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‘Hadestown’ creator Anaïs Mitchell’s unlikely Vermont-to-Broadway story is no myth

"Hadestown" director Rachel Chavkin (left) and creator/composer Anaïs Mitchell, outside the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.Jennifer S. Altman

For a show that mashes up enduring, millennia-old myths, it’s apt that the Tony Award-winning musical “Hadestown,” which arrives Tuesday at the Citizens Bank Opera House for a two-week run, has built up its own considerable legend around its creation. Indeed, its long and winding theatrical road echoes the quest of the show’s hero, Orpheus, to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the underworld.

The brainchild of Vermont indie-folk singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, “Hadestown” began as a scrappy, DIY community theater project that toured in a silver-painted school bus around Mitchell’s home state some 15 years ago. That folk opera, influenced by everything from “The Threepenny Opera” and English and Scottish folk ballads to Peter Gabriel and jazz, blues, and gospel music, was then recorded as a concept album in 2010, featuring Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon and earning a Grammy nomination. Later, Mitchell performed the record at venues around the country, including Club Passim in Cambridge, with a rotating cast of musicians in each city playing its characters.

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In 2016, with the help of theatrical mastermind Rachel Chavkin as director, “Hadestown” morphed into a hip, electrifying downtown New York show with a minimalist aesthetic. It then went to Canada and London for some retooling, before transforming once again into a ravishing, genre-defying Broadway musical that earned ebullient reviews, became one of Broadway’s top-grossing shows, and captured eight 2019 Tony Awards, including best musical. The touring production of the show that comes to the Opera House Tuesday opens Broadway in Boston’s 2021-22 season and marks its return to presenting theater after 20 months.

“I certainly had the feeling, again and again, like, ‘Oh, I’m not done with this yet,’” says Mitchell over a Zoom call from the sheep farm where she grew up near Middlebury, Vt. “But if someone had told me it was going to be 13 years altogether before you’ll be done with this thing, I’d never have believed it. But there was always something to work on, something to improve.”

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The seed for this project was first sown back in Mitchell’s days as a fledgling singer-songwriter driving “ridiculous distances to play shows for tips.” In 2004, she was heading down a highway in Virginia traveling from one gig to another. Missing her then-boyfriend, now-husband Noah Hahn, who was back in Vermont working as an organic vegetable farmer, Mitchell says the phrase “wait for me” popped into her head, and then “a melody kind of dropped out of the sky with a lyric, and it was the chorus melody of ‘Wait for Me’ [the show’s signature ballad]. It had different lyrics at the time, which were ‘Wait for me, I’m coming, in my garters and pearls, with what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld?’ It was just a free association, and it seemed to be about the Orpheus and Eurydice story, which was always a favorite of mine as a kid.”

A Middlebury College graduate, Mitchell was a young, creative, progressive-minded activist whose antiwar politics clashed with the prevailing winds of the time, with then-President George W. Bush having been reelected to a second term. “In a sense, that’s the story of ‘Hadestown’ — this young idealistic artist, Orpheus, bumping up against the way the world is. And what are the possibilities and the limitations around what art can do or what a dreamer can do?”

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In reimagining ancient Greek myths, “Hadestown” unfolds in a Depression-style dystopia where jobs, money, and food are scarce, and there are few glimmers of hope. The story centers on impoverished musician Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch), who falls for and woos the worldly, jaded Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green), promising her that spring will return when he completes his unfinished song. But while Orpheus is absorbed in his music-making, and with a harsh winter and famine leaving her hungry and cold, Eurydice is seduced into the underworld, with Orpheus following her to Hadestown to coax her back home.

Meanwhile, as the goddess of springtime and nature, Persephone (Kimberly Marable) spends six months above ground living it up, before returning to Hadestown to be with her megalomaniacal husband, whom she despises. A malevolent industrial titan, Hades (Kevyn Morrow) — whose rousing song “Why We Build the Wall” grapples with the problem of trading freedom for an illusion of security — oversees a massive underground factory town that oppresses its laborers and pollutes the land. The myth, of course, climaxes with Hades declaring that Orpheus can return to the surface with Eurydice, but he must make his journey without ever turning around to look at her. He must have faith she’ll still be there.

Director Rachel Chavkin guides a rehearsal of "Hadestown" in September at the Walter Kerr Theatre, where the musical is being performed on Broadway.Jennifer S. Altman

Messenger of the gods Hermes (Levi Kreis), bedecked in a flashy silver suit, guides the audience through the story, supported by an enchanting trio of flapper-style Fates.

Chavkin, who won the Tony for best director of a musical for “Hadestown” and also helmed Dave Malloy’s “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” combines a downtown, experimental sensibility with the electric spirit of a populist who understands the big picture. She says “Hadestown” was “far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever directed,” in part because the show, as Mitchell describes it, is akin to a piece of poetry, not prose.

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Still, a balance needed to be struck. Since the show relies on archetypes from Greek tragedy, the characters and story had to be fleshed out and the script and narrative arcs clarified and refined. “It’s not that the earlier version of the show was unfinished, but it required that the audience fill in more of the blanks, “Mitchell says. “It was more abstract.”

However, Chavkin says, “There have to be echoes with reality, but it’s much more satisfying if those are implied or subterranean versus being overly literal. The challenge is giving enough specificity that you care about the characters, but not too much that the myth becomes too pinned down.”

A parable about climate change, environmental degradation, and exploitation of workers is embedded in the conflict between Hades, the underworld boss, and Persephone, the goddess of nature. Chavkin praises Mitchell for making a connection between the idea of “trusting your lover and wondering are they still with you and using that as a metaphor for solidarity.”

After the 2016 run at New York Theatre Workshop off Broadway, the team further developed and amplified the Workers Chorus, who toil away in the foundry. “So it’s not just the story of two lovers. It’s the story of changing the injustice in our larger world, of this corporate and industrial nightmare,” Chavkin says. “That was a huge evolution in the show, expanding and refining the layers of both the love story and the story of world change and labor organizing.”

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Highlighted by a seven-piece onstage band, the set was inspired by the legendary Preservation Hall in New Orleans, and with a few subtle shifts it can morph from a lively jazz joint to the subterranean boiler room of Hades’s foundry. Indeed, the Big Easy has always been a touchstone for the show, not only because the score is laced with elements of jazz and blues, but because Louisiana is a place where the spoils and beauty of the natural world crash headlong into ecological destruction. “It feels like Hadestown is somehow at the bottom of one of those massive oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana,” Chavkin says.

Having grown up on the protest music of her back-to-the-land parents, Mitchell has often wondered about the prospect of a song — or a show — being able to change the world. When one of Mitchell’s musical heroes, the English singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg, came to see “Hadestown” in London, he mused to Mitchell afterward that a song might inspire its listeners to action. “He said, ‘A song can’t change the world, but the audience can.’”

With so much uncertainty surrounding the return to live performance amid the pandemic, the themes of “Hadestown” continue to reverberate, and Mitchell finds herself thinking of that old Brecht quote about singing in dark times. “There’s just something essential about gathering in a room and having a collective art experience even in the dark times,” she says. “And in a lot of ways, ‘Hadestown’ is a story about resilience in those hard times. It’s about the act of coming together, the act of trying, even in circumstances where we feel that it’s futile.”

Indeed, Chavkin says, the show’s parting message centers on “fellowship and solidarity,” that there’s “salvation in that act of sharing space and singing an old song, telling an old story.”

“And maybe in the act of telling it, we learn how to make it out of hell. Maybe in the act of telling it, we save ourselves and save each other.”

HADESTOWN

Presented by Broadway in Boston. Music, lyrics, and book by Anais Mitchell. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Nov. 2-14. Tickets start at $44.50. www.broadwayinboston.com

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.