Long and Winding Roads
The most successful works to date of singer-songwriter and playwright Anaïs Mitchell and writer Douglas Stuart were decades in the making. Mitchell created Hadestown, the box office-smashing, multi-Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Stuart wrote the Booker Prize-winning, best-selling novel Shuggie Bain.
Anaïs Mitchell is Grammy-winning folk musician best known for her Tony-winning musical Hadestown.
Born in 1981 in Montpelier, Vermont, Mitchell began writing and playing folk music in high school. She released her first album, The Song They Sang…When Rome Fell (2002), while a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, and was signed to Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records in the wake of her record-label debut, Hymns for the Exiled (2004).
In 2006, she premiered the first version of a folk opera retelling of the mythical lovers Eurydice and Orpheus. Released as her fourth album, Hadestown (2010), the recording featured guest appearances by DiFranco, folk artist Greg Brown, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. An expanded stage version of the musical debuted Off-Broadway in 2016, and premiered on Broadway in 2019. Nominated for fourteen Tony Awards, it won eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
Mitchell released her eponymously titled sixth studio album in early 2022. She has also recorded with folk supergroups Big Red Machine and Bonny Light Horseman.
Douglas Stuart is a celebrated fiction writer whose first novel, Shuggie Bain, won the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1976, Stuart studied textile design at the Scottish College of Textiles and the Royal College of Art. He moved to New York at age 24 and worked as a fashion designer for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, and other clothing brands.
Stuart was raised by a single mother who died of alcohol-related health issues when he was 16, an upbringing which inspired Shuggie Bain. Written over a decade while Stuart worked in the fashion industry, the book was rejected by over 30 publishers before its release in 2020. In addition to its Booker Prize, the work was longlisted for the 2021 Carnegie Medal and a finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize and National Book Award for Fiction. He has also contributed short fiction and essays to The New Yorker and Literary Hub, and published his second novel, Young Mungo, in 2022.
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the big ideas behind great creative endeavors. And on this episode, “Long and Winding Roads.” Anaïs Mitchell spent more than a decade creating her multi-Tony award-winning musical Hadestown. So all-consuming was her task that it took a sort of intervention by her husband to declare it complete.
Anaïs Mitchell: We decided it’s time for me to let it go. And it was an extraordinarily hard decision and we made it. And then I felt relief, you know? Which made me feel like “Oh, that was right choice.”
And it took writer Douglas Stuart years to come to terms with his difficult early life in Glasgow. With perspective gained by moving to the United States, his youth eventually became the basis for a Booker Prize-winning bestselling novel.
Douglas Stuart: Scottish people are working class people, are never meant to think anytime they’re hard done to that it’s especially exceptional in a way. And so you’re meant to carry your pain and your hurt and just bear it and continue on, whereas Americans are very in touch with their feelings.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
As the world began to change in early 2020, Anaïs Mitchell was living in New York City with her husband Noah and daughter Ramona. She was also just about to give birth to her second daughter, Rosetta.
Anaïs Mitchell: It was one day to the next, and felt like we gotta get outta here. So we just packed up all our stuff, and we drove to Vermont, had the baby a week later on the farm that I grew up on. So then suddenly we were just in this stillness.
That stillness wasn’t unique to Mitchell. Like most of us, those early days of the pandemic had an eerie eye of the storm quality, but it came just as she had finished navigating another storm: writing an original Broadway musical, Hadestown, which would go on to win eight Tony awards, including best musical. But getting to that moment had been its own decade-plus odyssey, a journey that, says Mitchell, almost brought her to the brink.
Mitchell: So I was obsessed with the rewriting of this show, right up until the moment when I couldn’t. They took away the…
AJC: The pen.
Mitchell: Yeah, the pen. There was a way in which working on Hadestown, like, I got really single minded about it in this way that became like unhealthy, you know, for me. Not only did I feel like I couldn’t write another song, I felt like I couldn’t even like read a book, you know? It was like I had to be working every second, very sort of grim work ethic thing about it, where it was like either I’m like with my kid or I’m working on this thing.
This relentless striving may have been unhealthy, but it was also somehow fitting. Hadestown is an adaptation of the Greek myth of the legendary musician and poet Orpheus and his beloved wife, Eurydice, who are separated when she dies and goes to the underworld. Orpheus sets out to bring her back, using his irresistible musicianship. Throughout Hadestown, Orpheus, like Mitchell, is working on music that must be superlative.
Anaïs Mitchell imagines a world where music can do magical things. That’s not far from the role songs have played in her own life. Born in 1981, early on she was exposed not only to the joy of music, but also the power of experiencing it with others.
Mitchell: My Dad can sing, but he’s not a musician, but he loves music and loves lyrics. And I can remember that he always like at his happiest, he would put on a record and make like a gin and tonic. And he and my brother had a thing sometimes where they like, they would sing the words together of a thing, I can remember this. My brother as a teenager and my dad and they would start singing, you know, Velvet Underground or Joni Mitchell, even. My brother still has an incredible head for lyrics and they just knew every single word.
Growing up, Mitchell learned violin and eventually transitioned to guitar. She penned her first songs as a teenager and continued to make music while earning a degree in political science at Middlebury College. Before graduating, she released a folk album whose title also hearkens back to the ancient world: The Song They Sang…When Rome Fell. Soon after, she began writing what would become Hadestown. The project evolved over many years and iterations, first as a small stage show Mitchell put on across the East coast, and eventually as a 2010 album. Mitchell even has a tattoo, a living symbol of her long commitment to and immersion in the project.
Mitchell: So there was a moment when I was working on the studio album of Hadestown and I was writing some more songs for it, things that had never existed in the early stage show. And it felt like they needed to be on the album. And I had asked my friend Peter Nevins, who’s this amazing artist from the Pacific Northwest, to create these linoleum block portraits of all the characters. And usually we would kind of consult about the character and each character had an object, like Hades had a little bird, a little songbird that kind of sat on his finger and Orpheus has his banjo. And we hadn’t spoken about Eurydice, And Peter came to me with this portrait of her and she’s got her eyes closed and she’s holding a flower. And I said, “How come you gave her this flower?” And he said, “I don’t know, just felt like the right thing.” And because of that, I wrote that song “Flowers,” which became like really important for the Eurydice character.
As Hadestown gestated and evolved, Mitchell was also working on other projects, but her alternate underworld was always in the background. After meeting theater director Rachel Chavkin in 2012, the pair started expanding Hadestown into a full musical. Around the same time Mitchell had her first child, Ramona.
Mitchell: It was sort of a fortuitous convergence of things, because I think in my younger, you know, I mean, every parent says this about their younger years, but you’re like, what did I do with my time? You know, but I wasted so much time. When I had my first kid, I had to carve out this bit of creative space and I had to be like really methodical about it. It was an interesting thing to like move into a phase of like, okay, I’m a mom, I’ve got a kid, I’m working on this show and it’s got certain demands, you know, in terms of my scheduling and like my time.
Over the next several years, Mitchell and Chavkin continued to build and rebuild Hadestown, staging runs in the US, Canada, and the UK. Mitchell was aiming for a perfection that seemed always just out of reach. Eventually Broadway loomed, and she had to come to terms with something new, a point at which, whether she liked it or not, she had to be done.
Mitchell: There was this one thing that I had been trying to fix for like years and there was a moment where my husband had to come and rescue me from this apartment I was staying in in Manhattan, ’cause I didn’t wanna make the commute back to Brooklyn. And he brought me home and basically we decided like, it’s time for me to let it go. Together, we decided this, and it was an extraordinarily hard decision and I just, we made it, and then I felt relief, you know, which made me feel like “Oh, it was the right choice.” And then I just wept for like hours. And then I fell asleep, you know, which I hadn’t done in days. And I woke up the next day and I walked outside and there was like a farmer’s market. And my husband was playing Cajun music in this little band at the farmer’s market, and I didn’t have anything to do. I sat there like stunned in the sunlight with like the music and the farmer’s market, as if I was like seeing the world again for the first time. It was incredible, I mean, incredibly liberating.
And her decision to let it go was more than validated when awards season came around. Hadestown won eight Tonys, plus a Grammy for best musical theater album, but it would take Mitchell a while to leave Hadestown behind. She even wrote a book, Working on a Song, about the years she had given to the project, but eventually she turned her sights to the future, releasing a self-titled album of new music in early 2022. Still, moving forward didn’t mean abandoning the past so much as integrating it into the present. The opening track of her latest record, “Brooklyn Bridge,” is in part a nod to her relationship with Hadestown director, Rachel Chavkin.
Mitchell: I just have this memory of a lot of late nights, like riding back to Brooklyn with her from Manhattan when we’re working on the show, you know, and it’s like long day, long night and we’re riding home in a taxi and talking about the show, what could change?
AJC: That’s so lovely, a love song to a friend.
Mitchell: Yeah, we were heading towards the Tony awards, I remember. And we kind of just, we just sort of chanted together for all of our collaborators and you know, the actors to get nominated, we wanted, you know, we were hoping people would be nominated. We just sort of like set the intention in the back of the cab. And so there was something about like being with her in the back of the cab and what the things I wanted for the show, the things I was dreaming about.
Much like Orpheus, Mitchell is constantly working on a song, and searching for the ethereal power of chords and words. And that work is making its mark. In 2020 Time magazine named Mitchell one of the 100 most influential people of the year. Still, she isn’t lusting for center stage. She’s after a softer, though no less impassioned grandeur.
Mitchell: I don’t feel like I’m someone who’s gunning for the lights, you know. I never really have been, although I do love to perform in the right context. I love to perform for people who already know the songs and wanna hear ’em and it’s like, let’s do this ritual together. I don’t love the feeling of like, I have to win people over. And in fact, having written one musical, some stuff has sort of crossed, you know, our desk of like, would you write the lyrics of this thing? And I just feel like, wow, it has to be so right. I have to care a thousand percent, you know? So I haven’t found that thing yet. Do I wanna do it again? Like I think, yes. I didn’t know that until actually I went to see Hadestown reopen on Broadway after the shutdown, and just the excitement of that night. It was a meta-event because it was the show coming back to life, but also it was Broadway and like New York City coming back to life. I spent the whole first act like watching the show with one part of my mind, and the other part of my mind was like trying to come up with an idea for a new musical. You know?
AJC: You wanted to be back in.
Mitchell: I wanted in again, and I had a drink with the creative team across the street. And you know, it’s like New York and I felt a longing to be in the trenches again of that type of a project and what can happen with, you know, choreography and like actors and the orchestrations and the whole, it’s just so beautiful.
Anaïs Mitchell knows it takes commitment, cooperation, and sacrifice to find beauty, but it’s also worth it to see the worlds we share in the ones she builds.
Douglas Stuart’s early life in Scotland could accurately be described as traumatic. Yet he’s not one to wallow in the melancholy.
Douglas Stuart: I don’t regret anything in my life. And I’m so grateful for everything that’s come through it. Until you can step away from something, you cannot see how unusual it is sometimes. When you’re in it, it’s just what you have. And so what can you do other than accept it, as a kid, and sort of do your very best with it.
Now in his mid-40s, he’s had a hugely successful career in fashion. At its height in New York, he was more than 3000 miles and nearly two decades removed from his troublesome early life.
Stuart: I never had a plan to come to New York or to work in fashion. All I really did was say yes every time someone said “Do you want to?” And just keep going, just take a step and take another step.
These steps took him to Calvin Klein, The GAP and eventually Banana Republic as a senior designer. But after 20 years in fashion, Stuart no longer felt fulfilled. He was homesick. So he began to document the time and place that had formed him: 1980s Glasgow.
Stuart: And I feel like a lot of these families and a lot of these neighborhoods have altered. And so it was, I was keen to be back there. It’s the city of my childhood, really.
But he had created a life in New York. Moving back to Glasgow wasn’t an option. For nearly a decade, between long hours at work, he began to write what he’s called “scraps of memories” of his early life. Eventually they became a collection of stories. Lots and lots of stories.
Stuart: It was an absolute monster and it was housed in two legal binders. I never changed the story at all, but I rewrote every sentence a hundred times.
Yet Stuart’s memories weren’t rose colored. He explored a Glasgow that had been economically devastated. While steel, shipbuilding, and other heavy industries had once defined the character of his working class city, these state-run industries began to be privatized. Thousands of Glaswegians lost work. By 1987, the city’s unemployment rate was over 20%. And for men in Stuart’s housing project in the East End of Glasgow, new jobs were sparse.
Stuart: Up till then there was enough work. You know, we didn’t have much, but we had work. We were getting on and life was okay. And of course when something booms and then it collapses in that way, and 11% comes off of the life expectancy of a man in the East End of Glasgow. I mean, it was really a difficult time. No one was going to come to our rescue.
Thousands of working class people found themselves mired in poverty. Alcoholism became rampant in the city and Douglas’ own home was not spared. For as long as he can remember, his mother had a problem with alcohol. Stuart began taking care of her when he was a little boy and tried everything he could to slow down her drinking.
Stuart: When I was about seven or eight years old, I realized that what my mother wanted was for someone to listen to her stories. You know, as a working class woman growing up in a hyper-masculine place, and also as a single mother and someone suffering with addiction, she was very overlooked. You know, she was excluded from a lot of things. And so I would sit at her feet, seven or eight years old, in a school jotter and I would take what she called her memoirs.
When hard times fell on Glasgow, his mother’s ordinary desires—to be loved by a husband, to have her own home, to provide for her children, to feel beautiful—were suddenly out of reach. In hindsight, Douglas Stuart understands why his mother began to depend on alcohol, but as with many people struggling with addiction, she was powerless.
AJC: Did you ever have conversations with her where you said, “I’m just a little boy, you have to fix this.” Like, was there ever a beseeching with her of just like, “I can’t do this, you’re the adult here.”
Stuart: As a kid, I had so many conversations about, you know, I wish you would stop drinking. If you loved me enough, you would stop this, if, and actually I spent much of my youth trying to alter myself, to try and be the thing I thought my mother needed. Do you need me to be quieter? Do you need me to be less of a burden? Do you need me to be better at school? Any of these things in order to affect her drinking. One of the biggest revelations of my adult life and the thing I had to come to terms with is my mother’s addiction had nothing to do with me. It really had nothing to do with me and how I sort of carried myself in the world, how I was as a kid.
AJC: How old were you when you found that out?
Stuart: Oh, that’s still a work in progress for me. I’m still really, I understand it. Some days I don’t always feel it. And so I’m still processing that myself. I think that’s a trauma I’ll carry with me my whole life.
AJC: But you were a little boy, you know?
Stuart: I know. No one can save the addict but the addict themself, and how far do you go to save the person you love the most before you have to step away and really save yourself? But it doesn’t stop us from feeling guilty if that moment never comes, and I think I carry that guilt inside me. I would’ve loved the chance to have tried. And I never got that because my mother died when I was 16. I went to school one morning, and when I came home, she wasn’t, she was no longer with us.
But Stuart never resented his mother. Even today, he still describes her as the love of his life.
Stuart: She hurt an awful lot of people, but I never came away, I never came into my adulthood feeling like that. I just felt, oh my God, what a loss, what a waste, what hurt this person was in.
During those tough times, Douglas told himself stories, inventing vast worlds as an escape from the angst of his real life. His teachers noticed this creativity and did what they could to expand his horizons.
Stuart: I think they saw that I was someone who had an imagination and a curiosity. And so they start to feed me books. They give me Thomas Hardy and Daphne du Maurier, you know, Tennessee Williams, they turn me onto playwrights. And that’s a really, it’s just an enormously, it’s just a pivotal time in my life. But I also come from a neighborhood where all the men around me were doing really practical jobs. They were working with their hands. They were going outside in all kinds of weather. And so the idea that I would be able to build a career around books and reading and go to college for that was just not something anybody could see for me. And so instead what happens is actually I’m turned towards textiles. Textiles is an incredibly proud manufacturing, you know,
AJC: Tradition, right.
Stuart: Tradition. In Scotland, we make such broad varied cloth. If you think about woven tartan, you think about knitwear, waterproof cotton. We make all these different types of cloth. And so it was a good place for an artistic kid to go.
And so right out of high school, he headed for the Scottish College of Textiles, then onto the Royal College of Art in London, where he was recruited by Calvin Klein and brought to work in New York. Living in the United States introduced Stuart to possibilities that seemed unlikely in Glasgow, including the ability to finally admit that he had been dealt a difficult hand.
Stuart: Scottish people are working class people, are never meant to think any time they’re hard done to that it’s especially exceptional in a way. And so you’re meant to carry your pain and your hurt and just bear it and continue on, and actually not talk about it, you know? There’s a lot of silence for working class men. Whereas Americans are very in touch with their feelings, you know, they really will express if they feel like they’ve suffered an injustice in life. And so that was a big contrast to how I grew up. We were meant to just take whatever happened and then just keep quiet about it. And sometimes within working class communities, especially from the west coast of Scotland, ambition can be seen as a little bit of you being a traitor, of you wanting to get away from the people who raised you and who love you and who care for you, and of course, it’s never that. It’s just you want to do the best thing that you can do in life, you want to achieve your dreams. And so America really unlocked those ideals for me, allowed me to use my talent and to build me, myself into something and also to feel okay about it.
So in 2018, he finally organized those two legal binders of stories into a novel. Shuggie Bain won Stuart the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2020 and became a best-seller. Writing the book helped him to understand his mother’s struggles, but over time, it also became a way for him to understand his own. And by creating a work of fiction rather than a memoir, Stuart was able to see his mother again through Agnes, the fictional mother he created and the loving gaze of her young son Shuggie.
(Excerpt from Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain)
She had loved to show off her smile back then. She got her teeth from her daddy’s side and the Campbell teeth had always been weak. They were a reason for humility in an otherwise handsome face. Her own adult teeth had come in small and crooked. And even when they were new, they’d never been white because of the smoking and her mammie’s strong tea. At 15, she had begged Lizzy to let her have them all taken out. The discomfort of the false teeth was nothing when compared to the movie star smile she thought they must give her. Each new tooth was broad and even and as straight as Elizabeth Taylor’s. Agnes sucked at her porcelain. Now here they were, every Friday night, these same women playing cards in her mammie’s front room. There was not a single drop of makeup between them and nobody had much of a heart to sing anymore.
Stuart considered Shuggie Bain to be a love letter to his mother and to Glasgow, but it isn’t always a flattering one. In his stories, he depicts love, humor, and generosity alongside homophobia, sectarian violence, and domestic abuse. And he’s not planning to look away from it anytime soon. His second novel, Young Mungo, tells the story of two Glaswegian boys in rival gangs. In his writing and in his life, empathizing with people who are difficult to love has helped Douglas Stewart to resist feelings of resentment.
Stuart: I think there was so much waste in my early life. I saw so many good people just lose their opportunities and there’s so much loss there. I didn’t want to be angry as an adult. I’d already lost so much as a kid that as an adult I had to find a way to come to terms with it. I just didn’t wanna lose more of my life to anger.
And in place of anger, Stuart has cultivated peace, the better to tell great stories of his native home.
Stuart: For me, I’m trying to just create the most incredible tapestry I can of the working class people of Glasgow. And so I think I’ll always be revisiting it.
Douglas Stuart is still thousands of miles away from home, yet despite the distance, compassion connects him like a thread to Glasgow, and over the years, he’s used it to create a life his mother would’ve been proud of, one where he has learned about forgiveness, about love.