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Anaïs Mitchell on her musical Hadestown: 'I worked on it so long I was afraid I'd never make another record'

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Musicals are a notorious way to suck up long periods of your life. They take a great deal of time to develop, but Hadestown – the biggest musical to open in the West End so far this year, based loosely on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice – really has been a long and winding road. Its creator Anaïs Mitchell has been working on it, in some form, for two decades.

It doesn't seem to have taken it's toll. “The crazy thing about living with this show is that it has kept on giving,” the musician-turned-musical theatre writer says when we meet, sounding remarkably lucid for someone who got off a transatlantic flight just a few hours before.

Looking back at Hadestown's long and winding road to the West End – which begun with one song when she was a gigging folk musician and included a run at the National Theatre before scooping an armload of Tony awards for its run on Broadway – Mitchell says, “I think it took so long because I didn’t know what I was doing or getting into. I don’t come from the theatre world, I come from the singer-songwriter world. I love folk music and balladry, but I was always interested in storytelling by way of songs.”In one of the show's stand-out numbers, Why We Build the Wall, Hades, king of the underworld, sings, that "our work is never done". It seems the same is true for Mitchell: she's flown in for 48 hours to make some edits to the London production. The show has already gone through years of development and multiple versions; will it ever be finished?

“It’s a folk song in that way, that just keeps evolving, and that’s okay,” Mitchell says. So in 10 years time could she still be working on it? She laughs, “I hope not.”In fact she had left it behind after it opened on Broadway. “I really did move on for a few years and was just happy back in the sandbox of the music world. It was really just the opportunity of London, it felt like such a rebirth.”

Hadestown is a sung-through musical that follows the tragic story of the idealistic young lovers, as well as that of Hades and his wife Persephone.

The original Broadway company of Hadestown (Matthew Murphy)
The original Broadway company of Hadestown (Matthew Murphy)

While not tied to a particular time or place, its style takes inspiration from the era of the Great Depression and specifically New Orleans at that time. The music and set pay homage to the city’s legendary music scene and particularly the jazz club Preservation Hall. From the railroad rhythms of Way Down Hadestown to the folk lament We Raise Our Cups – this has southern soul, ballads, rock and jazz running through it. Hot, sultry and sexy... Les Mis it ain’t.

And it all started late one night, about 20 years ago, driving between gigs and the chorus of a song about Orpheus “just dropped from the sky and into my lap”. Fast forward to today and that song, Wait for Me, is still a cornerstone of the show.

“There’s always this combination with any creative work of grace and effort, where something will drop out of the sky – and you can end up hunting it for a decade,” Mitchell says.

Musicians love the story of Orpheus – who played the lyre so skilfully he could charm Hades himself – but as an idealistic twentysomething his story “seemed to encapsulate a lot of what I was feeling then. I’m in my 40s now and I can identify with the older characters.”

Mitchell had a string of acclaimed solo albums, including The Brightness and Young Man in America, but her solo career was put on the back burner as the musical gathered pace. She says, “I worked on Hadestown for so long that I worried I would never make another record again."

What started as one song became the basis for what Mitchell describes as a “DIY community theatre” show in her home state of Vermont. She recorded a Hadestown concept album in 2010, which became a concert tour, and then a full-blown Off-Broadway production which travelled to Edmonton, Canada, then in 2018 it came to the National, where the Guardian hailed it’s “cracking songs”.

Mitchell loved her time on the South Bank, calling the NT, “one of the wonders of the world. What a beautiful institution.” The following year, Hadestown opened on Broadway, subsequently winning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical.

A key part of making the show work was bringing theatre director Rachel Chavkin on board more than a decade ago. “Rachel is tough as hell," Mitchell says. "She challenged me a lot… but we stayed with each other, we stayed in the trenches together and we did not give up on each other.”

Above her writing desk, Mitchell has a photograph of her with Chavkin during Off-Broadway previews, and they’re holding each other’s faces by the temples. "We’re doing this because we’re trying to have a meaningful conversation in a room full of people, and it looks like we’re embracing and also wrestling. That’s sort of is what it’s like working with her.”

Hadestown on Broadway (Matthew Murphy)
Hadestown on Broadway (Matthew Murphy)

At the time of the National run, Variety called it a “good time show for bad time times, a hoot that hits its political points hard”. Those points include climate change, late stage capitalism and the politics of fear and division.

Why We Build the Wall, written in 2006, was one example of where Mitchell's songs looked remarkably prescient. She wrote it a decade before Donald Trump was elected US President, using the rhetoric of building a wall in his campaign. “I think Trump was tapping into the mythology,” she says. “He tapped into it because it’s an image that works well for people who are feeling insecure.”

The longer she has lived with the show, the more she sees in it the way young people see the world now. "They’re like, ‘What the f***?’ Like in the States they see there’s no gun control and kids are getting killed at school. Or climate change and they’re like, ‘This has to change.’ It’s so clear to them. It’s just so hard to hold onto that vision as you get older.”

She adds, “But ideally there’s a new crop coming, just like the spring. There’s a new set of young people with a new vision. Maybe they can fix things for us.”

She thinks a lot about the big issues and the future, but doesn’t write overt protest songs; she'd rather look at themes through stories. “I don’t want to be reductive about it. I think art generally doesn’t often have the answers but ideally it asks the questions, not just of the mind but of the heart and the lived and shared experience. Putting yourself into the shoes of another person, and having feelings about that, is a political act.”

If Hadestown has a moral, she says, then it’s “you have to try, you have to have hope, not because success is a given – it’s not. Orpheus fails. We heroicise” – here she breaks off to apologise that jet lag has led to her making up words – “we heroicise Orpheus not because he succeeds but because he tries, and that endeavour alone is worthwhile. How to live, and not merely survive, is to believe things could change.”

Hadestown’s popularity may also be down to how the Brits love a heroic failure, I add.

Never in her wildest dreams, when she started on Hadestown, did Mitchell think the show would get to Broadway. So she fondly remembers one of the last days in Manhattan ahead of its big opening – still tweaking the show, naturally – and she couldn’t sleep, so went for an early morning jog.

“I saw these kids who were camping outside the theatre dressed up as the characters in the show. I thought, ‘I have no idea what this show means to these kids. It’s not mine, it’s living in the world and it is its own animal.'”

Mitchell lives in Vermont in a house on the family farm where her grandparents once lived. Her parents have a house there, as does her brother. She moved from New York a week before lockdown, heading back with her husband and first child when she was nine months pregnant.

Incidentally, it turns out she met her husband when she was an art class life model, at a workshop in college. She laughs when I bring it up. "My parents were hippies and I was always comfortable with nudity. It was great money, and I continued doing it at college. And he was in this workshop and I noticed him from the model stand, and he took off his shirt as he was drawing me. And I thought, ‘Who was that guy?’ The rest is history.”

She grew up with nature – and culture – all around her. Her parents were back-to-the-land hippies, who bought the farm from the proceeds of a screenplay (and named her after writer Anaïs Nin). Mitchell always loved songs and growing up “there was a lot of folk music associated with that 1960s and 1970s back-to-the-land hippie community”. At 15 she picked up the guitar and started writing.

“It was a powerful time for female singer-songwriters,” she says. “It was the Nineties. My idols were Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, Tori Amos… I heard that music and thought, ‘I want that.’ It was stripped back, emotive and lyric-focused storytelling.”

As she steeped herself into the world of folk , she discovered more traditional music, went further back and discovered ballads from the British Isles, which inspired her. “What I loved, and still love, is the idea of a song that could have lived 100 years ago and could live 100 years from now.”

Mitchell got to work with idols including DiFranco, who signed Mitchell to her label, and then sang on the original Hadestown concept album, as did Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. “The real full circle moment is that Ani is going in as Persephone on Broadway, starting in early February. That just blows my mind. As a young girl who idolised Ani DiFranco and ended up being on her record label, and the way she helped this show get off the ground. And at this point of her life she’s willing to take a leap like that – she’s never been in the theatre world.”

Currently her main joy is being back in music. She released a self-titled solo album last year, and has been writing and recording with her band Bonny Light Horseman. She is trying to write a new play, but remains tight lipped on the details.

“I’ve written a bad draft and now I have to try and write a good one,” she says. “Knowing what I know now, ideally it won’t take so long this time around.”

Hadestown opens at the Lyric Theatre on February 10 and is booking to August 4. Book tickets here