Way beyond Hadestown: the windswept rush of folk musicals

In 2011, I watched a flock of British folk luminaries, led by US singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, perform Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown at London’s Union Chapel. Ten years on, Hadestown has been a hit at the National Theatre and on Broadway and has led the way for an increasing number of songwriters to merge folk and musical theatre.

“Hadestown was inspiring to quite a lot of us,” says Maz O’Connor, who is among the singer-songwriters to make that leap. “It showed that you don’t have to identify as a music-theatre composer, you can just be a songwriter and work in a longer form. It made me realise I might already have the tools to do it.”

O’Connor performed in the RSC’s 2013 staging of As You Like It, which featured a score by Laura Marling, and in the folk-inspired “play with songs” Narvik in 2017. Now, she is developing her first musical, The Wife of Michael Cleary, based on the true story of Irish dressmaker Bridget Cleary, killed in 1895 by her husband who believed she had been abducted by fairies and replaced with a changeling. “There’s a lot of folk songs where women get murdered by their lovers, but it’s quite difficult to find a context to sing them in,” says O’Connor. “This piece allows me to have an opportunity to explore and contextualise it, rather than just sing a murder ballad.” The musical, she says, will suggest “how nationalism, folklore, superstition, religion and patriarchy all work together to create violence against women”.

a woman standing on a stage: Bethany Tennick as Eilidh, and Kirsty Findlay as Arran in Islander. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/the Guardian© Provided by The Guardian Bethany Tennick as Eilidh, and Kirsty Findlay as Arran in Islander. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/the Guardian

Finn Anderson’s folk musical Islander was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe in 2019 and has since been released as an album and adapted for BBC Radio 4. A two-hander about a girl whose life is changed when a mysterious stranger washes up on the shore of her island home, it is steeped in folk traditions of both music and storytelling. It also feels very contemporary, the songs built up in layers of beautiful vocal harmonies using live looping. “I’m always interested in innovation versus tradition,” Anderson tells me. “Traditional music wants to be alive, and wants to always be breathing and living.”

Like Hadestown, Islander grew from the grassroots. Before it was an album, featuring Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Hadestown began as a “DIY theatre project” in 2006 featuring a cast of fringe performers and musicians from Mitchell’s home state of Vermont. Islander began by touring community centres across the Highlands and islands of Scotland. “The response we got in those communities,” remembers Anderson fondly, “it doesn’t matter where it goes next, that’s still the best response we could have hoped for.”

Folk music was also powerfully brought into a theatrical environment with Karine Polwart’s Wind Resistance. Watching it in the grand surroundings of Edinburgh’s Lyceum theatre, it struck me how well the music suited such a setting. Rather than lose any of the intimacy that is embedded in a folk club, the narrative side of the songs became more pronounced. Theatre crowds come ready to listen to stories and drama in a way that music crowds perhaps don’t, and so the narratives within Polwart’s music were able to be teased out.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, folk music has become important to theatres in the past year as a way of engaging with communities during the pandemic. Lyth Arts Centre in Caithness, in Scotland’s north, has begun a collaboration with folk musician Morag Currie as its new environment artist in residence, “exploring what marine renewables mean to the community,” says co-director Charlotte Mountford. Currie will create new music with locals, visit schools and community centres, explore traditional maritime music from the area, and embed herself within institutions such as the University of Highlands and Islands’ environmental research institute. The end goal is an audiovisual project focused around the Pentland Firth, the powerful tidal stream between Caithness and Orkney. “The rural places where a lot of renewable energy comes from get ignored in the conversation,” says Mountford. “Morag’s going to be exploring that using traditional music.”

This follows a run of five artist-in-residency schemes that the centre introduced during the pandemic, in order to “work with local musicians and artists on a much deeper level,” as opposed to focusing their community outreach around touring shows from Edinburgh and Glasgow. One of these, poet and playwright George Gunn’s Words on the Wind project, involved delivering writing workshops in schools, and writing a series of poems to be performed by local people, helping to create “one big poem about Caithness”.

Amber Gray et al. performing on stage in front of a crowd: Amber Gray, centre, with the Broadway cast of Hadestown in 2019. Photograph: Walter McBride/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian Amber Gray, centre, with the Broadway cast of Hadestown in 2019. Photograph: Walter McBride/Getty Images

Witnessing the confluence of folk music and theatre since that Union Chapel show 10 years ago has shaped my own songwriting. In the past year or so I’ve started to work on a folk musical about the town of Centralia, the site of the worst underground mine fire in American history, which began in 1962 and is predicted to burn for another century, the town now having been wiped off the map. The story was the backdrop for the horror film Silent Hill, but in my research struck me as a deeply human tragedy for a tight-knit community, already dealing with the effects of post-industrialisation. Folk music has often reached for the stories of these small communities as a way to say something broader about how vulnerable people are treated in society, and it struck me that the parallels between what happened in Centralia, and what’s currently happening with the Flint water crisis, for example, are stark. With support from Edinburgh’s Magnetic North Theatre Company I developed the show over lockdown, and this month will be undertaking a first week of theatrical development.

I’ve not approached this new project any differently from writing the folk songs that have appeared on my records. “The common denominator is storytelling, which both forms do so well,” Anaïs Mitchell tells me. “I don’t like territorialism when it comes to music,” she continues. “It’s like, am I moved, or not? I love how many folks are crossing over from music into music theatre. It can only add vitality to both forms.”

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