Imagine for a moment that you could build your own company town. What would it look like? Hershey, Pennsylvania, circa 1903? Or maybe modern-day Seattle with its glittering spoils divvied up among Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon?
Perform this mental exercise, and you will surely gain an appreciation for the work of stage director Rachel Chavkin, who faced countless choices when she agreed to take on Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell’s theatrical folk opera, in which the underworld of Greek mythology is reimagined as a subterranean factory.
The town of the musical’s title is a dreary place, a hellish industrial wasteland where laborers work in perpetuity in exchange for basic necessities and protection from the outside world. It’s monotonous and soul-crushing–that much we get from Mitchell’s haunting lyrics–even if its inhabitants find the idea of corporate submission somewhat liberating. Drearily dressed in matching miner helmets and leather overalls, the employees of this rusty mill toil away in service to Hades, personified here as a bearded, baritone-voiced American industrialist.
It’s torture. It’s tedious. It’s a living.
As the director, Chavkin was tasked with bringing all these complex elements to life, visualizing a physical space that is both otherworldly and uniquely American. (Mitchell is never specific about the setting except to call it a retelling of the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in a “darkly political, Americana dreamscape.”) It’s the kind of design challenge that could easily become overwhelming, but then Chavkin is not one to back away from a challenge. She earned a Tony nomination, after all, for obliterating the fourth wall in an immersive musical adapted from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
“I don’t think about design as aesthetic,” she says. “I think about design as creating the 360-degree environment, which as far as I’m concerned, includes the hearts and minds and bodies of the audience.”
When Chavkin first began working on Hadestown in 2012, one image instantly popped into her head–and it stuck. “Swinging lights,” she says, recalling her early conversations with Mitchell. “That was the first thing I ever described to Anaïs . . . this image of these swinging lights.”
Seven years later, those lights are in full swing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, anchoring the buzziest musical to open on Broadway since Hamilton. They figure prominently at the end of the first act, dangling over the audience in what I found to be the show’s most impactful scene: The musical prodigy Orpheus descends into the underworld to rescue Eurydice, who has been seduced by Hadestown and the protection it offers. It’s at that moment when the entire set deconstructs, the upper half of the room rises, and we feel like we’re sinking deeper and deeper into the ground.
The long road to hell
Hadestown took more than a decade to arrive in its current form on Broadway. It began as what Mitchell described as a “DIY community theater project” in her home state of Vermont and was later recorded as a studio album. Much has been written about Mitchell’s affecting music, which crosses genres from folk to jazz to pop. One song in particular, “Why We Build the Wall”–written way back in 2006–has taken on a new relevance for obvious reasons.
Far less fuss has been made about the look of Hadestown. When I spoke with Chavkin last week, she said the current design evolved slowly, through four distinct incarnations. The stage musical first debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop, a small venue in New York’s East Village with limited resources. It moved to Canada’s Citadel Theatre, in Alberta, and then to London’s famed National Theatre, before transferring to Broadway.
With each new version, Chavkin says a lot of trial and error went into creating the effect of sinking into the underworld. For instance, the Canada show included a tree that lifted up out of the ground, a set piece that was ultimately scrapped. “That was a good idea and concept but ended up not being the right path to what we were really seeking, which is this feeling that you are descending,” Chavkin says.
With some revamping (and a bigger budget), the Broadway version now contains two distinct settings–the above ground and the below ground–with a set that transforms midway through the show. The above ground is a cafe setting, inspired in part by Preservation Hall, the famous jazz venue in New Orleans. The below ground is a rusty, mechanical hellscape of a factory, with wisps of H.R. Giger and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and a little Joe Versus the Volcano thrown in for good measure.
Set designer Rachel Hauck, who worked closely with Chavkin to create the physical look of Hadestown, doesn’t cite those specific influences, but says she wouldn’t be surprised if they were in there somewhere. She says the goal was to do justice to the story’s poetic and mythic underpinnings, while retaining an American identity.
“It’s sort of the world of rotting American industry,” she says. “That’s the grounding image . . . the idea that this place might have been nice once, but it’s full of rot and decay now.” (Hauck was the resident set designer at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference for a decade, and is having quite a season; she also designed the set for Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, which also just opened on Broadway.)
Hauck says the Hadestown team combed through “literally hundreds and hundreds” of research images during the design process, including photographs of Greek amphitheaters, New Orleans architecture, life in the Dust Bowl era–all conjured up by the visual cues in Mitchell’s songs. “Volumes and volumes of research were uncorked by all these incredible lyrics,” Hauck says.
With the Broadway opening last week, Chavkin’s and Hauck’s years of evolving concepts are finally set in stone, so to speak, but if the rave reviews and growing cult-like fandom around Hadestown are any indication, they have no reason to worry about whether their underground factory will fly.
Maybe the show’s success is just a sign of the times. If we’re in the throes of a late-capitalistic system, where workers feel increasingly hopeless about their jobs and futures, it’s no wonder that audiences are drawn to theater as a means of escape. In the case of Hadestown, they might just get a funhouse mirror of the daily grind they’re seeking to forget.