Diversity and the Dynamic Women Behind 'Hadestown'
Creating a new benchmark for Broadway, Hadestown demanded that theater make space for diverse voices. The show’s modern premise reflects the values of our changing culture through a transformative musical experience that reimagines Greek mythology. In 2019, it garnered 14 TONY nominations, winning eight of them, including Best New Musical. Critics praised the show as a “theatrically resonant tale” (Elysa Gardner, New York Stage Review), and “a haunting gut-punch of a new musical” (Naveen Kumar, Towleroad). Hadestown will go down in history as one of Broadway’s most celebrated productions, but beyond its critical acclaim, it is the show’s diversity that cements the musical’s lasting influence.
One recipe for a great musical is the union of an innovative writer and an insightful director, unafraid of expanding that writer’s vision beyond the page. Anaïs Mitchell, writer of Hadestown’s book, music, and lyrics, and director Rachel Chavkin, the women behind the show’s greatness, accentuate and deepen each other’s strengths. Between them, they found compatibility, commitment to the project, and the meaning of excellence. It was a mutual respect for each other’s art that sparked their union. “You know, I had no idea Rachel was a woman when I fell in love with her work,” says Mitchell. “We sought out the folks whose work we responded to most, and many of them were women.” Much of Hadestown’s production and technical team include women at the forefront. Such a dynamic is a rarity on Broadway, but paid great dividends for Hadestown. “I will say it was an extraordinarily empowering experience working with so many women. I felt my instincts were really trusted,” says Mitchell. Hadestown’s great success shows that diversity is not simply about gender or racial differences; it is also about differences in background and mindset.
Mitchell was introduced to Chavkin’s work in 2012 when she saw the Ars Nova production of Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. “I was completely awestruck, and I thought, ‘Who’s that director?’ It turned out to be Rachel,” Mitchell says. The production later moved to Broadway and earned Chavkin her first TONY nomination. Mitchell’s discovery of Chavkin’s work came at a valuable time in Hadestown’s development. Initially a DIY community theater project in Vermont, Mitchell would develop the show into a studio album and then a touring concert. But Hadestown would prove to need the influence of Chavkin before it could reach its fullest potential as the folk opera that thrilled Broadway audiences. Mitchell decided to seek out Chavkin’s talents while trying to develop Hadestown into a full-length professional musical. “Great Comet, like many of Rachel’s shows, had this combination of highly accessible Broadway-style entertainment and also real unapologetic downtown weirdness,” remembers Mitchell, admiringly. “Rachel has a great feel for music and musicals and how to bring the best aspects of concert culture into the theater.” Hadestown became a product of each artist’s greatest strengths, blending Mitchell’s eloquent songbook with Chavkin’s innovative directorial style.
Chavkin says that she was drawn to Hadestown because of its poetic nature, admiring its balance of innovation and tradition: “I've never encountered a score that feels so singular in its style while still taking up some of the storytelling rules that musical theater goes by.” Although Chavkin says Hadestown is the hardest show she’s ever directed, Mitchell liked the way Chavkin challenged her and the show. “Rachel’s a gifted dramaturg and she’s not afraid to really roll up her sleeves in the development process of a show. We worked together for three years before we got an off-Broadway production, and three more before we landed on Broadway,” says Mitchell, adding: “Rachel [gave me] ‘tough love’ and she pushed me—a songwriter with almost no dramatic writing experience—to write and rewrite until the drama was satisfying.”
Chavkin’s contributions helped escort Hadestown to Broadway’s pinnacle, where she was also recognized for excellence. She was the only woman nominated for a 2019 TONY in the Best Direction of a Musical category, which she won. “Women are very well represented on Broadway as performers and as writers, but when you look at the small number of women directing on Broadway it is shocking and more than a little depressing,” wrote Wicked producer David Stone in 2005. Little changed in the 15 years between Stone’s article and Chavkin’s win, and so Chavkin used the platform of her acceptance speech to advocate for the hiring of women and people of color in theatre: “There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment, too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”
When assembling teams for her productions, Chavkin draws from the best and selects the most talented artists. By intentionally embracing inclusivity, she builds a diverse company that understands the needs of a global audience. “I think diversity is inextricable from excellence, and I think all too often people, and in particular the dominant culture tends to frame it as a choice that you have to make between diversity and excellence. And I personally think it's the opposite,” Chavkin assures. “I think a [diverse] room is far more interesting, just purely on a dramatic level. It's so much better stylistically, emotionally to have varied voices. And so, with Hadestown specifically, we have reaffirmed time and again that racial diversity in particular is core to our vision of excellence.”
Although there are numerous notable women working off-stage and challenge the status quo, Hadestown’s lead producer, Mara Isaacs says there’s still more work to be done. “Hadestown is built on a set of core values – the power of community, equity, diversity, and inclusion," says lead producer Isaacs. "We are proud of the incredible women who helm this production and the talented and diverse company that brings it to life, but we recognize that there is always more work to do. We must continue to strive for equity – gender, racial, and otherwise – throughout our industry, not just on stage. This is a challenge that we must recommit to every single day.”
“Theater depicts and celebrates humanity, and humanity is diverse,” asserts Mitchell. And so, thanks to the shared commitments of its creators, Hadestown strives for connection to every human experience, showing diversity to be colorful, productive, and exciting.
Onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre
April 26 – May 29, 2022