More than a decade ago, Anaïs Mitchell was running late for one of her shows. The singer-songwriter, in her 20s at the time, was trying to get from one gig to another and found herself lost. Along the drive, a song lyric popped into her head. "The lines that came were, 'Wait for me I'm coming. In my garters and pearls with what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld,'" she remembers.
Those lyrics never made it into one of Mitchell's productions, but as the musician says, they pointed her to the story of Eurydice, the Greek myth that follows two lovers, Eurydice and Orpheus. Eurydice goes to the underworld and Orpheus follows to bring her back. In the story, Orpheus sings a song so sweet, it melts the heart of Hades.
Mitchell's fascination with this story has taken her on journey across mediums, one that is as winding as her hero's quest. She's turned these lyrics into a song, then a concept album in 2010 called Hadestown, stage productions in the U.S., Canada and London and on April 17, Hadestown finally opened on Broadway.
In Mitchell's DIY folk-opera, Mitchell makes some changes to the myth. In Mitchell's version, Eurydice chooses to go to the underworld.
"The underworld is a place of wealth and security, in contrast to the above ground world where there's freedom but it's also unpredictable and the weather is unpredictable," Mitchell explains. "And Eurydice makes a choice. She chooses the security of Hadestown, which comes with this kind of lifelessness. So she chooses kind of her gut. She chooses her stomach over her heart."
When tackling the show's climax, Mitchell admits it was no easy task to write a song that melts the heart of King Hades.
"I just can't tell you how many times I've rewritten it," Mitchell says. "I mean, there's just like sheets and sheets on the cutting room floor of the epics. It's totally ridiculous. But I think that what we hit upon a couple productions ago that took some pressure off and made a lot of sense is that the gift that Orpheus brings to King Hades isn't necessarily like the eloquence of his poetry. It's actually that he has channeled this melody."
As Mitchell explains, there's no words that approach the simple beauty of his melody. "He even says that to the king: 'There were no words for the way that you felt. So you open your mouth and you started to sing.'"
Mitchell's song "Build The Wall," was written in 2006 and appears in the production when Hades sings it, supported by this chorus of workers in the underworld. With today's current debate over border control, reality has caught up to the fiction Mitchell created.
"That was one of those songs that just felt like it was a gift, like, I didn't even know what it meant when it came," Mitchell says. "For so long, I've played that song. Then to start to hear that language during the campaign. Here we are and it's still happening ... I don't quite understand it. It feels like a collective unconscious weird thing. And I'm not the first person to write a song about a wall. There's many, but I think that it's like an image that speaks to people and it's an image that works well on people who feel scared."
Mitchell spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the themes of Hadestown imitating life, the beauty of Greek tragedy and the road to Broadway. Hear their conversation at the audio link.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
House Democrats are divided over how Congress should respond to special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement today saying the president's behavior described in the report is, quote, "at a minimum unethical and unscrupulous." However, she continued to caution against impeachment.
Earlier today, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn, and House Democrats held a conference call this evening. Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina was on that call and joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
JIM CLYBURN: Thank you so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: So Speaker Pelosi has been trying to discourage House Democrats from pursuing impeachment. Do you think this evening's conference call brought the party any closer to consensus?
CLYBURN: Oh, I think so. I think consensus had been there for a while. The problem here is whether or not that term is being used or whether we are satisfied that pursuing a course of action that we have been pursuing all the time. We have six committees, and those six chairs have been active in this process. Some of this process deals with the president's finances, and there is a committee for that.
Maxine Waters, as you know, have been talking about Deutsche Bank and its relationship to this president and its record in these kinds of activities. So she and her committee are pursuing that. Jerry Nadler is chair of Judiciary, and he is looking at those issues involved in his committee. And we are going to be doing that. Ways and Means has asked for the tax records, and they are pursuing that. There are various roadmaps that have been laid out by Mueller, and we are following them committee by committee.
SHAPIRO: I hear you arguing that investigations are an adequate response. The counterargument is that if there is no impeachment proceeding, then there is no accountability for behavior described in the Mueller report that includes using material from a foreign adversary that was obtained illegally. How do you respond to that argument?
CLYBURN: Well, I think accountability is more than you get there. Just because we aren't leaping there tomorrow, as I said on the call today - I'm a history major, and one of the reasons for that is because I did not like going through the steps one had to go through in trying to solve a math problem even when you know their answer. We may know where this will lead, but we need to lay out a process and go through that process to make sure we don't do anything that will short circuit.
SHAPIRO: Are you arguing that impeachment could still be on the table depending on how these investigations turn out? Or do you agree...
SHAPIRO: ...With some of your colleagues that in lieu of impeachment, the 2020 election is the moment to hold the president accountable?
CLYBURN: Impeachment is still on the table. It has never been taken off the table. We just don't want to try to rush to something without going through the proper process. It happens in courtrooms all the time. You lay out your case. You go through the process, and then you get to the conclusion. Why should you jump to the conclusion before going through the proper process? So that's what we're trying to do here.
SHAPIRO: As you know, there are House Democrats who disagree with you on this. Do you worry that the question will continue to divide your party and get in the way of policy priorities that you would like to see the party pursue?
CLYBURN: Well, no, I'm not worried about that at all because the speaker is where she thinks - where I think she needs to be. I'm where she is, and so is the majority leader. So sentiments are there, and people are free to hold onto them. They know what their districts are, and maybe that's what their constituents want to hear them say. We all have two sets of constituents - the ones that vote for us out in the ballot box and the one that vote for us when we get into our caucuses.
SHAPIRO: That's House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Democratic congressman of South Carolina. Thanks so much.
CLYBURN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.