I’ve been into preordering books lately. By the time they show up, I’ve usually forgotten about them. It’s like a present from my past self.
Which is to say that I had forgotten entirely about Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell, until it showed up at my doorstep. Once I wrestled it away from my 10-year-old musical theater fanatic (I bribed him with another chapter of Finishing the Hat), I dove into it and didn’t come up for air until I hit the end.
This book has the Broadway version of the lyrics for each song, and afterward, notes on how the song developed and changed over the course of the project. The show itself is gorgeous; I’ve been listening to both the original concept album and the Broadway cast recording on heavy repeat for a year. I’m especially grateful, though, that Mitchell gave us this window into this process. I always want to know how things were made.
I appreciated how much learning the creative team had along the way, and how open Mitchell was about that. In several of the notes, she writes that she’s embarrassed by this draft of the lyrics, but she’ll share them anyway. She beautifully articulates the tight balance they have to walk between being too abstract and too literal (she repeated the story about how they had a big, shiny railroad track all built and then scrapped it because it was too real). In a show like this, that’s a challenge.
Mitchell didn’t start as a theater person, and I love how she details what and how she learned what makes theater theater. She tells a great story about Jim Nicola at New York Theater Workshop explaining the difference between poetry and drama to her, as he’s eating a sandwich: “Poetry is me bearing witness to the sandwich, expounding upon the beauty of the sandwich. Drama is me actually eating the sandwich, right here and now, in front of an audience.”
I also loved how clearly the collaboration in this process drove its development. In many cases, she credits an actor with solving a problem she’s wrestling with. Her collaboration with Rachel Chavkin is a constant presence, pushing, pulling, reassuring, challenging.
One of my favorite problems they had to solve was how to make Orpheus seem like a decent guy, not too cocky or obnoxious. They way they accomplished it was mostly changes in tiny phrases. Mitchell describes it as an overhaul, but the evidence for it is a million minor adjustments. In the wedding song, for example, she changed his lyric from, “And they’re gonna break their banks for me / To lay their gold around my feet” to “And they’re gonna break their banks for us / And with their gold be generous.” That simple shift from me to us served to de-center Orpheus. He ended up seeming like a naive dreamer, rather than a brash self-obsessed rockstar.
Ever since I heard this soundtrack, I recognized it as my kind of play. I’ve been working lately on figuring out what that means—what makes some plays speak to me so deeply, I just instinctively feel them pouring in and out of me?
Reading this book, especially Rachel Chavkin’s insistence on connecting the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice to its societal implications and the larger cycles of nature, I finally was able to name it. Close to the end, when Orpheus and Eurydice are ready to walk out of Hadestown, in “Wait for Me Reprise,” all of these elements come together, and Mitchell’s notes outline the specifics of the decisions to tie it all together. Orpheus and Eurydice are going to try to walk the long way together. The oppressed workers in Hadestown sing “Show the way so we can see / Show the way the world could be / If you can do it so can she / If she can do it so can we,” tying the personal story to a bigger societal/political story. Hades says, “It’s time for spring / We’ll try again next fall,” showing that the seasons are finally coming back into their right alignment—so the personal also connects to the cosmic.
All of the plays I love the most have this sense of human specificity, societal impact, and cosmic resonance. So what other plays should I put on my wishlist?