Last Sunday night, Tony-winning director Rachel Chavkin’s acceptance speech set the internet ablaze with a call-to-arms about diversity on Broadway, asking theater producers (and their counterparts in other industries) to hire artists of color and women artists. “It’s not a pipeline issue,” said Chavkin, who was the only woman to direct a Broadway musical this season. “It’s a failure of imagination.” On stage, Chavkin championed Hadestown, which uses the mythological love stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone as vehicles to discuss workers’ rights, climate change, and authoritarian leadership. (To dive into the show’s folksy New Orleans milieu, check out Hadestown‘s performance from the 73rd Annual Tony Awards, starring Reeve Carney.) The show won eight of its 14 nominations at the Tonys, including best musical, best director, and best original score for singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. It’s the first musical by an all-female principal team to win best musical.
Next up, the Maryland native dives into her next set of projects: Lempicka, a feminist paean to the midcentury Russian artist Tamara de Lempicka, living in Paris between world wars; Annie Salem, an adaptation of Mac Wellman’s 1996 novel, which uses science fiction to understand racism in the post-industrial Rust Belt; and Moby-Dick, her next collaboration with Dave Malloy (of 2017’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, for which Chavkin earned her first Tony nod). “We’re trying to use the ‘great American novel’ to wrestle with twenty-first century America,” she says. “It deals with white supremacy—the whiteness of the whale takes on loaded significance in this adaptation—but also climate change. What’s our relationship to nature as hunters, consumers of nature?”
Chavkin spoke with ELLE.com about her rousing Tony Awards moment, why it resonated beyond Broadway, and the Hadestown moment that “brings down the house every night.”
How long had you been working on your speech?
I’d been working on it on and off since the nominations came out. Amber Gray [who plays Hadestown’s Persephone] and I often take the same subway home, so she and I sat with each other and read each other our drafts. We were almost like sports coaches drilling each other. She said, “You have to make sure you get to the second half, because it’s too important for you not to say.”
And how did you decide on the performance, a mashup of original choreography with Orpheus (Reeve Carney) singing “Wait For Me”?
The producers at the Tonys strongly encouraged us to do it. I was actually nervous about translating the stagecraft to the Tonys stage. But “Wait For Me” was the first song that I fell in love with on the album—and I think I’m not alone in that. It’s a moment that brings down the house every night.
How long did you have to pull it together?
It happened so fast. Anaïs [Mitchell] gave us that beautiful intro she wrote, and Team Choreography and I had a couple days to plan. We had two rehearsals in studio, and then a rehearsal and a half at Radio City. They gave us the extra half rehearsal to practice the swinging lights, because it’s so delicate.
Do you have a favorite scene in Hadestown?
Fairly consistently, it’s been the workers’ chorus in “Wait for Me II.” They sing, “Show the way so we can see / Show the way the world can be / If you can do it, so can she / If she can do it, so can we.” It’s the moment where suddenly the stakes [are realized.] It’s not just Eurydice behind Orpheus, but potentially all the workers of Hadestown.
Are you surprised by how the speech has gone viral?
I think the speech has gotten this reception because people in different fields are going, “Yes! This is resonant.” Because in the laws of physics, a system once in motion tends to stay in motion. We are in a patriarchal, white supremacist, cis system in America, where men are rewarded on their promise, and women—and people in non-dominant culture groups, so disabled artists and artists of color—are rewarded for proving themselves. But the degree to which you have to prove yourself is so profound that it requires its own marathon. People get frustrated, hurt, exhausted, and drained by the degree of resources it takes to be able to self-produce. Nothing is in a vacuum. Economics in this country are profoundly tied to racial and cultural background. This is not specific to the theater. This is a problem in journalism, too. It’s everywhere.
Speaking of journalism and theater criticism, how much do positive or negative reviews affect a show’s success?
Oh, profoundly. Sometimes you’ll have a single reviewer who dictates whether your show might have a future life. I worked on a show in D.C. where the reviewer for The Washington Post—yes, a middle-aged, cisgendered white man—had a vicious response to a young female writer. It was one of the most exciting new plays I was working on, profoundly funny and deep. But it’s struggled ever since. In New York City, unfortunately, if you’re speaking to a middle-class audience, you basically have one voice: The New York Times.
I tweeted a link to this wonderful conversation The New York Times hosted between four fairly young Black writers: Antoinette Nwandu, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jordan E. Cooper, and Jeremy O. Harris. They discussed the whiteness of critics. Antoinette, talking very specifically about The New York Times, made this suggestion: The Book Review is filled with writers talking about each others’ works, and thus you’re able to get major racial and cultural diversity of voices. Versus the first string of the [paper’s] theater department: two white, male, cisgendered critics. I do think her suggestion would be a healthier discourse.
You have a slew of projects in the works. How do you keep track of them and compartmentalize what you’re working on?
My brain is crazy good at compartmentalizing. But also I keep a gazillion notes in my phone, because I don’t remember anything.
Did you have any special Tonys celebrations?
We actually all got together [last Tuesday] to honor André De Shields, who received the Richard Seff Award for lifetime achievement from the Actors’ Equity Foundation. One of our ensemble members helped make hats that say “André De Shields is my stage fave.”
Hadestown is playing at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City.