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.” Continue reading