From the very beginning, Hadestown was intended to be a musical that would embrace the audience.
So when the Anaïs Mitchell musical originally premiered Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, scenic designer Rachel Hauck conceived a space in the round to convey “the generosity of that idea.”
Though the set onstage today at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre varies vastly from NYTW’s “Greek amphitheatre in a barn,” Hauck’s now Tony-winning design hearkens back to the original inspiration of community. The designer created a semicircular bar so its walls curve to hug the audience. She removed two rows of seats in the orchestra to extend the stage into the crowd. “The intimacy of how it comes into the house and lets the audience be a part of this,” she says, “it feels like an old friend.”
That feeling of intimacy is at the core of the show. “If you ever lose the intimacy, you lose the context of Anaïs’ music. And if you lose your relationship to the music, you’re sunk,” says Hauck.
To keep the focus on the music and maintain a mysticism about the characters and their story, Hauck and director Rachel Chavkin opted for abstraction over realism, a choice that allowed Hauck to play with dualities.
At first glance you see a dilapidated yet romanticized jazz club with wood floors caked in beer and plaster walls logged with water. Look again and you’ll notice the rot is simultaneously the industrial underworld. The bar’s blue-green walls create a decay; blink, and suddenly they become the sky for Orpheus and Eurydice’s poetic outdoor summer scenes.
But the duplicity intentionally hides in plain sight. “Rachel said to me, ‘It should feel like the bar is a cog in the giant machine that is Hadestown,’” Hauck recalls.
When the bar cleaves to expose the depths of hell, the true mechanism of that cog is revealed. “These [bartops] don’t move very far, but it feels like somebody’s ripping your chest out when it happens because it’s so emotional to see it split,” says Hauck. The simple design echoes the romanticism, conflict, desire, and loss all wrapped up in Hadestown.
In the end, the whole world reassembles. “It’s the circular nature. You’re right back where you started as soon as it ended,” says Hauck, “and we’re going to try again.” Therein lies Hauck’s triumph, her ultimate duality: the end is just the beginning.