IN A TRADITIONALLY staged Greek drama, you might see such deities as Hades, Persephone, and Hermes enter draped in tunics, scaling a set evoking the Acropolis. The recent Broadway musical Hadestown reimagines these ancient stories. Dramaturg Ken Cerniglia helped guide Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book for the show, to realize her vision of a modern folk opera, setting classical myths against the decaying world of America’s Industrial Revolution. The musical combines creative anachronisms and diverse musical styles with themes of survival amid changing climates, isolation versus solidarity, and the impact of art on our global perspective.

Winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical, Hadestown proves that “the road to hell” can become a road to success — if paved with solid dramaturgy.


To understand Cerniglia’s work on Hadestown, one first needs to understand the role of a dramaturg. German author Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is often cited as the father of modern dramaturgy for his collection of essays Hamburg Dramaturgy. Lessing’s varied interests and thirst for knowledge still epitomize today’s dramaturg. A dramaturg’s contribution to a production, whether a new work or revival, ranges from research regarding the play’s historical context to technical consulting to collaborative script analysis with the director and creative team. The dramaturg looks at the bigger pictures (intersecting character arcs, historical contexts, overall narrative cohesion), then offers insights to help creators find clarity and specificity in their work.

According to Christian Parker, head of dramaturgy and chair of the graduate theatre program at Columbia University, dramaturgy sits at the intersection of such theatrical disciplines as playwriting, directing, technical design, theatre criticism, and producing. “The student who is best suited to pursue dramaturgy, certainly in graduate studies, is somebody coming from a multidisciplinary background in theatre, whose primary orientation to making work is around storytelling,” said Parker. “More importantly, what I look for is a genuine entrepreneurial spirit, somebody who is going to take the skills they’re learning and the collaborative relationships, then imagine and implement a strategy for how to turn that into sustainable work.”


Cerniglia’s preparation for Hadestown began long before he was introduced to Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin. He performed in choir and plays throughout high school and double-majored in theatre and psychology at the University of California, San Diego. It would take time for him to recognize how these formative years laid a foundation for his journey to Broadway.

“I had to go back and remember those experiences and think, ‘Oh, that was it.’ I just didn’t know what to call it,” Cerniglia said, referring to the way he naturally engaged with art even before he knew what dramaturgy was. “When I’d go with my friends to a play or movie, I’d be the one that most needed to talk about it after. My brain was always going toward connecting that live theatrical experience with structures of meaning in the greater world. It took a while to realize that’s a fundamentally dramaturgical way of being.”

The pursuit of an M.A. in theatre history and criticism put him on a more scholarly track. A guest lecture by Arena Stage’s then-literary manager Cathy Madison piqued his interest in the field of dramaturgy. This led to an internship at Arena Stage and eventually a Ph.D. in theatre history and criticism at the University of Washington and subsequent move to New York, where he began a dramaturgy and literary manager position at Disney Theatrical Group. He forged a relationship with New York Theatre Workshop through collaboration on Peter and the Starcatcher and was invited by NYTW Artistic Director James Nicola to become one of the theatre’s “usual suspects,” a community of more than 500 affiliated artists.

In the meantime, Hadestown had been evolving since Mitchell presented an early version of the work as a 2006 song cycle. Various iterations emerged over the years, including a Grammy-nominated studio recording in 2010 and a Chavkin-directed developmental workshop at Dartmouth College four years later. NYTW slated the show for its 2015-16 season, at which point Nicola played theatrical matchmaker, introducing Cerniglia to Mitchell.

After listening to the music and reading a draft script (“She’s really cool, and this is really interesting,” he thought), Cerniglia met with Mitchell and Chavkin. Their interview quickly became a passionate dialogue that went to the core of the dramaturg’s role: the exploration of the show’s two central couples (Orpheus and Eurydice, Hades and Persephone), Hermes as storyteller, and the three Fates. “Who changes? Where do they go? Who stays the same? What’s the connection?” Cerniglia asked. He met Mitchell again, and the pair continued discussions along The High Line, New York City’s elevated park.

“You can’t do dramaturgical work without developing relationships and trust,” said Cerniglia. “Because dramaturgy is rigorous and demands insightful and critical questions, trust has to be there, so the person who is charged with asking those questions and giving feedback isn’t seen as oppositional but, in fact, supportive.” Based on his experience working on Disney shows targeting the widest possible audience, Cerniglia examined how much Hadestown audiences might need to know about the musical’s classical source material — conversations that began an entire year before the NYTW production and continued throughout the journey to Broadway.

When the show moved to Canada, Cerniglia suggested that the script introduce the main characters and premise in the first 10 minutes, something the audience could hold onto for the rest of the show. Mitchell agreed, choosing to shift “Road to Hell,” a song that strategically introduces the cast of characters but was originally the second song in the NYTW production, to the beginning of the show. In response to discussions about increasing audience interactivity, Hermes now immediately establishes a permeable fourth wall with an energizing call-and-response in that opening song.

Reeve Carney as Orpheus and Eva Noblezada as Eurydice in the Broadway production of Hadestown.
Reeve Carney as Orpheus and Eva Noblezada as Eurydice in the Broadway production of Hadestown. Photo by Matthew Murphy.


For this musical, Cerniglia says he kept an eye on the forest while his collaborators worked on the trees. There were other keen eyes on the ground as the production made its way from NYTW to Edmonton, Canada, then to London, then eventually to Broadway, including Chavkin, who directed Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, and lead producer Mara Isaacs.

“Thanks to the production opportunities, we had four shots at it,” Cerniglia said. “Between productions, Rachel, Anaïs, and I would go back into the process. What I learned on this project, working with someone who is fundamentally a songwriter, was how to keep the dramatic tension going as we told the story.”

Mitchell’s song cycle delivered various cultural references, from New Orleans jazz to the Great Depression to the Dust Bowl, but if Hadestown was to be a successful musical, those allusions needed to be seamlessly stitched together. With input from Cerniglia and the rest of the creative team, Mitchell refined the role of Hermes as narrator (with a Tony-winning performance by Broadway veteran André De Shields), developing the character to provide both forward momentum and a throughline.

The story, in short, concerns the ill-fated love of songwriter Orpheus and Eurydice (played by Thespian alum Eva Noblezada). She descends to the underworld to work for Hades, who will release her under one condition: Orpheus must lead the way and never look back.

To enhance dramatic tension, Cerniglia suggested they re-examine that essential question: “What is the arc of these characters?” After all, as he put it, “Drama is about action and conflict.” Cerniglia and the creative team felt as though the NYTW production, staged in the round, functioned more as a concert than a character- and action-driven story.

To address this, the Canadian production was staged in a proscenium theatre. Mitchell also added a chorus of workers and lyric revisions to reinforce character development. These changes helped shift the piece from a musical event to a more engaging narrative in which Orpheus becomes politically activated, not just for his own self-interest but also to restore order and justice to the world.

In London, Cerniglia helped guide research and discussions as Reeve Carney, who plays Orpheus, and De Shields explored their characters’ backstories. These talks also informed Mitchell’s changes. For example, the Broadway production now reveals that Hermes knew Orpheus’ mother and took a young Orpheus under his wing, establishing that he’s “touched by the gods,” as Hermes sings.

As Cerniglia sees it, one dramaturgical task is to explore which parts of a broader picture should be presented in a piece and how. “We were questioning whether we had too many things we were trying to do in terms of images and poetry. … Part of my job is to be involved in that conversation of what becomes more literal and specific and what metaphors we build so a specific lyric may have multiple meanings depending on your lens,” Cerniglia said. Among the methods in his dramaturgical toolkit, Cerniglia used a “find activity” during Broadway rehearsals to search out word repetitions in the script. “The audience is tracking everything on a subconscious level.”


Cerniglia’s insights extended beyond his work with the author and director. After preview performances, the creative team would gather for production notes (technical adjustments, scheduling, etc.) followed by a dramaturgy meeting at which all were welcome.

This aspect of Cerniglia’s job deals with very practical questions, such as “Where is the way to Hadestown within the theatre’s physical space?” When collaborating on technical questions, the dramaturg helps reinforce the voice of the author and the vision of the director. “What I can do is bring rigor to the process,” Cerniglia said. “In the case of Hadestown, I had to learn how Anaïs and Rachel told stories individually and collectively, and become a part of that culture.”

Based in part on dramaturgical discussions, the London production added a third ring in the turntable set and a central lift that allowed for entrances and exits that clearly defined above and below ground. “This show is not literal. We have permission to be in two places at once, but we have to establish them,” Cerniglia said. “Because Hadestown has this lure, it has to look different.”

The idea of setting Hadestown in a New Orleans bar isn’t spelled out in the text but instead emerged from the roots of Mitchell’s writing. “Way Down Hadestown” is a number performed in a New Orleans funeral procession. It provides a cultural reference that, in turn, also impacted Michael Krass’ costume designs. “The deep history of Catholicism, African religions, Voodoo, and the spirituality and connection to the Divine particular to New Orleans infuses the show,” said Cerniglia. “I think that specificity in design came from a dramaturgical place: ‘Where are we, and what are we supposed to feel?’ Dramaturgy meetings were useful on so many levels. Grounding the piece visually allowed us to be more specific in working on the text of the show.”

The dramaturg’s role is separate from the writing, directing, and designing, though it’s intimately involved with those processes. For this production, Cerniglia contributed ideas that influenced the evolution of a multiple Tony Award-winning musical, but the authorship remains Mitchell’s alone. According to Cerniglia, his job is to look out for the theatregoer seeing a show for the first time, with little to no knowledge of Hadestown’s classical source material or its nine-year journey from Mitchell’s original concept album.

“As a dramaturg, I’m tasked with understanding the voice and the vision, and keep giving artistic feedback that pushes the work toward its clearest representation,” Cerniglia said. “If I do it well, the audience won’t know what I did.”

This story appeared in the October 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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