“That image,” Chavkin says, “was basically the first image I ever shared with Anaïs as part of the conversation about whether we were going to work together.”
Chavkin’s vision for “Hadestown,” a jazzy, folk rock-fueled adaptation of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, was mapped out over six subsequent years, with productions off-Broadway in 2016; in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2017; in London in 2018; and on Broadway in 2019. Critical acclaim, box office success and eight Tony Awards followed. This week, the ongoing Broadway production’s national tour officially launches at the Kennedy Center.
By this point, those lamps and the rest of the “Wait for Me” staging are a foundational part of “Hadestown’s” iconography. The pivotal song arrives late in Act 1, when Hermes, the god of roads and messages, helps Orpheus travel the perilous path to hell so he can reunite with his lover Eurydice, who has been lured there by Hades, the god of the underworld. As the musical’s location morphs from a New Orleans-inspired speakeasy to an industrial wasteland, the entrancing lights combine with turntable-spun choreography, Mitchell’s ethereal score and an audacious set transformation to achieve a true coup de theatre.
“The trick is it looks so simple, right? But technically what’s happening up there is very complicated,” scenic designer Rachel Hauck says. “To get the simplest, purest, most beautiful thing of the lights swinging, it took all of those [previous] productions to arrive at this design.”
The stripped-down off-Broadway version of “Wait for Me” featured just two of the eventual five lamps and scarce other stagecraft. The Edmonton production then introduced the concentric turntables and a modest take on the mid-show set makeover, which was executed via old-school stage curtain magic.
Audiences, however, consistently provided two notes: That the journey to Hadestown seemed too straightforward and that they weren’t connecting to Orpheus as a character. So Mitchell worked to address both issues by writing a new bridge for “Wait for Me” in which Orpheus sings a heavenly, wordless melody that, in a moment partially inspired by Mitchell’s viewing of the 2016 animated film “Moana,” cracks open the walls of Hadestown and grants him passage.
“The idea of returning the stone to the heart of the volcano and reestablishing peace and balance, that deeply resonated with [Mitchell],” Chavkin says, referring to the climax of “Moana.” “It put together this idea for her of Orpheus somehow having found this melody from the gods, and ultimately returning it to them, and that melody having these magic powers.”
When “Hadestown” relocated to London, and Hauck crafted the prohibition-era bar where most of the first act now takes place, that set was designed to break apart, expand and reveal the underworld beneath as Orpheus sings his melody. Co-orchestrator Todd Sickafoose responded to that flourish with one of his own, embellishing Mitchell’s score with a propulsive violin arpeggio in tune with the scene’s growing grandeur.
“He played me the new orchestrations for the bridge, and it had that incredibly haunting violin line after Orpheus sings the first ‘la la la la la la’ . . . and it was just like, ‘Oh, [hell] yeah,’ ” Chavkin says. “We had these lessons and we sort of didn’t know how to put them together. Then Anaïs made this leap, which led me and Rachel to make this leap, which then led our orchestrators to make this leap.”
Although Hermes and Orpheus lead the vocals on “Wait for Me,” it’s the five-member workers’ chorus that carries the number’s visual weight. Sporting leather overalls, tattered shirts and darkness-piercing headlamps, the ensemble members traverse the rotating turntables while performing rigid, laborious motions that match the underworld’s mechanized aesthetic.
And, perhaps most vitally, they’re the guardians of those oversized, vintage lamps that come to hang from above. As Orpheus belts the chorus to “Wait for Me,” the workers must push those lamps at exactly the right angle and speed so that they hypnotically float toward the audience — ideally, without crashing into each other.
“Every time we have a new company, it takes many, many, many hours over days to get the lamp swinging exactly right,” Chavkin says. “Because it’s the simplest move, but if you [mess] it up, then it’s really problematic.”
“The floor is moving at that time, and it’s dark and there’s smoke, so it’s just a lot of things at once,” adds Will Mann, a chorus member in the touring production. “It has to be very precise, and we have to be in sync in order for [the number] to fly.”
As a showstopper that conveys an arduous journey into the unknown, “Wait for Me” proved to be an apt metaphor for its own years-long creation. But the tinkering didn’t extend to the tour: Although Chavkin and Hauck acknowledged there will be minor differences from the Broadway staging throughout the show, necessitated by the logistics and limitations of taking the set on the road, they say that “Wait for Me” remains mostly untouched.
“It is this moment in the piece when you have to go from the beauty of the aboveground to the real terror of the belowground in the world that is Hadestown. And to be able to create a gesture of that size, I just feel incredibly lucky for the journey,” Hauck says. “We built it and built it, and when we finally found it, we all knew. We all knew it was incredibly powerful and emotional.”
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org.
Dates: Through Oct. 31.