say there isn’t one because everybody gets a moment, and that moment belongs to everybody onstage. Everything belongs to everyone.’

Chavkin quotes the American author Ta-Nehisi Coates who says: ‘Poetry aims for an economy of truth.’ She adds: ‘It puts the maximum amount of meaning in the smallest amount of territory. Part of the beautiful poem of the piece is its twinship. The doubling between Persephone and Orpheus who are creatures of faith, that the world is abundant, that spring will eventually come again, and then Eurydice and Hades who are creatures of doubt.’

That mythical reach is why Hadestown has such a visceral impact. Its ending, which finds hope amidst despair, takes the breath away. It feels like just the show London needs.

Hadestown plays at the Lyric Theatre, London, from 10 February to 4 August – for tickets, visit uk.hadestown.com

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today