In the three and a half years since Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown premiered Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, the folk opera has gone through a number of changes. Songs have been added or rewritten; an entire chorus of workers was incorporated to fill out the world of the piece; and the show’s themes, while maintaining their core DNA, have been explored, expanded, and focused.
And while the many facets of the show’s design have shifted or even changed drastically, one fact has remained: the rich imagination behind them.
“It’s an entirely imagined world with, as written, no rules or boundaries whatsoever,” says Tony-nominated costume designer Michael Krass. “[We] had to share our emotional responses to the music and the characters, and the gig became to somehow physicalize those very personal and differing dreams.”
"Hadestown is a fantastically challenging show to design," adds Tony-winning set designer Rachel Hauck. "It is an epic story of myth and of men, it requires a world that is somehow home to both. The music and lyrics are pure poetry and they dont take to literal staging. The set doesn’t want to actually be the railroad tracks or the train station, but it needs to be able to become those things, the audience needs to be able to imagine them."
When audiences arrive at the Walter Kerr Theatre for the latest iteration of Hadestown—now a smash hit on Broadway—they are transported to a warm, gritty, Americana-infused barroom. This wolrd is the collective product of a design team which includes Krass, Tony-winning set designer Rachel Hauck, Tony-winning lighting designer Bradley King, and Tony-winning sound designers Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz. But what does it take to put their designs into practice for each performance of the Tony-winning Best Musical?
Continue below for a glimpse at how the team behind Hadestown prepares for each performance, beginning one hour before the audience arrives.
It’s a Tuesday evening; audiences are set to begin filing into the Walter Kerr at 6:30 for a 7:05 curtain. Patrons are lining up outside the theatre, while others make last-minute ticket purchases at the box office. But inside the theatre, a flurry of activity has already begun to bring Hadestown to life.
Onstage, substitute trombonist Natalie Cressman takes her place on one side of the curved, multilevel band platform that wraps around most of the semicircular set.Tonight is her very first performance with Hadestown, and with an hour and a half until the show begins, the production is working to make sure that Cressman is as prepared as possible. A few other musicians take their places, including associate music director Cody Owen Stine at the piano. On his cue, Cressman begins to play the swing-infused trombone solo that starts the show . . . and the stage comes alive with sound.
"The music is the heart of everything on this show," says Hauck. "Hadestown has always been music first, band first. We knew that keeping the band at the center of everything would be essential, so center stage the band started, and center stage the band remains. As part of the music-first nature of the show, we embraced the using of microphones as props. Evelyn, the double headed mic (which is made by Ear Trumpet Labs in Oregon) was part of the original production at NYTW and we are still using the same actual mic on Broadway. Amazingly, it’s hanging on after all these years, though there is a double standing by backstage just in case."
Simultaneously with the band’s sound check, the crew is also conducting lighting tests. Moving lights track around the set, constantly cycling through shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns; the back wall shifts through different hues and intensities of blue. From above the set, rusted industrial lamps are lowered so that the cables can be checked for the proper length. The lights are later swung on their cables during the number “Wait For Me”, arcing out over the first few rows of the audience; but if the cables aren’t set at the correct length, the effect could be ruined.
"The swinging copper lights used in Wait for Me were one of Rachel’s first images for the show," explains Hauck. "At NYTW, there were two simple warehouse lights that were used in much the same way. Now there are five lights used in the choreography and two more that are just in the bar. The lights were custom made for the London production to look and feel much more like they are part of our old bar with its New Orleans flavor. They are also custom made so we can accommodate the needs of the dancers and the choreography. When they swing over the heads of the audience, they are heartbreaking. Its such a simple gesture that speaks to the soul. They have become iconic elements of the show."
As the sound and lighting checks continue, the set begins to move—the crew is testing the wagons which help the set split apart and expand to reveal the industrial world of Hadestown. The timing of this test is deliberate, tonight; Cressman is “given a ride” on the set so that she has a chance to experience it before that pivotal moment in the show.
Around the stage, props and instruments are placed. A stage left table is adorned with props used by Tony winner André De Shields’ Hermes, including a five-chime aluminum train whistle, a plethora of coins, and a silvery coin purse. Elsewhere, an accordion waits to be played by cast member Jewelle Blackman, who portrays one of the three Fates; a woven bag full of flowers sits atop the piano, from which actress Amber Gray (Persephone) will pluck it during her entrance in the number “Livin’ it Up on Top.”
The upstage balcony hosts both Persephone’s white fur coat and the long, leather trench coat worn by actor Patrick Page as Hades, king of the underworld. Antique glass bottles and a domino set rest on a table, where they will be used by Persephone and Hades as they wait to make their entrances in the first act, surveying the action from above.
Below, the sound check has ended and members of the cast are gathering onstage for a fight call. The second act’s fight choreography is rehearsed each night before the show to ensure both accuracy and safety. At its conclusion, the cast departs for their dressing rooms and the set is returned to its initial “closed” configuration. But beneath the stage, the work is far from finished.
In the costume department, costumes are repaired, cleaned, and steamed, including the distressed leather overalls worn by the workers of Hadestown and the bright green dress worn by Persephone during her time aboveground.
“Persephone has always been in an electric shade of spring green, but her garments have shifted hugely as we experimented with finding our world,” says Krass. “She began as coy and fluid and seductive, had a moment in Canada of grecian bondage, and has now morphed into this iconic and powerfully sexual 1940s/1980s mob wife with exploding sleeves.”
Deeper into the Walter Kerr’s very own underworld, hair supervisor Kevin Thomas Garcia is hard at work prepping Persephone’s wig. Several nearly identical wigs are on standby on a shelf, their hair straight and uncurled; Garcia styles the wig fresh each night so that it can withstand the wild and energetic choreography devised for Persephone by Tony nominee David Neumann.
At this point, Cressman passes by, trombone in hand. It’s just after 6:20. “How are you doing?” Garcia asks. “Feeling good?”
“Good,” Cressman answers with a nervous smile.
Back onstage, the crew members have finished their work; tables and chairs are stacked centerstage, and the lights have been set to their preshow cue. The ushers have taken their places at the heads of each aisle. The house manager makes the call; the doors are opened, and excited audience members start to pour in.
It’s a Tuesday evening, and Hadestown is ready to begin.
Flip through even more behind-the-scenes photos from the world of Hadestown below: