Anaïs Mitchell and the Road to Hadestown

by K.C. Whiteley

We had front-row seats for the Sunday matinee performance of Hadestown at the New York Theater Workshop, the penultimate show before opening night. As the orchestra, which includes Vermonters Michael Chorney and Robinson Morse, began to play “Anyway the Wind Blows” and the Three Fates began to sing, chills of excitement raced through me. I was in New York City about to be transported to a musical feast.

The first Hadestown production took place 10 years ago in Barre, Vermont. Reshaped for the stage and matured from developmental growth in the years between, Anais Mitchell’s reimagining of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a folk opera has blossomed from a small-town musical theater to a fully developed Off Broadway show.

Singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell.
photo: Jay Sansone

When Vermont Woman first profiled Anais Mitchell for this column back in March, 2010, Hadestown, the album, had just been released on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. Six years later, Hadestown, the Off Broadway production, is playing at the New York Theater Workshop. Thanks to sold-out previews, the run has been extended into July.

The concept for what would become a community theater folk opera about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice originated when, as Mitchell recalls, “the first few songs just came out of nowhere” and drew her to the myth. She recalls hearing the story as a child and strongly identifying with the musician as hero.

“I recognized in Orpheus his heartbreaking optimism. In the underworld, the rules are the rules; you don’t get a dead person back—but Orpheus believes if he can just sing/play/write something beautiful enough, maybe he can do the impossible, move the heart of stone, get through to someone. I’ve felt that feeling.”

Michael Chorney, Mitchell’s longtime collaborator and musical arranger, recalls her sharing a song 10 years ago about Hades and Persephone that began this decade-long journey of Hadestown, from a song of inspiration to an Off Broadway production.
The first opening night in 2006 at the Old Labor Hall in Barre showcased the collaborative efforts of Chorney and director Ben Matchstick and the enthusiastic commitment of a group of singers and musicians from around Vermont. Mitchell describes the first Hadestown performance as “born out of the creative do-it–yourself community,” centered around the Langdon Street Café in Montpelier and achieved on a shoestring budget. (Mitchell’s husband, Noah Hahn, and Ben Matchstick were two of the original founders of the café.)

The first show was followed by a traveling production in late 2007 of eight shows culminating with two finales at Higher Ground in Burlington. Since then, Mitchell has gone on to other musical projects and acclaimed albums (Young Man in America, Child Ballads, and Xoa) and is the proud mother with Noah of two-year-old daughter, Ramona. During this time, Mitchell has been developing and expanding the reach of Hadestown, building on the success of the 2010 album, which featured DiFranco, Greg Brown, Justin Vernon, and the Haden Triplets, among others.

Mitchell calls it a “10-year gestation,” starting with rewriting songs and lyrics to give the story more meaning and context to “flesh out characters, plot and arc.” Mitchell toured with the album, performing the show as audio only, singing different parts herself or bringing in guests in different cities to sing the different parts. She took it around the US, Canada, and the UK. All the while, she had a dream to bring the full performance to the stage again.

This meant finding backers and theater professionals who could help her reshape and expand it for the stage to develop a “more narratively clear drama.” Several workshops and artist retreats brought her closer. Mitchell and her husband had moved to New York City by then, and in 2013 Mitchell was introduced to Obie-award-winning director Rachel Chavkin, whose work she admired.

Nabiyah Be, as Eurydice, stands facing three Fates played by, left to right, Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub; Chris Sullivan as Hermes in Hadestown at the New York Theater Workshop. photo: Joan Marcus

Mitchell recognized the difference between writing for the theater, which “relies on the principle of dramatic action unfolding in real time,” in comparison to songwriting, which is more philosophical and relies on the principle of “stepping outside of a moment to reflect on it.” She knew Chavkin was a person she could trust to stay true to the poetry at the heart of Hadestown and shape it to the more formal structure of the stage.

Interviewed in The Brief: The Making of Hadestown, Chavkin explains what drew her to this theatrical project: “The music is so extraordinary. I won’t say yes to a project anymore unless it has politics that I think need to be heard in the world, unless the craft is so extraordinary and formally investigative, and this certainly is … it’s a big problem to bring pop songs onto the stage … So that challenge was really exciting, but I think fundamentally I said yes because the music was so beautiful. I had never done anything that romantic, and I really liked Anais.”

Actor Damon Daunno as Orpheus sings to Nabiyah Be playing Eurydice in the folk opera Hadestown. photo: Joan Marcus

This was also the year of Mitchell’s pregnancy, and the family returned to Vermont. Ramona was born, and they stayed two years before returning to Brooklyn. Managing the work of bringing Hadestown to the stage has been “more hectic than I could have imagined,” says Mitchell who expresses her gratitude to her husband for his support and for being parent No. 1 during this lengthy labor of love that often has her working 12-hour days. Ramona is “too young to understand what I’m doing, but she’s doing great. She’s at an age where she’s able to live in her own imaginary world and can entertain herself.”

With the complex and often arduous levels of detail and logistics required to finance, staff, and produce an Off Broadway show, Mitchell has enough tasks weighing her down to drown in the River Styx. She claims that the work on Hadestown has been like a graduate school, which is fitting since she is pursuing an MFA at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.

One of the biggest changes over time has been the addition of more material to make the story richer and more concrete for the audience. The 20 songs on the album Hadestown has expanded to 34 in the play. “This is a new different show,” says Mitchell.
New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood praised Hadestown as “a gorgeously sung, elementally spare production,” admitting that the song “Why We Build the Wall” gave him goose bumps.

In Talkin’ Broadway, critic Matthew Murray writes about “the stunning magic that writer Anaïs Mitchell and Obie award winner director Rachel Chavkin have achieved here: they’ve made the inconsequential seem integral, and the forgettable seem legendary.”

The difficult challenges of transforming a recording of songs into a fully conceived stage production is also noted in several reviews. In his piece for the Burlington Free Press, Brent Hallenbeck closes with “at its core, Hadestown remains built upon the songs of Mitchell, so probing in their exploration of art and love and how that all fits into a world built on power and money. Mitchell’s music was at the production’s heart from the start a decade ago. Now that heart has more flesh to surround it.”

When asked what’s next in life after Hadestown, Mitchell has not yet crossed that bridge. “I’ve been so single-minded about this, I’ll need to take a break. I want to hang out with my family, read some books, maybe cook something. I may not be happy to just go back to songwriting, but it’s great to be able to write something and get up on stage and try it out. There’s that immediate connection with the audience. The theater stuff takes so long.”

Sold-out previews have extended the run into early July. It’s worth the trip to the Big Apple to enjoy and celebrate this home state success. For tickets and more information, go to



K.C. Whiteley lives in Montpelier.