It took more than a dozen years for Vermont’s Anaïs MItchell to bring Hadestown to Tony-winning fruition. “I can’t tell you how many times I thought, I should get a different job,” she says of composing her “folk opera.”Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson
Origin stories can begin in different places, even at different times. It depends on who is doing the telling. This origin story begins with a farm, and a farmer’s daughter. She was born in late March, and people say she arrived with the lambs. When the farmer came home after his wife gave birth, in the barn he found a newborn lamb, the first of the year. He gave it the name Anaïs, and vowed the lamb would spend its life feeding on sweet grass.
To reach Treleven Farm in New Haven, Vermont, you travel on a two-lane country road that winds past fields rimmed with wildflowers and dairy farms with sturdy barns and silos. It’s mid-July, and hay bales wrapped tight like giant white cocoons lie waiting in the sun. A turn onto Mitchell Drive brings you to a long gravel road and ultimately to a trim cottage, where Anaïs Mitchell sits at a shaded picnic table on the farm where she grew up, eight miles north of Middlebury.
She is 38 years old. She wears a sleeveless black top and black jeans ripped at the knees. Her eyes are blue and direct, her hair blond. Decorating her arms and shoulder are tattoos that honor the three most important things in her life: her husband, Noah; her daughter, Ramona; and her musical, Hadestown. An hour earlier she was sitting in the heat of her Dodge Caravan listening to the master recordings of what will become the Hadestown Broadway cast album. She knows perfection is never possible—she talks about scratching at a lyric until exhausted—but she has never stopped seeking it, and here on the farm the best sound system is her car’s speakers. “Every few minutes I turned on the air conditioner,” she tells me.
When Hadestown opened in April 2019, Anaïs Mitchell became only the fourth woman in Broadway history to hold sole credit for lyrics, music, and book (the story). She had poured a third of her life into this project, beginning when she wrote the first songs in her early 20s, and when it won the Tony for best musical—the crown jewel of Broadway—she said it had been worth the struggle. Now, after the sleepless nights and grueling months of fine-tuning the show, and after the endless public appearances, and after the excitement of awards night, she has come here from her home in Brooklyn, returning to the calm of her family’s homestead for a few weeks, bringing 5-year-old Ramona.
The farm is 130 acres of forest and sweeping pastures where sheep graze looking out to tree-lined cliffs, and within its expanse sit three houses, a studio, barns, work sheds, and a pondside gazebo—all built using family brains, muscle, and skill. Her parents live here, as does her brother with his wife and young daughter. The house where Anaïs’s grandparents lived and died now belongs to Anaïs and her husband; a nature-themed preschool uses it for much of the year, and you can find small teepees tucked away here and there, and rope swings that dangle from apple trees.
She is happy to be back. In Vermont, she says, she sleeps better and eats better and feels the embrace of her family roots. But in a few days she will return to her musical roots, performing at the Newport Folk Festival before hitting the road in the West and the Midwest, then Ireland and Scotland, and in autumn returning to the same intimate New England venues where she began long ago, in towns like Bethlehem, New Hampshire, and Putney, Vermont.
I ask what it will feel like to be on the same small-town stages where she began after she’s seen her name in lights on Broadway, after being featured in Rolling Stone and Vogue and The New York Times and so many others. “I don’t know,” she says. “All this stuff is so new.” She smiles easily and often, and those who have shared a stage or worked with her remark on her utter lack of artifice. “It’s been interesting being back in Vermont, because I’ve run into a lot of people from my childhood—people I went to high school with, and their parents—and there’s always this moment where it’s like, The Tonys! And then I’ve been very relieved when I’ve had that moment with them, and the next time we see each other we just talk about the gazpacho I’m going to make. And I get it. I’d feel that way about someone, too. But it doesn’t change anything internally for me.”
The success of Hadestown thrust Anaïs Mitchell into America’s consciousness as either a comet that suddenly blazed across the pop culture sky (if you did not know about her) or the talented singer-songwriter who had finally found the acclaim she deserved (if you did). The musical, with its haunting songs like “Wait for Me,” “Why We Build the Wall,” and “All I’ve Ever Known,” reimagines the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice for new generations the way Hamilton did with the story of the founding fathers. Charles McNulty of TheLos Angeles Times called Hadestown “one of the most exquisite works of musical storytelling I’ve seen in my more than 25 years as a theater critic.” In New York, people camp out on the sidewalk hoping to be first in line for the precious few available tickets. One young woman told a reporter she was seeing the show for the 13th time.
I ask Anaïs about a period in her life when all this would have seemed as improbable as living on the moon. It was 2004, and she was 23, an aspiring singer-songwriter who had just released her first album, Hymns for the Exiled, recorded in a studio built into an old Vermont gristmill. Having recently graduated from Middlebury College, she was performing anywhere she could find a stage—folk cafés, music festivals, churches, schools—and was building a fan base both with the intricate, often heartbreaking stories she wove through her songs and with a shimmering voice that made you pay attention to the nimbleness of her lyrics.
She was also in love with Noah Hahn, whom she had met in a college art class, who was now making his way as an organic farmer and musician outside Montpelier. While she was on the road, they were nearly always apart, and the moment that she tells me about happened one day when she was driving “somewhere between Virginia and home.”
“I was sort of asking him to wait for me,” she says. “And I remember a lot of really psychically open moments driving alone, just listening to music. We had no phones back then. And I would see something beautiful and not be able to tell someone about it.” And into that solitude and uncertainty and loneliness, the words came to her: Wait for me, I’m coming / In my garters and pearls / With what melody did you barter me / From the wicked underworld.
The words, she realized, reminded her of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Once, her parents had lived on the Greek island of Hydra, and they read the ancient myths aloud to Anaïs and her brother, Ethan. The stories became as familiar to her as the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell that were always playing in their house. Anaïs was drawn to the tragic legend of Orpheus, who believed the beauty of his songs could bring his wife, Eurydice, back from the underworld. The music softened the heart of Hades, the god of the underworld, and he sent the lovers back to the world of the living but with one condition: They must make the journey back while walking apart in darkness and silence, and if Orpheus glanced back, Eurydice would be gone forever. He did, she was, and their story would endure for thousands of years, a tale about losing faith when it was needed most.
And then, this young Vermont songwriter had a different inspiration. “I got excited about this idea of telling a long-form story with music,” Anaïs says, “and I saw the underworld as a corporate bureaucracy, and I thought about the political implication of that world.” And the more she followed the thread, the more she saw Orpheus as not just a flawed mortal who lost everything but also a man of “heartbreaking optimism” who believed in the mystical power of music. “I’ve felt that feeling,” she says.
Anaïs had always followed her own path and heart, so she knew what she wanted: to write what she would call a “folk opera.” What she didn’t know was that, from the first performance in December 2006 with a hastily gathered group of friends at the Old Labor Hall in Barre to opening night at New York’s Walter Kerr Theater, this work would consume the next 13 years of her life—and become one of the most improbable success stories in Broadway history.
“Hadestown was refined in many places, but it started here.”—Don Mitchell
Here is a second origin story. It also begins a long time ago. It is the one told by Anaïs’s father, Don, and her mother, Cheryl.
I meet Don in the passive solar home he designed, farther up the long drive from Anaïs’s cottage. He is dressed in a gray T-shirt and jeans. It has been a frustrating month, he says, because record rains have made haying so difficult. Inside, a long table in the living room is covered with family snapshots and article clippings that have been laid out by Cheryl—who, Don tells me, is currently down at the pond, giving a farewell picnic for a migrant laborer to whom she has been teaching English. The young man is returning to his home south of the border, and this is his first day off in seven months of working at a local dairy farm. One of Cheryl’s many causes, Don says, is addressing the plight of the hundreds of migrant workers on Addison County farms.
In one photo on the table, a 5-year-old Anaïs is being hoisted over a railing onto the small stage of what Don calls “a Vermont winter-solstice-hippie-pagan-goddess pageant of poetry and dance that’s been going on for decades.” Alongside the photos is a poster from the early days of Hadestown, when Anaïs and a cast of scrappy Vermont performers were using their talent and wits to hold things together.
As we go through the photos, there is a moment when Don reflects on the journey’s end. “Opening night on Broadway was an overwhelming experience,” he says. “You have a little baby and you don’t know what’s going to happen to them, and all of a sudden they’ve created a work of art that’s going to endure and shape the world for the better, and there she is sitting next to you.“How does it feel? In a way I’m not surprised,” he continues. “She’s always dreamed big and believed she could do anything. But if there’s one legacy from our lives to our kids’ lives, it’s in coming here and saying we’re going to be homesteaders and sheep farmers and we’re going to build houses and barns. We laid down a marker that you can do anything that you set your mind to. And she has believed in [Hadestown] for a long, long time.”
He pauses. “But still, what she has done is incredible. She takes you on a journey and it breaks you and then restores you. We celebrate Orpheus because he tried against impossible odds. This is what Anaïs has brought new. In 50 years when people talk about the Orpheus myth, they will be referring to Hadestown.”
Don says that when he sat in the audience and saw people in tears as Orpheus sang “Wait for Me,” he thought of something from long ago. “Nobody else can tell you this,” he says, leaning forward, “but when the kids would come home from school, Ethan would tell Anaïs he was going to the woods and he’d go out the door, and Anaïs would run out after him, yelling, ‘Wait for me, I’m coming! I’m coming too!’”
Sitting on the sofa, Don spins a story that many back-to-the-land pilgrims shared during the turbulent Vietnam War era. He and Cheryl had been together since their Swarthmore days, and “in 1967, the ‘summer of love,’ we hitchhiked all around California,” he recalls. The next year they moved to Boston, and Don wrote a novel based on their adventures, finishing it just as Easy Rider became a hit. Hollywood saw another gold mine in Don’s novel. “The film rights sold for an astonishing amount of money. I was to write the screenplay—I was 22—for what would become Thumb Tripping,” a 1972 movie that featured a menacing Bruce Dern.
Despite this success, Don and Cheryl knew they were not meant to live in Hollywood. In the Whole Earth Catalog,they had read how Vermont beckoned young people like them. “It said that even though the state is filled with dairy farmers who are Republicans, their bedrock values are libertarian, so they will accept us,” Don says. “We came [to Addison County] and we saw this place. We had to say yes. The only building was the barn. We had no idea what we were doing, or what it would mean to become farmers. I had never really built anything yet.” They called the farm Treleven, after an ancestral Cornish surname. “It means ‘homestead on the level land,’” he says.
In time they remade the barn into a first home and built up a flock of 100 sheep. (They are now down to 30 ewes. “I’m just getting more tired now,” he admits.) Don wrote more books, which did not sell, but he also wrote a magazine column about rural life, and that gained him a teaching position at Middlebury College, where the line between farmer and teacher blurred. Each spring, environmental study majors from Middlebury would sign up to sleep in the barn loft he had built overlooking the flock, and they would help with the births. “We had more than 1,000 students over the years,” he recalls. In Don’s columns, readers followed the joys and travails of rural life, including raising creative, inventive children. There was no television to tempt them indoors, and when they were in the house they made do with books and music and their imaginations. Early each morning, Anaïs would see her father writing at his desk, worrying over every word as if it were a fragile thing. Years later, when the media came calling, Anaïs would say that witnessing her father crafting words so carefully and having books and music living in the same room “led me to think of songwriting as a kind of literature, a noble poetic enterprise.”
(Later, Cheryl will add another layer: “At bedtime we had what we called ‘tuck-ins’—you talk about what was the best thing about your day, what was the worst thing. What do you hope for tomorrow? What were you proudest about? So they were always encouraged to think about what they did well and what made them happy.” She is quiet for a moment. “Some of my sweetest moments were when I’d be working in the kitchen and she’d be in here composing a song. So many of her songs resonate with what’s happening in the world and why we need compassion for the world so we can make change.”)
Don reaches further back. He tells of his mother and his grandmother, who both trained for the opera. They wanted him to follow a music path. “I turned away from it,” he says. “I felt we were being raised like trained animals who would get onstage and sing a song in exchange for affection. It was like being a von Trapp kid, and I just said, ‘No, this is not how I want to gain affection and respect.’ So the music genes are there. Anaïs didn’t know all this. But she had this aptitude, and we said, ‘If it’s something you want to play with, we’ll support that. And if not, that’s OK too,’” he says.
“I told people she’s going to make it, and they were skeptical. I knew she had what it takes from the first time I heard her in concert at this little bookstore in Bristol when she was still in high school, because she was writing songs that would stick in my head. They’d become earworms, and I’d wake in the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. But I never foresaw the ambition of Hadestown.”
Don gives me a book, a collection of his columns called Growing UpCountry: Raising a Family & Flock in a Rural Place. Later that night, I read it. He tells about how Anaïs and Ethan created their own kingdom in the deep meadows and woods beyond his sight. They drew a map to secret places they named Great Swamp, Sacred Spring, Bald Rock, Bowl of Stone, and Fairy Cliff. Don writes, “I feel the constant presence of a shadow world layered over what I consider to be my real one, steeping the entire farm in something like mythology.”
“Vermonters will recognize the Broadway production of Hadestown in the same way they might know an old friend they haven’t seen for years. The resemblance is there, but so much on the surface has changed.”—Burlington Free Press, April 16, 2019
There is one more origin story to tell. This one begins in 2006 in Montpelier’s Langdon Street Café; now shuttered, the place was then a petri dish of homegrown talent—music, puppetry, street theater. Anaïs was continuing to tour while weaving together songs of Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone. She was also working on a new album, often not knowing whether a song belonged to her “folk opera” or was “for me.”
As we sit at the picnic bench beside her cottage, Anaïs sketches the scene at Langdon Street. “Noah was one of the founding members of this collaborative music venue and bar,” she says. “It was incredible. All the romantic notions of a café. I would play there and I’d bring songwriter friends to play there.” And every month, she says, “an amazingly inventive theater artist” named Ben Matchstick would organize a sort of community improv theater called Mystery Fun Night. “He’d have a theme and we’d all come in costume. He could make something out of nothing. He just makes things happen.”
Anaïs and Ben began to work together on envisioning the strange, foreboding world where Eurydice and Orpheus found themselves. “I had this image early on—which is pretty much gone from the show now—of Persephone in the underworld with this great wall, but there is a crack in the wall and she looks through this viewfinder machine, the kind you see at the seashore, and with it she can see through the crack in the wall and she can see the stars in the night sky,” Anaïs says. “And that felt so rich to me.” So at first the title of her project was Crack in the Wall. Then one day she said the word “Hadestown”—and that, as Ben has said, opened “a flood of images.”
The underworld took shape. Industrial, Depression-era grim, gloom as suffocating as coal dust, a land ruled by Hades, who would ravage nature and exploit workers for profit. Anaïs was responding to the war in Iraq and how it was costing thousands of lives, and she also was thinking of people who would be displaced by climate change and “come knocking on the door.” In 2006, she wrote “Why We Build the Wall,” which gained more traction as the years passed. To arrange the songs she recruited Michael Chorney, a local musician whose band she had followed since her high school days and who ended up producing her first albums. (Chorney would go on to earn a Tony, shared with Todd Sickafoose, for orchestrating Hadestown. From the musical’s start, he’s been onstage playing guitar, including in the Broadway show.)
When Hadestown debuted at the Old Labor Hall in Barre, there were maybe 60 people in the audience, and Chorney’s band played. “We were really on a shoestring,” Anaïs says. “I was Eurydice, and I’m [onstage] with a phone like a landline or pay phone. It rings. I pick it up and Hades is singing into my ear and I’m turning.” As she speaks, Anaïs slowly twirls around. “I was all tangled up in the phone wire, which in the myth was a snake. Then the Fates come with scissors, and they cut the phone line, and that was how we showed the death of Eurydice. All kinds of cool stuff like that.” Everyone seemed to agree it was unlike anything they had seen. “People told us, ‘Great songs, but what the hell is going on?’”
A Vermont arts organization gave Anaïs $5,000, which went toward a rehearsal space, sets, costumes, and pocket money for “our band of thieves,” as she called the troupe. Someone donated an old school bus that they used while performing around New England for a few weeks in 2007. It was a heady time. That same year, Ani diFranco—an inspiration for Anaïs since age 13, when she learned guitar by playing diFranco’s songs—heard Anaïs perform and signed the young Vermonter to her own Righteous Babe label, which released Anaïs’s The Brightness.
Meanwhile, songs for Hadestown kept coming. Anaïs would tell people that some came hard, and others “fell out of the sky.” “All I’ve Ever Known” woke her up in bed one night. She wrote “Hey Little Songbird” on her honeymoon with Noah in Italy. In 2010 a concept album titled Hadestown came out on Righteous Babe. Anaïs sang as Eurydice and tapped many of her musical folk heroes for other parts: Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Greg Brown, Ben Knox Miller, the Hayden Triplets, and diFranco herself, who sang the role of Persephone. “We had this Vermont incubation thing and then it was like, ‘How are we going to deliver this to the masses? We need some ambassadors,’” Anaïs says.
The album garnered critical attention. A small Hadestown troupe, including Chorney, traveled the country. Anaïs would find local musicians to sing the roles, and those performers would bring their own fans, and it’d be billed as “Colorado sings Hadestown” or “Boston sings Hadestown”—some 60 venues in all, building a fan base, planting seeds of awareness. Hadestown was becoming a cult phenomenon.
Still, Anaïs knew she needed someone to help connect the dramatic narrative to her music, to make more accessible the story that her songs told. She had moved to Brooklyn with Noah, and it was there, in 2012, that she saw the off-Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. It was directed by Rachel Chavkin, who like Anaïs had a fierce social consciousness and a capacity for tireless work. When the two met, Chavkin did not know of Hadestown, but after she heard the album she couldn’t stop playing it. They agreed to work together.
“I remember the very first workshop I did with her,” Anaïs tells me. “It was in New York. It was just a reading around a table. And she came at me with all sorts of dramaturgical feedback, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if you understand. I’ve been working on this for six years already,’ and she said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to find a way to get over your fatigue with the piece.’ It was very tough love. But I needed someone to ask more from me and expect the best. And she’s the kind of director that you want to please. So I went back to the drawing board. I went into some terrain I didn’t know I had in me.”
And this is how a Broadway hit happens: Two months of sellout audiences at the New York Theater Workshop in 2016. Lots of changes, and then on to Edmonton, Canada. More adapting, and then off to London. All the while revising, adding new lyrics, new set designs, even new roles.
In the hours leading up to opening night on Broadway, Anaïs was still tormented by the thought that she needed to change a few lyrics, just a bit. And then there was nothing more to do, except be in the audience with her family and with Ben Matchstick, who shares co-creator credit on the playbill. And after the curtain dropped, to walk onstage with the cast and see nearly a thousand people standing and to listen to applause that would not end.
“I don’t think we have lost her to the world. I know that sometimes happens when people become famous. We’re still a part of her life.”—Cheryl Mitchell
It’s a Saturday night in mid-October 2019, and Anaïs Mitchell is playing the Next Stage theater in Putney, Vermont. The theater holds 200, and all the seats are taken. Before the show, people mill around the lobby, where a stack of Anaïs’s CDs sit next to plates piled with homemade brownies and apple cider cookies. When Anaïs takes the stage, loud applause and whistles greet her. “We’ve had a very Vermonty weekend,” with apple picking and going to “the same storytelling pageant in the woods that I went to as a child,” she tells the crowd.
Toward the end of the concert—which includes two songs from Hadestown—Ramona skips out from the wings and crouches low beside her mother. “I think she will do an interpretive dance,” Anaïs says with a smile. And then as she sings “Morning Glory,” a song she wrote for Ramona, her daughter rises, a flower reaching to sunlight, and twirls about.
On my visit to the Mitchell farm, I asked Anaïs what she would want Ramona to remember about these years, when Hadestown always loomed close. “One thing that has been hard has been feeling I wasn’t there as a mom. I’m lucky that my husband has really been parent number one during this time,” she said. “We have this book called Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls—it’s one-page biographies of famous women and the mark they left on the world—and when I went to London I said to Ramona, ‘You know I have to go away. I’m working on my page.’ And she got that.” Anaïs’s eyes filled with tears when she told me that. “And then it was awesome to take her to see the marquee lit up on Broadway. She looked up and saw my name and Rachel’s, and I love that she had that experience of seeing two women’s names in lights, and that she doesn’t know that’s a rare thing.”
But life has moved on. Anaïs has said she feels a bit awkward going backstage at Hadestown, that the show is now complete without her. She is looking forward to writing songs for herself again. This January there will be a new album of traditional ballads, Bonny Light Horseman, recorded with her recently formed three-person band of the same name, followed by a tour. “This [album] felt like a healing music project for me, because Hadestown took so much out of me,” she told me. “This felt different. It felt easy.”
After the Putney show, Anaïs, Noah, and Ramona sit together by the table with the albums. A woman buys a copy of Anaïs’s 2012 Young Man in America, featuring a photo of a 30-year-old Don Mitchell on the cover, and asks Ramona to sign it. “I loved your dance,” the woman tells her. “I hope to see it again.” Ramona signs in bold black letters, then looks up. “Well, you can see me again tomorrow if you come to our show.”
I hear this and smile, thinking of the photo Don showed me of Anaïs being lifted onto the stage when she was a child. How could I not wonder whether, indeed, all of us here were seeing, just maybe, a new story beginning. One we could all wait for.
For more information on Anaïs Mitchell’s music and tour dates, go to anaismitchell.com. For details on Treleven Farm, which holds workshops and seminars and offers monthlong artist residencies, go to trelevenfarm.org.