It never occurred to Anais Mitchell, the Tony-winning composer of “Hadestown,” that the little show she birthed in Vermont 17 years ago would make it to Broadway, let alone the annals of the nation’s most prestigious archives. Yet here she is on Tuesday at the Library of Congress, with posters, recordings and manuscripts of her musical accepted by the institution for permanent storage.
As far as anyone in the library could remember, the introduction of Hadestown material into the music department’s collection was the first time a musical had donated so many documents and artifacts to development while still in its original run on Broadway. The occasion called for a celebration from the show, which sent two dozen actors, musicians and support staff to perform in the library for an audience of 500 DC-area students.
“It’s great to feel like you’re becoming part of history,” said Mitchell, a folk singer-songwriter whose musical retells the touchingly romantic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with jazz, blues and pop. “The thing that makes me feel proud is that America is our culture and the arts.”
Hadestown officially opened on Broadway in April 2019 and quickly became a hit that even the pandemic shutdown couldn’t derail. The show at the Walter Kerr Theater has recorded over 1,200 performances and consistently plays to sold-out houses. The reception for his national tour, which included a stop at the Kennedy Center in 2021, was just as strong.
“History of Musical Theater”
The case for inclusion among the Library of Congress’s 650 performing arts collections selected as part of its music archives was not only the show’s success, but also its literary ambitions. The library is home to multiple editions of Monteverdi’s Orpheus, often called the first opera, and like Hadestown, is based on the myth of Orpheus, who travels to Hell to rescue his beloved Eurydice.
“We were really excited because of its important place in the history of musical theater,” said Nicholas Brown, assistant head of the library’s music department. “By adding material from a contemporary and influential Broadway show like Hadestown, library curators can highlight connections to individual materials from previous eras.” The library’s musical theater collections are significant and collecting the work of contemporary artists and productions is an important part of how to ensure that the evolution of the genre is documented, preserved and accessible for future generations.”
Under the leadership of Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the library has become increasingly active in bringing performance history documents to life. A visit to the library by the cast of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago, organized by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., cemented the Broadway connection. The connection to the theater, of course, has always been strong on paper—the library houses important collections of towering figures in musical theater, including Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Leonard Bernstein.
As is often true, life is all about relationships. The Mockingbird visit forged a relationship with Broadway publicist Rick Miramontez, who presented Mockingbird and also handled Hadestown. This helped pave the way for the “Hadestown” donation.
“It’s really meaningful to the people who make art, who work their whole lives to create something that lasts beyond the moment,” said Mara Isaacs, one of Hadestown’s executive producers, who traveled to Washington with the cast . “For a piece of art to have such resonance so that future generations can look at it – that’s the dream.”
Isaacs accidentally plucks one of the countless objects the library will hold: the tenor guitar played by Reeve Carney, the original Orpheus in the 2018 London production of Hadestown. For several years, Isaacs said, the instrument sat in a closet in her New Jersey home. She giggled appreciatively at the thought of the guitar’s new archival significance.
Other donated memorabilia spans the extraordinarily long gestation period of “Hadestown,” among them: a postcard from a 2006 community theater production of “Hadestown” in Vermont, sample copies of a 2010 concept album, and Mitchell’s voice notes for musical numbers while the production was being prepared for Broadway under the direction of Rachel Chavkin.
Pop singer Betty Ko, a recent addition to the production as Persephone, wife of Hades (Philip Boykin), said she found new inspiration in being invited to the library to perform. All of the show’s principals were in attendance at the library theater Tuesday, including Carney, Boykin, Solea Pfeiffer as Eurydice and Lilias White as Hermes, as well as the actresses playing the three Fates and five members of Hades’ worker chorus.
“It confirms for me the transformative power of music,” noted Betty Coy (born Jessica Ann Newham). That music, for a noisy room full of DC-area teenagers, was a mini-concert of eight “Hadestown” numbers, including “All I’ve Ever Known,” “Way Down Hadestown,” “Our Lady of the Underground” and “Wait for me.”
For most of the performance, Mitchell sat in the second row of the auditorium, playing his own compositions (the seven-piece Broadway band, conducted by Liam Robinson, provided accompaniment). At times she seemed overcome by the improbability of the moment. “There are so many things in this show,” she said, “that I didn’t expect.”