REVIEW: “Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown” by Anaïs Mitchell

Hadestown is one of my favorite musicals from the last few years. It moved me in a way that many musicals fail to do. I found the whole thing utterly captivating and gorgeous. It’s one of those rare musicals where the entirety of the show is delivered through its music and lyrics. Sure, the staging plays a large part in the deliverance of the story, but there is no spoken dialogue. Everything that’s said on stage comes from the music – all of which came from the mind of Anaïs Mitchell. And that’s what makes Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown so appealing. It’s widely known how difficult writing musicals is. So, when it was announced that a book exploring the lyrics of Hadestown was due to be published, along with extensive commentary from Mitchell, I was immediately curious to see what all she’d talk about in the book. And, man, if you’re looking for insight into how composers and lyricists craft musical, this is the book for you. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

In this book, Anaïs Mitchell takes readers inside her more than decade’s-long process of building the musical from the ground up—detailing her inspiration, breaking down the lyrics, and opening up the process of creation that gave birth to Hadestown. Fans and newcomers alike will love this deeply thoughtful, revealing look at how the songs from “the underground” evolved, and became the songs we sing again and again.

Let’s be real – nobody is buying this book if they’re not a fan of Hadestown. Like, nobody is going to approach this as their gateway into the musical. So, in light of that, I don’t see the point in talking about the show itself. We all know what the story is and we all know how good the music is. What I think is far more interesting about this book is how it presents the lyrics and how vulnerable Mitchell is about her process and about the journey Hadestown took to get from its small-town Vermont roots to award-winning Broadway musical.

There’s a lot of really interesting tidbits in this book about how Mitchell pulled all the lyrics together. There are multiple instances where she shares entire stanzas of material cut from songs, with an explanation of why she’d originally written those lines and why they were subsequently cut. The whole book is a record of the hard work and dedication it takes to create a musical. And it’s also a record of how musicals are such a collaborative experience. Numerous times, Mitchell refers to conversations she had with some of her creative collaborators that led to her either willingly or reluctantly cutting a verse or a song. Sometimes, her collaborators were right and the material did need to be cut. But other times, Mitchell was right in keeping material. Or vice versa. It’s so interesting getting to track the evolution of the show and the songs and Mitchell’s commentary on each song provides a wealth of insight into her process.

As for the lyrics themselves? They’re poetry, plain and simple. The lyrics are formatted like a script – with character names designating who’s singing what line. It’s very easy to read the lyrics like poetry, but it’s even more fun to listen to the cast recording while reading the lyrics, and pause at the end of each song to read Mitchell’s commentary on the song. They’re nicely formatted and it’s always nice to have a record of exactly what’s being sung in a musical. That said, don’t expect many stage directions of the book; Working on a Song is focused primarily on the lyrics of the show. And Working on a Song does a brilliant job of focusing on those brilliant lyrics. Even if you have no interest in learning about the creation of the show, buying this book for just the lyrics, alone, is worthwhile.

At the end of the day, I really enjoyed Working on a Song. In terms of behind the scenes content, Working on a Song is exactly what I wanted it to be. There is such a wealth of information about the writing and construction of Hadestown in this book and it should prove immensely popular with hardcore fans of the show. A part of me wishes the lyrics portion of the book had also included all of the stage directions, making it more of a full libretto (in the same vein of what Hamilton did with Hamilton: The Revolution a few years ago) but that’s not a big deal. It didn’t promise me the full libretto and I shouldn’t have expected it. But I do wish it had that, just for completion’s sake. But still, Working on a Song is such a great book for fans of music, musical theatre, and Hadestown to read. As Mitchell says in her introduction, it’s not a how-to book but it is a great look at how this particular musical became what it is.

4.5 out of 5 wands.

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