The Slow Road
Anaïs Mitchell spent more than a decade creating her multi-Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown. So all-consuming was her task that it took an intervention by her husband for her to declare it complete.
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.
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.