In the month of March, Anaïs Mitchell ’04 wasn’t sleeping very much. Her Broadway musical, Hadestown, was in previews, and she is a perfectionist. The show, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, was the culmination of 13 years of work. Anaïs is 38, which means that this project has occupied a third of her life. After each preview, her team would meet at 11 p.m. to discuss the changes that needed to be made.
Occasionally she texted her husband, Noah, for advice: “Just checking—this is not good, right?” she wrote one day. “Hades is king of silver and gold / but inside he’s alone in his own private hell.”
“Not good!” he texted back.
Anaïs was honing every line, while constantly stepping back to see the piece as a whole. Preparing for Broadway was like cramming for the ultimate term paper, one that would be publicly graded. The due date was April 17, the show’s opening, when the lyrics would be frozen and the critics would descend.
At the same time, Noah was tending to the Park Slope homestead, making sure her geranium plant stayed alive and their daughter got to school. If Anaïs didn’t have time to come home and sleep, the family had breakfast together over FaceTime. Their daughter, Ramona, age 5, didn’t yet understand the cultural significance of Broadway. But one day she would grasp the importance of these months—that in 2019, her mother was the fourth woman to write a full musical (book, lyrics, and music) for Broadway.
At the time that I graduated from Middlebury, I thought that Anaïs Mitchell was a local secret, something akin to the Gamut Room or a dip in Dog Team Falls. But when I moved to New York and casually uttered her name, my folk musician friends practically melted to the floor. Apparently, I was told, I had gone to the same college as a folk goddess, delivered from the land of perfect songs. From then on, when her name came up at parties I felt obligated to speak. “Oh yes, Anaïs Mitchell,” I would say, like I was reminiscing about a very old friend. “My friends have delivered her parents’ lambs.”
When I reached out to do this story, Anaïs’s managers told me she was too busy preparing for the debut to hang out with me. She could, however, respond to questions over email. No worries, I thought. Perhaps it was my own hubris, or my judgment was clouded by fandom, but I felt that I could write the article without spending time with her.
I decided to begin by traveling to her parents’ house, like a detective working her way toward the source.
For someone bringing a myth to Broadway, Anaïs’s life contained its own mythic quality. At a lunch with my former professor John Elder, I mentioned that I was writing a story about her. “I remember going to see her right after she was born, lambs dotting the hillside,” he told me. “She was born with the lambs.”
On a dreary day in late March, I cruised down Vermont’s Route 23 heading toward the Mitchells’ New Haven farm, Anaïs’s music blasting in my car, and the phrase “born with the lambs” stuck in my head. The winter ground was just beginning to thaw. In the house the woodstove was burning, and Don and Cheryl Mitchell both greeted me at the door. “We love talking about Anaïs!” Don exclaimed.
Cheryl was in a purple dress and barefoot; Don wore big glasses and blue jeans, and he gazed out the window at the sheep grazing. Lambing season had begun just three days before. “It’s born, I see it,” he said, then turned to me. “You want to see a newborn lamb?”
The lamb was still covered in yellow goo when Don scooped it up and carried it to the barn. Its mother trailed closely behind, and I snapped a photo that would later receive 252 Instagram likes. Cheryl startled me by appearing in the barn, as though she had teleported there. Together they did some barn chores in silence while I clutched my notebook. “Part of Hadestown was written up there,” said Don, pointing to a tiny loft with a bed, elevated above the lamb pens.
As we sat down to talk, I learned that Don and Cheryl had lived on a Greek island before Anaïs was born, where they were acquaintances with Leonard Cohen. When they returned to the States, they raised their kids on Greek mythology. Don was a novelist and English professor himself. Cheryl was an activist and founder of multiple social justice nonprofits. As a kid, Anaïs was raised on the Rise Up Singing songbook, Quaker Meetings, and the winter solstice musical pageant called Night Fires. “Hippie pagan earth goddess cultural stuff,” as Don succinctly put it.
From Don, she received “an aspiration to use language with precision and grace.” They said they weren’t the type of parents who would compliment her just for playing music. They possessed critical faculty. Occasionally, while talking about Anaïs’s childhood, Don would turn to Cheryl. “What am I trying to say?” he’d ask her, and she would pick up where he left off. We sat in the sunroom, sipping tea with the perfect touch of honey. As I was taking notes for this article, I was also taking notes on how to build a life.
Don showed me Anaïs’s childhood bedroom, leaving me there momentarily while he went to Twitter to search for a video on #Hadestown. (He looks at this hashtag every morning when he wakes up.) I visited the room the way a tourist visits the home of a long-deceased artist. I inspected the bookshelf, looking for clues on how to be a great artist, but all I found were some dusty SAT books. Then I shyly touched the mattress, and wrote down “semifirm.”
After visiting Anaïs’s parents, I called up Michael Chorney, a musician who everyone calls Chorney. He’s one of Anaïs’s longest collaborators. “I think it was 2004; she literally knocked on my studio door with a guitar on her back,” he said. Now, 15 years later, he was talking to me from Walter Kerr Theatre, where Bruce Springsteen previously had his 15-month residency on Broadway. The theater fits approximately 1,000 people every night. Chorney plays guitar in the Hadestown band and had coarranged the orchestrations. He says he’s psyched to be in a Broadway musical, despite the fact that he had never seen another Broadway play. I asked him how it was going. “Anaïs is burning it real hard,” he said. “We’re working here right now, today, on rearranging one of the pieces in Act Two substantially. Lyrical changes are happening daily.”
Chorney told me that Anaïs had an early fascination with the Orpheus myth, particularly with the idea of the artist as a hero. In the myth, Orpheus is a poet and a musician who ventures to the underworld to save his love, Eurydice. He charms Hades with a beautiful song on his lyre, and he is permitted to bring her back from the underworld on the condition that he never turn around to look back. (Spoiler alert: he looks back.)
As a child, Anaïs owned the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and the image of Orpheus always stuck with her. It showed him in a doorway, the threshold between two worlds, looking back over his shoulder. The Orpheus myth burrowed itself into her consciousness and reemerged many years later. She had graduated from college and was committing herself to the life of a professional musician. On a long drive between gigs, some lyrics popped into her head that seemed to be about Eurydice: “Wait for me, I’m coming / In my garters and pearls / With what melody did you barter me / From the wicked underworld?”
Anaïs was a political science major, and she graduated during the Bush years. It was the post-9/11 era, and the Iraq War was in full swing. Orpheus’s ability to sway Hades with a song turned into a larger question for Anaïs:
Can the artist change the world with a song?
The question was also personal. Perhaps she was asking it of herself, convincing herself of the decision to choose the artist’s path. As she continued writing, political undertones emerged. Inspired by gated communities and class conflict in America, she wrote the song “Why We Build the Wall.” As the workers build a wall around Hadestown, the Hades character fits the archetype of the boss man exploiting his workers. “I think she found liberation feeling the point of view and writing from the point of view of an evil white man,” said Chorney. “It opened up her imagination.”
After talking with Chorney, I felt like I was getting closer to understanding Anaïs the artist, but I still needed to know more about Anaïs the person. I called her husband, Noah Hahn ’01. He and Anaïs began dating at Middlebury, and after he graduated, he moved to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to be an organic vegetable farmer. Inspired by a treatise Anaïs’s brother had written about syndicalism as an alternative to capitalism, he helped found the collective worker-owned Langdon Street Café in Montpelier, Vermont.
He told me that the worlds created in this café were an early inspiration for Hadestown. Every night at Langdon featured new events: music, lectures, poetry, readings, activist meetings, speak-outs, sit-ins, puppet shows, etc. On the last Tuesday of every month, they held a Mystery Fun Night. For each of these themed theater nights, the café was transformed—from a cave, to a spaceship, to a 1980s arcade. Town members were encouraged to dress up and participate. One of the memorable themes was “Oops, we double-booked the church basement,” in which a game of bingo was double-booked with a battle of the bands. Audience members were instructed to act like old people playing bingo in small groups, while six new original bands that were developed that month played their own original songs.
Noah told me that Ben Matchstick was the Mystery Fun Night cocreator, and the director of the first production of Hadestown. I called Ben. On the phone, he recounted the Langdon Street days with enthusiasm. “We were training people to trust communal play,” he said. “And that was critical to Hadestown.”
For the first performance in Barre, Vermont, in 2006, Ben said they only had a week to rehearse. As with Mystery Fun Night, he ran around recruiting people last-minute. “I went to our baker, the woman who made our sweet treats, and said, ‘You’re a great singer! You should be a Fate!’” he told me. Ben played Hermes, and through a wireless microphone, he made live sound effects to accompany the performance. “I did machine sounds, telephone sounds, dogs barking, wind noise, storms,” he said. “All this stuff to create sound design on the fly. Mouth music!”
Over the next year, Anaïs, Noah, Ben, and Ben’s partner, Meg, lived in a collective house a half mile away from the café on Elm Street, where they continued to develop the show. “Noah built a little house for Anaïs to play folk music in, and they were in love. Me and my partner, Meg, a costume designer, we were in love,” said Ben.
“There was a passionate energy with this love story going on. We were enamored with the work.”
In 2007, they did a monthlong, six-show tour around Vermont and Massachusetts. Over the course of the year, they partnered with a local high school, using the students to practice the staging. That was the year Ben got really into steampunk, adding goggles and leather onto the workers’ chorus. They recruited Michael Chorney’s Sun Ra cover band, Magic City, to play the music. The stylistic inspirations included French horror theater called the Grand Guignol, Bertolt Brecht, “crude, arcane street theater” known as Cantastoria, the American tradition of the huckster con man, curiosities, and hoaxes, and robots that are really humans pulling puppet strings. The room was incredibly dark, the Hades character was terrifying, and the Fates were ghostly. “I like to scare people a little bit,” said Ben. He said he saw theater as “getting to the heart of what society is trying to accomplish,” and giving people what they need even if it’s not what they want.
To find out about those early performances, I called up my roommate from a folk camp in New Hampshire that I went to last summer, where I was trying to learn banjo. Cindy Howes is a public radio host and old friend of Anaïs’s. I had her describe these early shows to me, from the audience perspective.
“It kind of was like the opening scene of The Lego Movie, ‘Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team,’” she said. Cindy recognized people from the coffee shop in the show, like a woman she thought might be named Sarah who had a shaved head. “I was like, oh my god, there’s the barista from the coffee shop, look at her go!” said Cindy. “She had an extraordinarily strong musical theater voice.”
In those performances, the Hadestown workers’ chorus doubled as stagehands. “I called us creepy crawlies,” said Noah, who was part of the chorus. “We made our own costumes with tubes and masks and couldn’t see very well.” Ben called them the “cockroaches of the underworld.” They both spoke about the technological breakthrough that was accomplished by prop master Cavan Meese, who custom designed LED light cannons that they could shoot at the performers. LEDs were a new technology at the time, and these contraptions allowed them to get professional lighting effects done by hand.
The group toured in a donated school bus, which they painted silver. Chorney recalled a day when a pipe exploded on the bus, spilling antifreeze on all of the costumes. At this time, Chorney was in his 40s, touring with a group of mostly 20-something Vermonters. “I was definitely the papa,” he said, laughing. Anaïs later wrote to me about this time, saying, “We were all just in love with each other, and the whole thing felt charmed.”
So was there anything not charmed about Anaïs’s life? The question overtook me. Over the next 10 years, she recorded a number of successful albums. While much of the folk scene consisted of men with beards crooning about their breakups, Anaïs possessed the ability to step outside of herself, her time period, and her gender. “A lot of the songs on Young Man in America are her perceptions of me and my relationship with my father,” said her father, Don. “Which is daring territory.”
Her ascension to indie-folk success was swift. She had a strong work ethic, a strong grasp of language, and an ability to apply higher concepts to her songs. As an artist, she seemed to have some pretty great karma. “She must have saved a burning village in a past life,” joked Cindy Howes.
Anaïs was quick to dispel this idea. From the inside, she wrote to me in an email, “There’s been nothing easy about it.” She described her writing process as “taking weeks, months, and quite often years of labor” to get a song ready for the world. “I quite often will work all day and come up with just one good rhyme, two good lines, that is, and think to myself—‘That was a good day!’” she continued. “And I can’t tell you how many times I have thought, ‘I should get a different job.’ Behind the artist smiling for the camera at their album release, opening night, gallery event, whatever…are thousands of hours of them frowning alone in the very mundane trenches of their craft.”
Slowly but surely, Hadestown became a studio album featuring Ani DiFranco and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Then it became a touring concert, with local guest singers filling in the various roles. Eventually, as the years wore on, the show was picked up for an off-Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop. There Anaïs was attempting to retain the homespun, community-driven theater style that was central to the heart of the piece, while also adding new producers, money, and people. It was a tricky line to toe. She kept working with Ben, who was interested in retaining the darkness of the Vermont show. “I wanted to disrupt Broadway,” he said. “We were freaky-ass motherfucker puppeteers. I wanted to be like, there’s a renegade on the prowl here.”
Anaïs, on the other hand, was looking at making the show accessible to a bigger audience. “I was interested in working in a more traditional way with producer-supported workshops, Equity actors, etc.,” she wrote to me. “It became clear at a certain point—I think Ben’s partner, Meg, put it this way—that we were working on ‘two different art projects.’ There came a point where those worlds couldn’t coexist.”
Anaïs and Ben eventually parted ways on the project. “That was definitely sad and hard for everyone,” said Noah. “His vision was such a huge part of what the show was. It wouldn’t have existed without him.” For the director position, Anaïs reached out to Broadway-directing veteran Rachel Chavkin. With the off-Broadway production came a new mountain of work. The feedback Anaïs kept receiving was “Great songs, but what the hell was going on?” There were many narrative gaps that needed to be filled in between each number, and they were also dealing with a number of dramaturgical questions. Why did Eurydice choose Hadestown over Orpheus? Why did they fall in love to begin with?
The show opened shortly after Donald Trump entered office, giving the Hades character an even deeper resonance. Many people assumed the song “Why We Build the Wall” had just been written, when in reality it was 10 years old. I asked Chorney if they had changed Hades to be based on Trump. “No. If anything Trump based himself on Hades!” he said. “They’re archetypes for a reason.”
Patrick Page played a delightfully creepy Hades, getting a big laugh at his line “I got walls to build.”
To summarize the next few years: the New York Theater Workshop show was completed. Then it moved to Edmonton, Canada, where the team worked on adapting it for a bigger stage, followed by the National Theatre in London as a precursor to Broadway.
Finally, on April 9, 2019, after many nights of writing and revisions, the Broadway show was locked. Anaïs realized that she had to stop writing, partially to maintain her own sanity. “I would be wide awake in the middle of the night, having a crisis about one stanza versus another,” she wrote. The “Epics” that Orpheus sings had been her greatest struggle poetically, which is unsurprising, considering that the whole show is about how amazing those songs are. “I always want them to be better!” she wrote. In the end, she recognized that she was in a meta situation: “We don’t love Orpheus for being perfect, we love him for trying,” she said. This hope that an artist could change the world was inherent to her mission. “That always felt to me like a forgiving look at what artists are up to, at their best,” she said. “The futility, in a way, but also the immense hope and faith inherent in the effort itself.”
The performance I attended was known as “Orpheus Night,” meaning that all the artists, musicians, and performers from the Hadestown community returned to see the show. For a Broadway theater, the room was surprisingly cozy. “This is like folk prom!” exclaimed musician Stephanie Jenkins as she looked at the familiar faces around her. Perched up on the right side of the stage I saw Michael Chorney holding his guitar.
The show opened with a bang: the narrator Hermes introduced all of the major characters in a swinging, jazzy, New Orleans-style rendition of the opening number “Road to Hell.” The audience members jiggled in their seats, nodded along to the music, and whooped at the musical crescendos. Many of the elements from the original Vermont production, which had been stripped away for the off-Broadway show, were back. The lyrics for the “Hades & Persephone” song were still completely intact from when Anaïs first wrote it, the year after college in her apartment in Cairo, Egypt. The long wool coats and ratty tights from the Vermont shows were there, though there were slightly fewer punk haircuts. The steampunk goggles that Ben Matchstick added in 2007 were on the foreheads of the workers’ chorus.
Patrick Page played a delightfully creepy Hades, getting a big laugh at his line “I got walls to build.” Even though Hades ruled the underworld, he wasn’t purely evil. This was a testament to Anaïs’s empathy for her characters; behind each one you sensed a longing for love and security. Hades needed to run a business and maintain a relationship with Persephone. Orpheus needed to get back Eurydice, and Eurydice needed to have food and a roof over her head.
Of all the characters, Anaïs acknowledged that Orpheus had been the most delicate to render. “It’s somehow easier to ‘buy’ a jaded character, which ALL of the others are,” she wrote. “I think the Orpheus character has always been tricky because he’s at his core this irrationally faithful, romantic, idealistic guy.” Toward the end of the performance, Orpheus raised his glass for a bittersweet toast: “To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now.” A murmur moved through the audience.
When the show ended, two women in the first row stood up and held each other, shaking with laughter while tears ran down their cheeks. This was their second time seeing the show. “I can’t wait to come back, I’m already planning it,” said one of them. “This is number four for me!” a man chimed in behind us.
The musicians and former cast members trickled across the street to an upstairs bar, which had a cozy living room vibe. Anaïs was wearing ripped jeans and a gold feathered shirt I’d seen her wear on YouTube. I was a bit surprised to see that she was shorter than me. She possessed this quality I had noticed in her mother, in which she moved softly, and her footsteps seemed soundless. She stood by the bar collecting compliments, and then announced that there would be a musical jam in the other room. “Anaïs loves a jam,” someone said.
At the open microphone, a stream of musicians took the stage, including Anaïs’s new folk band, Bonny Light Horseman. At first, I was one of only a few people watching. More people slowly trickled in from the bar. A musician named Chris “Sandman” Sand played a song about his hometown, Missoula, Montana, with the refrain “It’s a weird little town.” “My coworkers pitched in 700 bucks for me to come to this show,” he said after. “I’ve heard more good music here tonight than I have in a year on Spotify.” Before his coworkers had helped him, he had considered hitchhiking to be there, and he got his first credit card just so he could buy a ticket to the performance.
As it happened, Anaïs sat down next to me during the musical jam. “You’ve interviewed, like, my entire family,” she said to me.
“Um, yeah?” I said. I felt a bit of concern that I didn’t belong at such an intimate gathering. I pointed to my former roommate, Taylor, who was holding a banjo nearby.
“Taylor’s my roommate!” I said.
And that was it—my brush with Anaïs Mitchell.
The next week, Ben Matchstick called me from the airport after the opening night party, a red carpet affair. “It was splendorous and fancy,” he reported. “Tons of food. Fabulous people. Everyone looking splendid, and schmoozing full on. We Vermonters were horribly underdressed. Our signature!” There was a hint of heartache in his voice—sadness that it went to Broadway without him, and pride that it had made it there at all. “We’ve been through so much,” he said about his relationship with Anaïs and Noah. “The pain of the creative process. The toil. The sacrifices. The exhaustion. It’s all front of mind. Broadway is the payoff for everything.”
The weekend after Hadestown opened, I was biking through Anaïs’s Brooklyn neighborhood on a warm spring night. As I pedaled, I imagined seeing her blond head bobbing above the line of parked cars. A video her mom had emailed me came to my mind. It was from 10 years ago. Anaïs is sitting in near darkness, and the cat knocks over her camera. “This is a message for Leonard Cohen,” she says. “Mr. Cohen, if you’re watching this video, my name is Anaïs Mitchell. I live in Vermont. I am a songwriter and a great admirer of yours. I wanted to invite you to my house for dinner. I live not far from the capital, so it’s probably two and a half hours from Montreal. I would come pick you up if you want. I hope you can make it.”
Then she begins a song about an old poet who lives a few blocks from the Orthodox church. He looks down from his window on a Friday night, at “the fullness of the town.” The song continues, “And the big horns blowed and the pianos played / And the music rose to the old man’s ears / I guess those were the olden days / I guess those were the golden years.” And then, “Maybe I came too early / Maybe I came too late / I’m waiting in the shadows of the scaffolds / Of the old cafés where you told me to wait.”
As it turns out, Leonard Cohen never came to dinner. Maybe it was better that way, I thought to myself. Everyone needs their own mythical heroes. If I saw Anaïs on the streets of Brooklyn, I decided that I would keep biking.