Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown turns the myth of Orpheus into a New Orleans folk-opera
The ancient Greek story of Orpheus attempting to free his beloved Eurydice from Hades’ realm of the dead has been told many times, but not like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown.
The singer-songwriter’s musical adapts the myth and its metaphorical elements, crafting it into a live folk-opera infused with New Orleans jazz numbers about love, doubt, capitalism, and isolation.
“In this show, we are always riding the line of metaphors,” Mitchell says. “In the original myth, Hades was a place people go when they die. So in this story, the people in Hadestown aren’t dead, but there’s a death-like quality to their existence.”
Eurydice also chooses to go to Hadestown whereas, in the original myth, she is bitten by a snake and dies.
“In this story, Hadestown is this wild underground land of wealth and security and it seems appealing,” Mitchell says. “Then there’s the above ground world where there’s man-made natural disasters going on, which is kind of like the real Dust Bowl. There’s an uninhabitable landscape and this element of unpredictability in the dangerous world.”
Hadestown may keep people safe from the harsh elements of the above ground, but its citizens are controlled by the strings of Hades, an atypical, villainous, tycoon driven by industry.
Mitchell first wrote Hadestown as a DIY theatre project in 2006, which morphed into a concept album in 2010. She was drawn by the myth of Orpheus, an optimistic lover, and artist who believes he can change the world with a song.
“As an artist and a songwriter, that’s appealing,” Mitchell says. “He even remains a hero for us even though he doesn’t succeed.”
After her album, Mitchell had aspirations to transform the story into a professional musical theatre production. She needed a partner—enter Rachel Chavkin, a Tony-nominated director, with an aptitude for unorthodox musicals.
“I saw this show of Rachel’s called Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and I was blown away. Especially with her direction,” Mitchell says. “I think Rachel really gets music and understands what the experience of a concert is.”
“Each song in Hadestown is like watching a number, so you want it to have its own beautiful character and sense of painting through movement,” Chavkin says.
She goes on to say that unlike Hadestown, a musical’s choreography is usually very “illustrative or representational.”
“You can think of an old classic musical where the ladies are going shopping and it’s all choreographed to how they pick out dresses or something like that,” she says. “Hadestown is different. It’s much more about the poetic feeling of the song and the vibe of the orchestration.”
The show also has many political and social connotations with Orpheus being something of a revolutionary in Hadestown.
“To be a poet in the world of Hadestown is a political act,” Mitchell says. “He doesn’t have to get up on a soap box. He’s more Bob Dylan than Cesar Chavez.”
One of the songs, “Why Do We Build A Wall” the character of Hades leads, has also been compared to President Donald Trump’s real plan to build a wall on the Mexican border.
“It’s not the first song about a wall,” Mitchell says. “Look at Pink Floyd’s. It’s a powerful image that political leaders have used many times because it works on people who feel scared and vulnerable. The promise of some kind of safety from ‘the other.’ Donald Trump is just tapping into that.”
“Anaïs wrote that song years ago. It’s extraordinary now because it is both so timely and it touches on how autocrats and oppressive regimes use power to hold the country by dividing people,” Chavkin adds.
Hadestown is currently an Off-Broadway production, but there has been a lot of ‘Broadway buzz’ surrounding it.
“We are definitely here in Edmonton, in part, to figure out how to reconceive the show for a larger proscenium house,” Chavkin says.
Mitchell and Chavkin are both excited about the Edmonton performances of Hadestown. The musical has been reworked many times, with new songs being added or pieces of plot being removed. Mitchell says the whole experience has been like a “game of Jenga.”
“There was this little tower that was built from each version. When you take a block out, it’s possible the whole tower can fall down, but sometimes a new piece can appear and support it.”
Sat., Nov. 11 – Sun., Dec. 3
Tickets at citadeltheatre.com