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Meet The Tony Winners: Anaïs Mitchell of ‘Hadestown’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

The Tony-winning composer to her younger self: “The most compelling thing you can do as an artist is be exactly who you are.”

The musical Hadestown offers a ravishing and utterly unique retelling of the myth of young lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. However, no prior knowledge of the Greek myth is required. This version also features a unique back story about Persephone and King Hades, the more hardened couple. Hades rules Hadestown, the story’s dreary underworld, controlling who stays and who goes. With book, music and lyrics by Anaïs Mitchell, the show contains a cool mix of musical genres, from rock to toe-tapping New Orleans jazz. Nominated for 14 Tony awards, Hadestown won eight Tonys, including Best Musical and Original Score. Hadestown’s arrival on Broadway was 13 years in the making, but the wait was clearly worth it. Mitchell began the show as a community theater project in Vermont, which later spawned a Grammy-winning concept album. 

Anaïs Mitchell won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Score for ‘Hadestown’ (Photos: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions; Matthew Murphy)

Anaïs Mitchell won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Score for ‘Hadestown’ (Photos: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions; Matthew Murphy)

Can you describe how you came to create Hadestown?
Anaïs Mitchell: A lot of times, if I'm writing a song, the idea for the song comes out of nowhere. It feels like a gift from the muse. Then I'll have to explore, and follow it down the path. That is what happened with this show.

I was in my twenties. I was driving to a gig in Virginia and some of the lines from “Wait For Me” just showed up in my head. It seemed to be about this story. I'm not a mythology buff or anything like that. I just knew the Orpheus myth. The lines that came to me are not in the show anymore. It went, “Wait from me. I'm coming. In my garters and pearls, with what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld?” I guess it spoke to me because Orpheus is a musician. I started to work on it, and then I got excited about the idea of putting my music in the service of a bigger, longer-form story.

How familiar were you with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice?  
AM: I remember reading a children's illustrated mythology book when I was a kid called D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. I was also inspired by the movie Black Orpheus, which is set in Rio. There have been so many beautiful retellings of this story. Also, musicians get excited to tell the story of Orpheus. For me, it was the idea of this artist who has so much faith in the world and the power of his art. He believes he could change the rules of the world. And Hadestown represents the way the world is. He comes into it and thinks, “I can change this if I make something beautiful enough. I could move the heart of stone.” As a young, idealistic person, it felt like a story I wanted to tell.

It takes years to develop a show. How did you stay the course?
AM: There were several things. Certainly my collaborators over the years – from the very first version of the show we did in Vermont, which was a DIY community theater project. Then there was the album we made when touring. And Rachel (Chavkin, Hadestown’s director) and the creative team has been evolving in terms of this version of the show. The people who are involved in it have kept the wind in my sails. And also, there’s the story itself. The thing about these ancient myths is they just keep giving. They never let go out of style, because they are just so deep. There has been so much creative work on the part of so many people to get us to Broadway. It also feels like we're just pulling a thing out of the ground that has always existed.

When did you knew you had to be in the arts?
AM: My dad was a writer and still is. He wrote novels when he was a young man. Words were really important in my house. I think I always wanted to be a writer of some kind. And it turned out that that was writing songs. When I was in high school, I fell in love with a lot of indie female songwriters from the ‘90s, like Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and the Lilith Fair. There was something so real and emotional about that music. I would go to a folk music coffee house, see one person with a guitar singing their heart out and think, “This is what I have to do.”

Is there something you wish you could tell your younger self?
: An important lesson for me, back then, is something I am still trying to embrace: The most compelling thing you can do as an artist is be exactly who you are, and give yourself permission to do that. Often we are looking at other people to define what is successful, and trying to be like that. But I believe what people respond to is when you pull something out of the depths of yourself. That is a good lesson to keep learning.


For more of the best of Broadway this season, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in August 2019

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