Brow Beat

The Director of Tony Awards Favorite Hadestown on Why Tragedies Are Worth Telling

Still from Hadestown of Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada.
Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada in Hadestown.
Matthew Murphy

Even if you’re not already familiar with the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hadestown warns audiences at the very beginning that what follows is “a sad song, a sad tale, a tragedy.” Still, director Rachel Chavkin says, the show’s ending—in which, as in the myth, a doubtful Orpheus turns back to look at his lover and so condemns her to Hadestown forever—elicits gasps and full-fledged cries of “No!” from theatergoers.

The Broadway run of Hadestown, adapted from the folk opera by Anaïs Mitchell, has been nominated for 14 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, where it will compete against three comedies and a jukebox musical. And Chavkin, whose previous work includes Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812, has once again been nominated for Best Direction of a Musical—the only woman among the 10 directing nominees this year.

Slate spoke to Chavkin about the value of tragedy, developing the show’s unique visual style, and how Trump’s election has altered the way a key song has been received. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marissa Martinelli: Tell me a little bit about how you and Anaïs Mitchell began working together.

Rachel Chavkin: Anaïs has been working on this since 2006 as a kind of DIY community theater project in Vermont, but we actually met in 2012, after the piece had become this extraordinary music event, via the studio album. She had just begun working with Dale Franzen, one of our producers, and they were looking for a directing partner to help move the piece forward. She saw my production, the original production of Great Comet at Ars Nova in a tiny, tiny 87-seat space, and she flipped for it. We happened to have a mutual friend in common, a drummer, who put us in touch, and we spent the winter of 2012 and spring of 2013 kind of going on a couple of dates, because it’s such a huge endeavor to make a new musical together, and we really wanted to try as best as possible to make sure the fit is right. But also, the truth is, you can’t really know how you’re going to collaborate with someone until you start work.

We had what ended up becoming a 4½-hour Skype session. After this series of, like, dates, where we just talked in the abstract, I finally said, “Look, can I just tell you what I would do if I was directing?” And she in return was like, oh my God, yes, please. We suddenly broke through the bullshit and the politeness, and I began feeding back on the album.

Actually we got into our first little spat on that call, because the songs “Gone, I’m Gone” and “When the Chips Are Down” are in a different order on the album.

Oh, that’s right, they’re flipped.

Yeah, they’re totally flipped. First, it’s “Gone, I’m Gone,” and then it goes “Chips.” I was like, you can’t do that. That makes no sense dramatically. And she was like, what are you talking about? It makes total sense musically. But the action of “Chips” seems to be about them bullying Eurydice into making a really bad choice, and if she’s already made the choice, then you don’t have dramatic action. It was an important first lesson, because of course Anaïs is this brilliant songwriter who comes from the folk world, where there’s a lot of storytelling songs, but in terms of thinking about larger dramatic arcs, that is kind of what I brought to the table. And so that little argument ended up being the first real moment of the adaptation process.

Obviously, the music has a very distinctive sound, but how did the visuals of the show come together?

In Anaïs’ language there’s already a huge amount of imagery. There’s the imagery, first and foremost, of the Rust Belt, and the heavily industrialized nation invoked when you picture Hadestown. Hades sings the lyric, “and our work is never done, my children, my children,” which gives this sense of just nonstop building. It felt like there were a number of different ways that we could go. One was very shiny capitalism and vacuous polish. That certainly wouldn’t have been invalid, but because there’s so much Americana in the music, I felt much more drawn to Pittsburgh and vast stretches of Ohio, and upstate New York, and Louisiana, these heavy rusted places that are big machines, and not about prettiness or sheen but about muscle.

Rachel Hauck, our set designer, did a ton of research, as did I. The places that we were most drawn to were oil refineries and steel mills, as well as, of course, coal mines. There’s this brilliant double entendre of Hadestown both being “in the ground,” as in what we think of when we bury people, but also coal mining. Rachel found this beautiful, terrifying image very early on, of a miner, I believe in Chile, descending these very rickety stairs into the darkness, and that for me became the central image of “Wait for Me.” The very, very, very first image I ever shared with Anaïs on that 4½-hour Skype call was actually this image of these swinging lamps, and I think that’s in part because as a musicals director, I’m always thinking about not in any way duplicating what the music is already doing but amplifying it somehow through the visual storytelling. “Wait for Me” has that beautiful surging chorus, which made me think of dolphin movements, when they’re going really fast, and the rhythm of these lamps swinging forward.

Those lamps during “Wait for Me” actually swing out all the way into the audience.

Rachel and I very purposely in the final Broadway design wanted to puncture the proscenium, so the front line of the stage comes out to both mirror the circles that are so prevalent in our set to help extend into the audience. The show started in the round off Broadway. The original production was totally … I call it the wooden womb. It was almost totally in the round, and it was like a Greek amphitheater.

Appropriate, under the circumstances.

Yeah, the very first images, before we got to do any of the heavy industry and stuff that defines our set now, the first images were the swinging lamps and the idea of gathering around a tree to hear a story; that’s inspired by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. I’m totally butchering it, but at one point early on he says that the thing that you need for democracy is a tree to gather around. Knowing what stories were in ancient Greece, and knowing what mythology is—this is very Joseph Campbell, but like, myths are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and that’s essentially how we know who we are, by retelling and reframing these stories. Part of why these stories survive is they’re like prisms where different things show up in them depending on the light of the current day. So it felt really good to be under a big-ass tree.

There is a chalkboard onstage, like above the piano, that I couldn’t make out what was written on it.

No, it’s a secret for people who get to come onstage.

Can I know the secret?

There’s various drink options. We made them all up, I think, drunk. Late, late at night. There’s the Four Seasons Green Shot, the Bottomless Road to Hell, the Lovers’ Desire. You can order Aphrodite’s Dilemma, Cerberus’ Triple Snap, Demeter’s Fury, Evelyn’s Double Punch—

Evelyn?

Evelyn is the name of the double-headed mic that Hermes uses during the show. Most of them are singular to the world of Hadestown, but one is very much an homage to New Orleans and Louisiana, which has been the most important physical inspiration for the set. Which is Abita Amber.

That’s a fun little Easter egg.

Humor has actually been a very important thing for us in the design process, because Anaïs’ writing is so earnest.

Right, this isn’t just any myth you’re telling. It’s a tragedy, something that sets Hadestown apart from the other Best Musical nominees. What’s the value in tragedy?

One is that tragedy, of course, prompts release. This gets now into very old Greek theater, but the idea of catharsis and working through something together and the tragedy as a crucible that the audience travels through as a community and mourns together. I think a lot of modern society in America isn’t so good at mourning.

I’ve talked about this word with André [de Shields], who plays Hermes, a lot, but I think there something is so medicinal in that purgation. That’s how the Greeks used that word, catharsis, both spiritually and physically—which of course wasn’t separate for them—as medicinal.

Even if you’re not familiar with the Greek myths, Hermes in particular keeps telling the audience that the tale doesn’t have a happy ending.

We warn you. We warn you while the trombone is doing its joyful thing. It’s a tragedy, but it ends not there but on the beginning of another cycle, and particularly the promise that spring will come again. It’s through the cycle of new lovers meeting and falling in love for the first time that this old couple, Hades and Persephone, find resurrection and that the world itself is ready for this resurrection every year. Despite the fact that Hadestown is this incredibly tragic tale, there is this incredible amount of hope and celebration in the face of tragedy. And I think that actually, ultimately, makes the celebration all that much more potent.

The show ends with the beginning of that next cycle and a promise to keep telling the story, which is exactly what you all do, literally, eight times a week. Is that a metaphor for show business?

Not necessarily showbiz per se, though I think that’s also apt. I think it’s a metaphor for humanity. Humans, as long as we’ve been humans, have been telling stories around a campfire. Right? And we tell the same stories over and over. This idea that we will persist and we will keep falling in love and we will keep fighting for change, even if that fight, on any given day, ends in sorrow and loss.

Even with the warning, do you notice reactions in the audience when Orpheus turns around?

Oh. Oh yeah.

Surprise?

People gasp. We’ve had teenagers shout things, which is really fun. 

What are they shouting?

There are shouts of the word “No!” And then we had one kid in the audience who shouted, “You’re a jerk for going back!”

Well, they have a point, since he did promise to come save her in “Wait for Me,” which you mentioned earlier. The song has all the qualities of a classic Act One finale showstopper, so much so that I was sure intermission would follow. But there’s another song after it: “Why We Build the Wall.”

You know what, we tried that. We actually had exactly that debate, after London. And we rehearsed for weeks and weeks with the idea that the intermission would come after “Wait for Me.” And “Wait for Me” absolutely, obviously, brought down the house and the act, and it still does today. What more than anything didn’t feel good to us about that was keeping veiled the show’s politics until Act Two. The show is not in any way dogmatic in its politics, but it is a show with a very strong beating political heart.

We wanted the audience certainly thinking about Orpheus’ immortal journey, to change the laws of the space-time continuum to bring his lover back, which I think is what is happening in “Wait for Me.” But equally, we wanted the audience to understand that Orpheus and Eurydice aren’t the only people who are going to be affected by the leap of faith that Orpheus takes. There’s also all the workers of Hadestown. And so we felt like we wanted to end with that larger theme, in addition to the spectacularness of “Wait for Me.”

Obviously “Why We Build the Wall” predates the Trump administration by many years. But I’m curious about whether, when Trump made building a wall a cornerstone of his campaign, it changed how you view the song.

When we were doing it in 2016, you know, Trump was just emerging as the Republican front-runner. But he was still, I think, in the mainstream both media and popular consensus, not taken seriously. He was still dismissed as a joke.

I recall.

“Why We Build the Wall” played powerfully, but as powerful satire, almost, at New York Theatre Workshop. It was creepy but not necessarily root-shaking then. I talked a lot about this with Amber [Gray, who plays Persephone] and the cast sees this onstage, but now there are people weeping in the audience. André has called Anaïs a prophet. What’s extraordinary about that song is its simplicity, its purity of thought. If that song was written in response to the current administration, it would be in some ways more complicated, more contorted in its thought, probably working harder to make the point. In its current form, it’s so simple, the promise that if we just keep building the wall, then we will always have work, and we will never have to see poverty. It’s truly chilling. The reactions in the audience, and again, amongst the cast and myself as well, are so much more terrified than they were in even just 2016.

The show is obviously political in other ways as well, with Orpheus more or less unionizing hell, and the allusions to climate change.

Certainly. This is a world radically out of balance, where industrialization is driven by fear and insecurity. We’ve thought about this for many years now: Is Hades, at his core, a capitalist? Is he an industrialist? Is he a builder? And what Patrick [Page, who plays Hades] fairly early and mightily came to was, no, at his core, Hades is a husband. He’s doing everything because he fears that his wife will leave him and not think enough of him and lose interest. Climate change and this feeling that the industrial world has gotten totally out of hand is fueled by this very human insecurity.

On the flip side, it, for better and for worse, really underscores the point of how much strength, as both individuals and as a community, it will require to sort of calm down and stop this ceaseless building, and think about balance and restoration.

You’re the only woman nominated in the directing categories at the Tonys this year—

Sure am.

—and the show’s creative and producing teams are female-dominated. What effect do you think that has had on the content of the show itself, if any?

First and foremost, it meant that when we were forging the character of Eurydice, in particular—and it’s one of the things we love about Eva Noblezada—is we didn’t want to make her a victim. In the original myth, she is a victim, but in this piece, she chooses to go down to Hadestown. Ultimately, it’s a terrible choice. I don’t want to speak to any specifics, but with a lot of the male-led teams, there’s a compensation about making female characters not weak, which is, they just make them strong instead of making them complicated. We were very interested in Eurydice being a willful character, driven by her own desires, but not necessarily blameless in her story. I think that we were able to get to that level of complexity in part because of the female team.

More than anything, the process is radically different. There really was a relentlessness of the team that had us tinkering and working on things up until the very last moment. It’s a lot of stabbing in the dark sometimes, and I think being a part of a very, very female-led team meant that we sort of could just keep moving forward but also never stop working through the collaboration process. That’s important, because the collaboration process on a new musical is really fucking hard.