Book Review: Working on a Song, the Lyrics of Hadestown

Working on a Song: the Lyrics of HADESTOWN
Anais Mitchell

Plume, 2020

There was no way I was going to rate this anything less than five stars, given my absolute sentimentality regarding HADESTOWN. For context: I first listened to and loved the original album way back in 2010, spent years and years hoping it would one day make it to the theater, rejoiced when it premiered at the New York Theater Workshop, and proceeded to attend three times. The NYTW production was a magical experience, all three times. When the Broadway cast recording came out, I listened to bits and pieces here and there, enough to know that, unfortunately it was a disappointment compared to the original album and the NYTW production.

In reading this book, I decided to finally listen to the Broadway version fully, while reading along the lyrics and Mitchell’s explanations behind various changes she made. This was a great decision. I enjoyed the book much more this way, and it also confirmed for me that the Broadway version is my least favorite of the three albums. But reading the book helped me understand the changes that were made to the music and story, even if I didn’t necessarily like those changes.

One of the major shifts was the transformation of Orpheus’s character into a true underdog. There were hints of this happening in the NYTW production with the casting of Damon Daunno and his very Basic Hapless Vanilla White Boy performance. In Broadway they take this even further, stripping Orpheus of any hints of vanity and selfishness and instead turning him into a pure, naive soul. This is precisely the opposite of how I view HADESTOWN’s Orpheus.

To me, he is Hades’s foil, yes, but the two have a lot in common: there is a lot of chaos and darkness to Orpheus. There is something to the stereotype of the cruel, tortured artist to him, in my opinion: his vanity, selfishness, and pride, in addition to his idealism, are his fatal flaws. I’ve always wanted the casting for him to reflect this complexity and darkness, which is why I prefer bass singers rather than falsetto ones for his character. Reading Mitchell’s justifications for this dramatic shifted helped, though — I completely understand why she would need the audience to sympathize with Orpheus. And also, maybe once he’s played by someone who is not Reeve Carney, he’ll come off better.

Mostly, though, my issue with the Broadway album is that it feels so tame in comparison with the NYTW production. Perhaps this is because I have my memories of attending NYTW live, but I feel like even on the cast recordings, the Broadway version is so musically toned down, seeming to have lost much of its chaotic wildness that made the NYTW production feel like a riotous party. I don’t know anything about music so forgive me if it sounds like I’m speaking totally out of my ass here, but it felt like even the musical notes were clamped down, made to be calmer, more refined, in a way that was detrimental to the overall feel of the show. It’s an odd choice given the decision to make the Broadway version more overtly political–as director Rachel Chavkin said, to mirror the “romantic commitment to a broader societal commitment.” If you’re going to go bigger thematically, why not go a lot bigger musically?

But! I’m trying to review a book, not a musical, so to get back to that: this is an absolutely excellent read for any fan of HADESTOWN, but also for any artist in general. I absolutely love the way Mitchell speaks of her relationship to art and music; you can see so clearly how much her passion for the arts shines through. She speaks of the magic of constructing a narrative through song. She has such a genuine love of language and words, encapsulated perfectly when she expresses her fondness for slant rhymes:

“Never before I entered the world of theater did I find people so dogmatic about true or “perfect” end rhymes. What puzzles me about it is this: the sound of words, the weaving together of them, is about so much more than end rhyme. It’s consonance, assonance, internal rhymes wherever they can be discreetly woven in. I appreciate these devices because they don’t call attention to themselves; the seams don’t show. The perfect end rhyme waves its arms and shouts, “Look, Ma, I made a rhyme!” There’s a place for that kind of satisfying resolution, just as there’s a place for a “button” in music. But there’s also a place for the mystical, the modal, and the unresolved.”

It was also lovely to see the lyrics she had written and abandoned, or changed in some way. She is such a skilled writer: the poetic beauty of her words, the resonance of them, the way they rhyme and merge and allude to myths and overarching themes…it’s absolutely brilliant. It was a genuine delight to read some of her older work, especially as she several times states that she adores poetic imagery and grieved at having to cut some of that abstract imagery for the stage, to make things more concrete for audiences.

There is also such a love of the theater and the messy process of coming together to create something as collaborative as a musical. It reminded me of just how much I love live theater; even as an audience member, you can feel how much collaborative effort goes into constructing a show. Reiterated constantly throughout the book is Mitchell’s love of the process itself — of creating, of trying to create, of failing again and again, the frustrations and pitfalls of writing and drafting and rewriting and revising, of making sure everything, from story to staging to lyrics to notes, comes together cohesively. She has such a keen understanding of art, and what it takes to make good art:

“I know that Hadestown is–and this goes for any creative endeavor, I reckon–so much more than what meets the eye or the ear. What is seen and heard onstage is the blooming flower, but most of the plant is underground. Every line, verse, or chorus–every idea any of us who worked on it ever had, even the ones that never saw the light of day–they’re down there. They’re the roots of the plant, and the flower wouldn’t exist without them. The ones who bloom in the bitter snow bloom because they are supported below by a thousand tries and failures.”

This peek into Mitchell’s process really is a love letter to art, creation, writing, music, theater, collaboration. At the close of the book, she states that the process of writing has for her been one of failing repeatedly, but that there is value and strength in trying again (and failing again!), that there is value in the attempt itself, which, for any writer, is a wonderful message to take away.

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