Rachel Chavkin has been here before. Under her direction, Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell’s gorgeous musical that sets the mythical tales of Orpheus, Eurydice, Hades and Persephone in – above ground – a stylized New Orleans and – below ground – a coal-mining hellscape – has garnered 14 Tony Award nominations. That’s the most nominations of any production this year, just as the Chavkin-directed Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 fronted the nomination pack (with 12) in 2017.
So yes, the Tony-nominated Chavkin has been here before, but what does it say about Broadway (or our own above-ground world, for that matter) that she is, in a sense, alone in her field: She’s the only woman to direct a Broadway musical this season.
In this candid, wide-ranging conversation, Chavkin spoke to Deadline about Broadway, about what women like herself and Anaïs Mitchell bring to the theater, about Hadestown specifically, and about what she’d like to do next. That last one? Don’t bother trying to guess. Just read on.
Hadestown is playing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, with music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell, direction by Rachel Chavkin, and starring Reeve Carney, Andre De Shields, Eva Noblezada, Amber Gray and Patrick Page. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: Hadestown received the most Tony nominations of any production this year, as did Great Comet in 2017. Has everyone been asking, “How do you do that?”
Rachel Chavkin: I actually haven’t gotten that question too much. I mean, look, I think both Comet and Hadestown happen to have such extraordinary scores and orchestration, and astonishing work by a lot of performers and design teams.
But there’s certainly a recognizable lushness to both of them. I saw Hadestown for the first time this year – I didn’t see the Off Broadway productions – and I could see that Hadestown was somehow of a mind with Comet. I don’t know how else to put it except to say that I could feel they came from the same person. Does that make sense to you?
Chavkin: That’s cool. And yeah, it does. Certainly, I like both of them. As an artist, I think you can only, at the end of the day, pursue your taste, and then you kind of hope that you’re not such an alien that other people might also share your taste. I know I love both shows, so I guess it’s not surprising to know that they feel like they came from the same brain.
Can you compare the two? Let’s say you’re watching from the audience, what would you notice about Hadestown that’s different from Comet, or similar?
Chavkin: Oh, I am going to not answer that question. My dear friend and colleague, Taylor Mac, would say “comparison is violence.”
That’s funny because I was just going to compare you to Taylor Mac. You’re both on Broadway right now, and your two shows – your Hadestown and Taylor’s Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus – would seem to have such, I don’t know, different sensibilities, let’s say, than what we might usually associate with Broadway. Although I’m not even sure I agree with my own statement there. I mean, Oklahoma! All in all, a pretty remarkable season in many ways, I’d say.
Chavkin: Oh, I agree totally, absolutely. I haven’t gotten to see Oklahoma! on Broadway yet, but I saw it in its original production up at Bard. Now, I never, ever think it’s the artist’s job to know what is or is not commercial. Certainly, I don’t have any f*cking idea, but I do think it’s exciting that we’re seeing producers [backing artistically adventurous shows], and maybe not coincidentally, but Eva Price, the lead producer of Oklahoma! and obviously Mara Isaacs and Dale Franzen, two of our four [lead producers] on Hadestown, are women, and I think when you maybe have been working…Anyway, I just…yeah.
No, go on.
Chavkin: Well, you know, I’m always struck by the fact that so many of the titans I knew coming through college, the female theater titans, were women working in the experimental world. I’m thinking about JoAnne Akalaitis, Elizabeth LeCompte, Anne Bogart…
Chavkin: Tina Landau, absolutely, and Anne Hamburger on the producing side. They had this incredible commitment to risk. And I think some of the riskiest and most exciting play writing that we’re seeing today is coming from artists of color, and I think that’s coming a bit from a place of a reaction to a white-supremacist-patriarchal establishment that maybe didn’t have space for you at a certain point, and I do think that’s changing, absolutely. But the fact that I am the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season is also sadly a shameful example of how far we still have to go.
Speaking of risk-taking, a show like Taylor’s Gary was very divisive even among critics…
Chavkin: Of course it is! Taylor is committed to being challenging, so that’s going to happen.
I didn’t see the earlier productions of Hadestown, so I have to ask this from a place of ignorance: What’s changed the most in the production over its long development process?
Chavkin: Oh wow, a lot. There are two main things. One is, when we originally did it at New York Theatre Workshop, it was very much still in development, and the production at that time spanned the worlds of concert and theater, so a lot of the staging was at microphones. But the biggest thing that’s changed is that Anaïs’ writing, dramatically speaking, has just gotten so wildly more vivid, nuanced, character-driven. The characters of Hades and Persephone were always delightful, delicious, and [actors] Patrick Page and Amber Gray have then and continue now to embody them, but the characters of Orpheus and Eurydice have grown a huge amount in terms of nuance and detail.
At its core, Hadestown is a poetry piece. It’s not a prose piece. Earlier, we had made the mistake of over-literalizing and over-staging it and then undoing that mistake, and over-writing and pulling back. The clearest example of its evolution is “Wait For Me,” the song that has always been everyone’s favorite – I’m talking going back to the studio album from 2010. It’s devastatingly beautiful. The first image I had in my brain when I talked to Anaïs about the show was the lamps [editor’s note: Large hand-held mining-type lamps are used during the staging of “Wait For Me” – see video below]. The song was the story of Hermes instructing Orpheus how to get to Hadestown, and Orpheus journeying down, but there was no central event that took place. We kept giving ourselves this note that it doesn’t feel like the journey is costing Orpheus enough. Like, where is his heart? We want to feel it more. So, Anaïs one day came back and was, like, I think there’s a bridge missing. What if we see Orpheus actually have to use this song that he has discovered, this ancient song of the gods – in the Orpheus myth, there’s this idea that Orpheus was such a great singer that he could move the stones to weep. Suddenly, the whole production cracked open. We had always known that we were interested in a transformation between above-ground and below-ground, but suddenly, it was like, oh, f*ck, yeah. That’s it! That’s everything! Everything built out from that moment of [turning] a musical event, which the song had been previously, into a dramatic event. With The Fates saying, as Orpheus sings “Wait For Me,” Who are you? Who do you think you are? And he sings his song. None of that happened in the original production.
Having seen the musical, I can’t imagine Hadestown without that scene.
Chavkin: I know, I know. It’s like the core, such a clear, beautiful dramatic event that is a perfect illustration of how Anaïs has evolved over the course of making this show and how she has become a profound dramatist in addition to already being a beautiful singer and songwriter.
That makes me wonder, as you develop a musical, what impact does each performer have on it? I’m thinking of Patrick Page as Hades, with that incredibly deep bass voice that practically becomes a character in itself. I’m trying to imagine that role without that voice. Somebody else eventually will have to do it, of course.
Chavkin: Yeah, and actually, earlier we had a wonderful actor who sang the song an octave higher than Patrick, who came in during the extension at New York Theatre Workshop, and he was exquisite. On the studio album in 2010 Anaïs originally wrote Hades’ songs up [in register] and Greg Brown, the legendary folk singer from Iowa, then came in and sang them all down there in the basement, and that sound became indelible to the character.
It’s also worth remarking on this because, of course, Anaïs…not only is it rare that I’m a female director this season on Broadway, but Anais is, of course, very rare in terms of being a woman writing music and lyrics and book. There’s a little-discussed secret that every single female musical performer will tell you, which is that male composers write these impossible things for the female voice. You know, the love interest in every classic American musical sings these kind of impossible arias that sit in these crazy break places, and they are just wildly physically challenging, and Anaïs has done the opposite. Amber and Eva have both spoken very beautifully over the past year about how much they love to sing Anaïs’ music.
And Reeve and Patrick also love singing Anaïs’ music, but this is worth remarking upon because Anaïs is a woman writing for male voices. One of those voices has this impossibly high material in the rafters, and one male voice is singing, you know, from the depths of hell.
So the women in Hadestown are a sort of baseline, which is the opposite of what a musical would usually be? Hadestown is written almost literally in a female voice?
Chavkin: Exactly, exactly. It makes a difference who’s doing the writing.
I know you get this all the time, but the subject matter you work with, it’s a little arcane, no? Ancient mythology, 19th century Russia. Where does that stuff live in your brain? I have no idea how you can answer that question, but I would love to hear you try.
Chavkin: I’m not interested in doing something that I’ve already seen, because at its worst, it’s a cliché, and at its best, I’ve seen it. Maybe it was beautifully executed and therefore I don’t need to do it because I’ve seen it nailed. That’s not to say there aren’t classics that I’d be interested in working on, but usually if I see that something gets played, then I don’t need to play it. What drives me to work on new stuff is stuff that feels new, and stuff that feels deeply personal to whichever writer is producing it. We’re all individual, weird humans, and so if writers are writing something really unique unto themselves that only they could produce, then I want to be a part of that.
Is there something in your head that you’d like to get to at some point, whether a classic or new, some subject that we haven’t seen addressed?
Chavkin: Yeah, there’s a million in my brain. Jim Nicola [artistic director, New York Theatre Workshop] and I were talking a few years ago about the play Auntie Mame. The original play, not the musical. I love it so much. It hates all the right people, it celebrates all the right people, and I just identify really strongly with Mame, and I just think the original play is so damn funny. It’s so good. You just laugh out loud. So that’s a classic I hope someday I’ll get to work on.
And I really, really want to make a miniseries about the founding of the community health center movement in this country. It doesn’t feel like a theater piece, it feels like a television something. It’s a very personal story to me because of my family’s work, and it’s an incredible microcosm story through which to view the the Civil Rights Movement of the late ‘60s.
You’re talking about the community health centers in places like San Francisco?
No, no, no. The first community health centers in this country were founded simultaneously by the same group working out of Tufts – one was founded in Boston and the other was founded in the Mississippi Delta. Amongst other things they were the first place to prescribe food – and they got told “you can’t do that,” and one doctor responded, “The last time I checked the cure for malnutrition was food.”
And community health centers are still where a huge proportion of low-income Americans get their care, and middle-income Americans too – I get my f*cking health care at a community health center because I think they’re quite beautiful things, because I was raised with them in my blood via my mom and her activism and her work. So that is a story I want to tell. [Editor’s note: Chavkin’s parents are civil rights lawyers.]
You’ve sold me. Start on it next week.
Chavkin: [Laughs] Okay, good. I just need to stop directing musicals for a little while.
You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that you don’t think it’s the director’s responsibility to think in terms of commercial viability…
Chavkin: I can’t identify whether a project is a good [commercial] idea or not. It’s definitely my responsibility to be financially responsible, but that’s a very different thing. I mean, I don’t know if I would look at Hadestown and think that this is a natural Broadway show any more than I would or would not have looked that way at Comet. I look at Hadestown and think I never want to stop listening to this music. I look at Hadestown and I think Anaïs’ poetry is breathtaking. I think the politics of the piece are profound, and I look at the Wall song [“Why We Build the Wall”] and what the show has to say about fellowship and how it feels when you feel like you can change the world if you just ask the question that can change the world, if you have your lover or your fellow human by your side, and conversely how when we are made to feel alone we crumble, and leaders hold their power by making us feel that fear. And the Wall song [addresses] that, and I just think it is extraordinary. Does that sell tickets? I don’t know. Fundamentally the question of whether Hadestown was commercial or not – which our producers decided a long time ago was yes, it can be – happily that’s a question that’s either below or above my pay grade.