Ani DiFranco is 'Hadestown''s Lady of the Underground — again

A decade before Anaïs Mitchell's musical became a Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, it was an independent concept album, and DiFranco was there at the start.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Ani DiFranco knows a powerful woman when she sees one. Of course, that's because she is one. In 1990, DiFranco became one of the first female performers to found a record label, Righteous Babe, on which she has supported her entire 30-plus-year career as a singer/songwriter.

So perhaps DiFranco saw a kind of kindred spirit in the equally multitalented Anaïs Mitchell, a folk artist and the book writer, composer, and lyricist of the musical Hadestown, a reimagining of Greek mythology. From the first time she watched Mitchell perform at a bar in the early aughts, DiFranco said, "I wanted to gather my team around her that I had painstakingly put together over decades."

Of the two albums Mitchell released on Righteous Babe, neither she nor DiFranco knew that one — the 2010 concept album for Hadestown, on which DiFranco sang the part of Persephone, goddess of the underworld — would eventually develop into an eight-time Tony Award-winning phenomenon. Celebrating its fifth year at the Walter Kerr Theatre in March, Hadestown marks a full-circle moment for DiFranco as she makes her Broadway debut as Persephone.

Persephone, too, is a powerful woman, one who defies the god Hades to provide support and sanctuary for his army of underground sweatshop workers — including the young girl Eurydice. (Her lover, Orpheus, descends into Hadestown to rescue her.)

"I love the allyship between women that you can sense in the piece, and I love how that also is the context that the piece was created in," DiFranco said.

She spoke with New York Theatre Guide about her journey with Hadestown, her take on the time-honored goddess, and the next steps in her musical theatre career.

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How did your professional relationship with Anaïs Mitchell start?

I first heard Anaïs play in a bar in Buffalo called Nietzsche's back at the dawn of time. I'm not sure what, if any, recordings she had made at that time — she was very young. I was immediately struck by her music. I wanted to help her out, so I just started releasing her records on Righteous Babe.

One moment — it was probably 2009 — she sent me a cassette of her and her comrades in Vermont doing a very proto-version of Hadestown. Again, I was very struck by the songs that lay at the epicenter of the piece. She wanted to make it into a record, so I said, "Okay, we're gonna do this," and helped her put the artists together.

It's just been a long and intersecting and re-intersecting journey. When I got the call — "Hey, do you want to come play Persephone again now that Hadestown is a fully formed, genius work of theatre?" — it felt poetic to circle back around.

Did the possibility of playing Persephone on stage ever come up before?

This is pretty much the first time. I got the call six months ago or more asking if I could step in sooner than I did. I said, "No, sorry, I've got tours booked. I've got to do my own work that I'm committed to."

Then I thought about it: "It really is intriguing." So I had my manager call back and say, "She can't do it in two months, but maybe in the future." So here we are. But no, I never considered it until I got the call, and then I couldn't resist the challenge.

How is Broadway different from the other types of live performance you've done?

It feels amazing and daunting [doing] eight shows a week. I just did my first five-show weekend. And I didn't know if I was gonna make it through — I'm finding the areas of my body that are my weak links. But I'm learning a lot. It's a really different context to perform in.

I've only ever been on stage as me, doing my shows with my songs. When I'm doing my shows, I tailor them to the moment, the space I'm in, the crowd, the vibe, the situation. I'll choose different songs. I'll choose a different version of my persona to interface with. [Broadway] is not like that. It's the same songs, it's the same show, it's the same character.

Making that thing that is, in a sense, more static than I'm used to — and making it work whatever the context, whatever the atmosphere in the room or among the players — that's different and a real challenge.

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How would you describe your take on Persephone?

I'm still discovering my Persephone as I go. I received a lot of direction and input, and there's a tradition and an established template for the character that is based mostly on other people. I mean, I was the first to sing some of the songs, so there's a little bit more of me in those songs. But a lot of the material came after that initial record, so it's based on somebody else's DNA.

It's really interesting to find myself in those songs and find my way through what Persephone is known to be, or how she's known to be embodied, and how I feel her.

I'm trying to move toward the tenderness, the maternal-ness. She's, in one sense, very damaged, very colossal, self-medicated. In another sense, she's a total badass, a provider, an anchor. So just finding that delicate balance where she can be all of those things and have a lot of depth is where I'm pointing my ship.

What's it like to be part of a show shepherded by a female creative team, especially as a trailblazing woman yourself?

I love everything about that. I love that essence of connection you can feel between Persephone and Eurydice. Eurydice is this young woman who comes and sleeps with my husband, and I don't turn her into an enemy. We are not adversaries; we are allied. I find myself petitioning for her freedom, for Orpheus's freedom. I find myself protecting her, toward the end of the show, from my husband.

I love the allyship between women that you can sense in the piece, and I love how that also is the context that the piece was created in, with all these powerful women.

Which of your songs would you want to put in a musical?

I'm actually working on a theatre piece! I've just started. I also have a new album coming out, and some of the songs on that album were initially created for a theatre piece that doesn't exist yet. So some upcoming songs that people haven't heard yet but are quite literally intended for the stage. Maybe someday I can manifest this show, but we'll see.

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