The Ms. Q&A: What Led Anaïs Mitchell to Hadestown

Thirteen years ago, the folk singer Anaïs Mitchell was driving down the road when an idea for a song popped into her head. It was the chorus to “Wait for Me,” with lyrics that reminded her of a Greek myth, perhaps something Orpheus would sing to Eurydice. The song became the anthem to Hadestown, winner of the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical.  

Anyone who tries to make art—when no one really asks you to do so; when it involves fighting inner demons; listening to tough feedback; and trying over and over again—will be taken with Hadestown’s 13-year transformation. The show started as a DIY theater project in Vermont, Mitchell’s home state, with actors driving from performance to performance in a school bus. The timeline that follows includes a 2010 concept album (those original lyrics to “Wait for Me” were completely changed), and drastically different stagings at the New York Theater Workshop and the Walter Kerr Broadway Theater, as well as in Edmonton and London. It could only have happened by Mitchell being what Hadestown Music Director, Liam Robinson, calls “a true collaborator” and “an artist committed to the poetry of each individual line, along with the architecture of two plus hours of language and music.”

When I spoke with Mitchell this July, she was back home in Vermont. It was just a few weeks after Hadestown had won big at the Tony Awards, including Best New Musical and Best Original Score. Mitchell is only the fourth woman to win the songwriting award solo in history, and the first woman to write both the score and book of a musical in ten years. Our conversation, which lasted an hour, felt like a master class in what it means to live a creative life. She spoke about specificity in stories, the role of good mentors, women with vision and how she knows when she’s really onto something. 

Anaïs Mitchell (Shervin Lainez)

I read that Ani Difranco essentially discovered you at a dive bar in Buffalo. What did it feel like to have a woman you admired believe in you and invest in your career?

It was huge for me—I was beyond obsessed with Ani Difranco. That was a time before streaming, when her album would come out and I would drive 45 minutes to the town with a record store to buy it. I’d listen to every song and wish I had written it. I actually just read her memoir. It spoke to me in so many ways, and reminded me of songs she wrote and what they meant to me at that time and how radical so many of her choices have been. 

I hate to say it, but in the music world there is still a bit of a sense that there’s limited space for women. So for her to share her spotlight with younger women who were coming up on her heels and under her influence; that was a really generous and radical thing to do. I’m so grateful. Not just that, she blazed a trail in terms of saying, ‘Hey you don’t have to get discovered by a record company or the boys in the back room. Just make an album drive in your car!’ That’s how I always thought when I started, that I didn’t need to wait for someone to give me permission.

She took me on tour and gave me all these opportunities maybe before I deserved them. And she heard a very early bootleg of Hadestown in Vermont, and said, “Righteous Babe Records can help you make the record.” She agreed to sing the role of Persephone before anyone else got on board. That was huge, to put that kind of faith into the project. 

What is the role of Orpheuses (song writers) in society

One thing I love about music—I was actually just writing this for the liner notes of our Hadestown cast record—is it’s weightless. It’s not a product you hold in your hand. It’s a wave in the air. I love that it’s an undeniably valuable thing that doesn’t really cost money. It doesn’t clutter up the space. It’s not destroying the earth. The product is completely positive. Especially going to a theater show or a concert—it feels like one of the last places were people will put down their phone and set aside their egos to an extent, and just kind of be together, breathe together, move together. It’s spent time when it’s good. It’s a dilation of the moment. That feels like such a valuable offering to the world. 

You’re starting to tour for the first time in a while—how’s it going? 

I’m doing a few festivals this summer with this folk band I’ve been working on called Bonny Light Horseman (Bonny Light Horseman is the title of a traditional song, which is one that we do). It’s this new project that has evolved over the last year and a half. There are a couple other guys in the core band. One is based in LA with the band The Fruit Bats, another plays with Josh Ritter and The National. It’s is loosely based on traditional music; a lot of British Isle-inspired type stuff. This was the one thing I thought I could work on other than Hadestown, it felt easier than writing my own stuff. It’s exciting, we do a lot of harmony. It’s all open D guitar tuning and soaring.

So many of your projects are rooted in collaboration, from your work with Rachel Ries and Jefferson Hammer to the Hadestown 2010 concept album…even your solo albums have innovative orchestrations. Where did your interest in collaboration start? 

There’s something about working with other people where you get that mutual inspiration that can keep the wind in the sails of whatever the project is. And certainly in a project like Hadestown, I’ve had a lot of collaborators over the 13 years from the early days in Vermont to Broadway. I wouldn’t have had the heart to keep working on it if I wasn’t in the conversation and community with other artists who encouraged me. So, the inspiration of having another artist in the mix is part of it. And also just being responsible to someone—to bring your best work for them.  

I love solo songwriting and performing, I definitely have done a lot of that. [But] at a certain point you just get sick of yourself. Even when I’m touring this fall, my friend Austin will be playing electric guitar just to have one other person add a different color, texturally from the guitar. It keeps me present with the material in a way that if I’m alone I might have a difficult time accessing.  

What makes a good collaborator?

People who are really in touch with what moves them. They are very clear about what their instincts are, and still open to the idea that someone else’s instincts might be more right. Certainly being a straight up communicator is important. And that ability to get feedback and an inspiration loop going, that feels really important too. 

How do you know when to listen to your intuition vs. when to listen to others? 

The way it works for me often times, if it’s a real intuitive vibe, it will come back around. I’ll try to cut something and then be like: “Ah, it’s still calling out to me!” You know what I mean? I make a change based on a suggestion, and then go, “Actually I’m not ok with this.” But it might take a process or a few weeks of being like, “I really miss that line,” or “I really need that musical theme to go back in the show.” I’m mostly talking about Hadestown because it’s been this epic back-and-forth struggle with that.

I came to the project as a songwriter and a poet. And the poetry of the lines is always at the foremost in my mind…what I’m seeking from the lines is a very mystical, poetic experience. I know if it works on me alchemically, or if it hits my heart at a certain angle—but—that may or may not have anything to do with moving forward in the story at a pace that’s satisfying for an audience. So a lot of the struggle has been between poetry and drama. I had to be like, “Oh my god, I love these lines so much for the poetry but they’re not serving the drama.” Having to let go of them has been the hardest part. 

I heard that on your first call with Rachel Chavkin you told her, “This is a poetry piece not a prose piece.” 

That has been a real touchstone for both of us. We worked on the show six years together before it went to Broadway. Hadestown is a very metaphorical piece. It’s very spare and elemental. There’s no naturalism or realism in the show which has made it really tricky across the board. When thinking like, “What should the costumes for this thing be?” because it’s not like we can say, “Ok, it’s 1930 and we’re in the Dust Bowl.” That’s part of the inspiration but not the whole. 

We wanted to be rooted in the specific but to also speak in this larger than life way. [In Hadestown], we are living in a world of gods and men—it is larger than life. There are a lot of songs and parts of the show where hopefully things are operating at multiple levels. That song “Flowers” Eurydice sings, I would say, is one of the pieces of pure poetry that we just let it be what it is. We didn’t really mess with it for the drama. There’s sex in there, death in there, drugs, numbness and sleep…[it circles] what happened to her in the office with Hades. It wants to be bigger, more archetypal than anything you could pin down with a literal event. 

We’ve often found the process of working on the show is like focusing a camera. We wanted to lean into the kind of specificity that allows people to hold onto story, and certain things people need to know. Like, they need to know you have to have a ticket to get on the train to Hadestown. Specific things. But we’ve definitely had the experience of going, “Oh, we went too far.” When we did our show in Canada there was a massive scenic re-imagination of the show and we put a railroad track and station in the middle of the stage. Suddenly, part way through previews, Rachel was like: “This is terrible, we can’t have this railroad track!” Because it was too literal, too specific. It was making us make all kinds of other choices that didn’t feel like it was honoring the piece as a poem.

There’s a level of trust that you have to have with the audience … that they’re going to go with it and participate in the poetry as well. That’s a delicate balance.

Yeah, that’s right. It’s been part of the process with this show, finding that line with abstractness. When the show began in Vermont, it was a much more abstract version of the show. And even when I started with Rachel, we were asking a lot of the audience like to just fill in the blanks yourself. Some people are down for that and others are not. 

When you walk into a Broadway theater, you’re expecting a certain level of like, ‘I’m gonna be taken on this journey and I’m gonna arrive some place. Someone’s looking out for me; I’m not just being led into the woods of abstract imagery.’ And at the same time, we’ve all had the experience of feeling like we’ve been spoon-fed by a show—that’s not fun either. 

How can elevated language—poetry, parables, myths—help us see ourselves? 

It’s been really fascinating to work on this particular ancient story for as long as I have, and to not feel like it ever stopped giving. There’s always a new angle or new piece of it unfolding. Very early on, I started thinking about the initial concept that Hadestown is a place that is not hell per se, but there are lifeless people. It’s a corporate bureaucratic space, with wealth and security, and that the above ground place is a world of poverty and uncertainty. Those themes have kept. 

With the poverty stuff, in 2007 when there was that recession in the U.S., I would sing “Wedding Song” and people would respond to it in this whole other way. They were feeling the hardship. And the climate crisis stuff started to deepen which felt very connected to the ancient mythology with Hades as this king of industry and Persephone queen of nature, in Hadestown with a troubled marriage. And the song “The Wall” took on this whole new meaning when Trump started campaigning. I thought that would recede but it’s as present as ever. So, it’s pretty amazing that these stories can hold all of that. 

I think that something about poetry and music speaks to us in intuitive ways and goes beyond the linear mind. These images have been reverberating for centuries and you feel them work on you in ways that go beyond what your mind can understand. 

I keep thinking about the spiritual quality to the show. There’s a kind of invocation at the beginning, and a benediction at the end. What goes into creating that experience?  

First, Andre DeShields, who sings in both of those numbers, is a deeply spiritually heavy dude. He’s able to come up and hold the audience in his gaze, which never ceases to move me. 

I remember reading somewhere that the word religion, the actual origin of the word, means: to tie back to the past. There is a way in which this act of collective re-telling an ancient story is connecting us with each other and our ancestors who would have told the same story in a different way. There’s something uplifting about that, even if it’s a sad story. 

When he sings “[It’s a sad song] but we’re gonna sing it again,” there’s such defiance in that. 

I just was proofing the masters for our Broadway soundtrack (it’s been a really long project, more than two hours of music and forty tracks)…he is just so moving in his telling of that last “Road to Hell.” He does really deliver that line with a lot of defiance. 

I’m actually working on a book where I’m basically collating different versions of the Hadestown lyrics. I’m diving back into some really old stuff and just read this line from one of the earliest epics. It was about the Hades and Persephone—he was breaking the contract of six months and the line was: “The strong will take what they want to take and the weak can only tell the tale.” It is an act of defiance; story telling can be real defiance and togetherness.

That actually leads to my next question. How do art and activism intersect for you?

I was very inspired when I was younger by the “Rise Up Singing Songbook.” My parents were hippies and I loved early Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, all of those guys, Joan Baez. I romanticized that era and early on did write songs that were a little soap-boxy. 

It was something that only felt comfortable to me for a while, then I started thinking, “I don’t know if that’s my voice.” Sometimes, it felt like I was trying to write a letter to the editor. A song is different than an essay, so I really started to lean into the idea of music as emotional and this ancient form of storytelling. It was a form of entertainment when people didn’t have movies, didn’t have books; they had balladry. 

The telling of stories is a really powerful kind of activism—it allows you to empathize, to put yourself in others’ shoes. I’m thinking about that Bruce Springsteen song “The River.” That’s such a beautiful song. How can you not empathize with this young working class kid’s life straightjacketed by his circumstances? So in my writing turned toward the question: “What stories can I tell?” 

Are there artists that you return to, that you’ll always find inspiration from?

Definitely Leonard Cohen. That stuff is just miraculous. I also love how long he stayed in the game, he wrote some beautiful stuff in his older age. Some of those songs I’ll sing to my daughter at night. Like “Suzanne” is in the rotation. It’s a miracle of a song—I can’t believe it doesn’t rhyme in the ways it doesn’t and does in the ways it does, and the imagery is so stunning. 

Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welch are on this list. [They offer] a marriage of folk music and poetry that feels really modern. Welch is a really stunning writer and based in traditional music. She recently talked about what we were talking about before—how these ancient images can send a shiver down your spine. She’s done an amazing job of making songs that feel like they could have existed hundreds of years ago, but totally speak to the present.

Did your parents name you after Anaïs Nin? 

Yes, my parents are fans. And I read all her stuff when I was probably too young to. But she was an extraordinary writer, I love her diaries. I was really inspired by them at a young age and kept a diary for a long time. That real sensual attention to detail and her emotional intelligence. There’s so much to her. 

Let’s talk about female leaders in the Hadestown creative team. Was it an intentional choice to have women in charge since that’s a rarity on Broadway? 

I know, that’s really not good especially in theater. There’s more parity in the music world. I wouldn’t say we’re a completely all-female creative team though—certainly there are plenty of men including our choreographer, orchestrators and dramaturg. 

I first saw Rachel’s work just checking out The Great Comet of 1812 with Dave Malloy, and I fell in love with it. I thought, “Whoever that is, I need to get their number!” Meeting her, and our two lead producers who are women, has been really eye-opening for me. I have learned something about trusting my own instincts from working with women so closely. I’ve had a lot of fruitful collaborations with men, but in the past I found I was more ready to second guess myself in the presence of a man I’m working with. I’m uncertain if that’s on him or on me, or on both of us… or centuries of dynamics assuming that the man in the room might be more qualified to make a choice. 

It’s been very inspiring to watch Rachel work a room. She has to be the captain of the ship and she has to be very decisive. She’s willing to make a wrong choice and then have to backtrack. That’s part of her philosophy: You have to make a choice to be able to make a better choice. Sometimes you have to charge ahead with a thing. That does seem to be a quality that men have more access to. 

Can you speak about you and Rachel being women who take on projects that are large in scope and being unapologetic about it.

Well, life is short you might as well go for it. Every song that I write, even if it’s about something small, it’s also trying to be about something big. I really like that question: What’s a true and intimate emotion for me and how can that be writ large? I made this album years ago called “Young Man in America” with a lot of characters and other voices, but they all were inside of me. That feeling of the young man in America: I knew that hunger, that restlessness, that desperate feeling. Then, to close the feeling in on this wild archetypal American young man, I was able to make it large. That has always been important to me; that it be bigger than me and my experience. 

How do you navigate your own moments of fleeting confidence? 

I’ve had a lot of [challenging] times working on the show alone—the fun times are the workshops when I get to give Rachel and the actors a song and they bring it to life. And in-between those workshops are months of me in a room banging my head against a wall. I’ll be re-writing some scene for the thirtieth time, or two rhymes that take a week. Those times, I’ve definitely lost the thread, thinking “This is too hard,” or “Anyone else would be better,” or “I would be better at something else,” or “I would have more to offer the world in like the Peace Corps or something.”

What keeps you going?

I guess the piece itself. It has always felt like it had a momentum of its own and I was always trying to bring it to the next place. I’m very grateful this show started out in Vermont. It was this DIY project. I got a small grant and did it with friends. We were not in the limelight, not in New York. No one was there to say you can’t do this or you’re not good enough.

Then the goal became make the concept album. Then it became how do we tour this album? Then let’s try for an off-Broadway production. Then, after we did it off Broadway, we were asked: “Do you want to try for Broadway?” I said “Hell yeah!” I didn’t realize I wanted it that badly, that it was even a possibility for this. 

It was three more years before Broadway happened. Never in my mind did it occur this  would happen early on. I’m glad it started in this DIY and in a sort of protected way. 

I noticed you wore a Planned Parenthood pin to the Tony Awards, and that you gave prize money to them. Would you like to speak about why that’s a charity that’s on your heart? 

Well, certainly it feels like women’s rights and women’s health are under attack right now. Especially with some of these states and laws they’ve been passing. I’m a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood. They were important to me at a time when I didn’t have health insurance. That was the only health insurance that I got, because they would take me. But also they’ve just been advocates for women’s health and rights. I was actually really moved by the stuff in Ani’s book about abortion rights. She has been such a vocal advocate for so long. So it was the least I could do, at a moment when it feels like those rights are under attack. 

In your Tony Award speech, you mentioned your 5-year-old daughter Ramona. What do you hope for the world she grows up in—what do you want to be normal for her?

I was so excited to be able to share the Hadestown marquee with her when it went up on Broadway. She looked up and saw my name and saw Rachel’s name and doesn’t know that that’s unusual. She goes, “Oh yeah, there’s Mom and Rachel (she idolizes Rachel, she’s a big fan).” I love that that’s normal.

Do you know those goodnight stories called Rebel Girls? They’re very popular for little girls and each page has a biography of a woman. Each woman featured achieved something either in the arts, or political realm, or as an athlete and then there is a stylized portrait of her. Anyway, Ramona got really into them. And there was a moment when I had to go to London to work on Hadestown, and even though she was going to visit me with her dad several times, it was definitely like alright I’m gonna be gone. So I told her: “Ramona, I’m working on my page in the Rebel Girl book!” And she could understand that. 

There’s also a thing about these Rebel Girl stories and the narrative that is always like, “And it was so hard, and she needed to overcome all this adversity, and everyone said she couldn’t do it, but SHE DID DO IT!” I think that’s great…but I also long for a world where that’s not the narrative. Like, I would love for her to not hear herself at a disadvantage. 

It’s a fine line with a little 5-year-old kid, letting them know the way of the world cause they’re gonna run into it and not wanting it to come as a surprise, but also… she is 5-years-old and she can dream as big as she wants. I don’t want her to think or feel herself at a loss. 

How does it feel to know Hadestown is continuing well into 2020?

It’s a weird process of letting go. Every time I’m working on the show, I’m living at the theater endlessly drinking coffee and watching tech. And then the show opens and I suddenly feel awkward in the theater. I’m not sure what to do…like, can I go backstage? Suddenly it’s out in the world and living. 

But it feels amazing. For me, as a songwriter, I have always been more ambitious as a writer than as a performer. The idea of writing a song that other people could cover, or a song that could exist in the world where other people could know it but don’t know who wrote it… that’s always been the brass ring. So, to have this show—this house we built that can now just can stand without us being there—is very gratifying. 

About

Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.