Remembering Elizabeth Swados by Peter Filichia
The first Broadway show she ever saw was The Boy Friend with Julie Andrews. “I thought it was phenomenal,” she said.
So she became interested in musicals and community theater. “I was June in Gypsy,” she said with a smile. “To tell the truth, Gypsy may be my favorite of anything in the entire world.”
Later she appeared in She Loves Me. “I don’t remember the name of the character I played,” she said. “But I do remember singing about ice cream.”
That’s Amalia, the female lead.
She was disappointed in herself for not being able to remember the character’s name. “Because I know a lot of scores and characters,” she said. “And I love the traditional Broadway musical to this day.”
The speaker may not seem to be Elizabeth Swados, but that’s who made these statements in an interview I did with her in 1992. We had a terrific chat in her downtown loft in which her parrot Stella had free reign to fly anywhere she pleased.
Surprised that Swados was once on stage singing “Let Me Entertain You”? I was, too. Swados, who died last week at sixty-four from esophageal cancer, marched to a different musical theater drummer. From what we’ve heard of the music she composed for nineteen off-Broadway outings — including A Fable, her last show nineteen months ago – none of it sounded anything like the three musicals she’d mentioned to me. That was also true of her four Broadway outings, which included two scores of incidental music and her most acclaimed musical: Runaways.
No female individual had ever been nominated for four Tonys for one musical – Best Book, Score, Direction and Choreography — and no one has since. Although Runaways wasn’t a runaway hit, it did run eight solid months on 45th Street.
Twenty-eight tweens and teens told the stories of kids who feel compelled to run away from home, take to the streets and do whatever was necessary to survive.
“I have empathy for people who have struggled every day in a way that is incomprehensible to me,” she said. “I try the best I can to not exploit their problems. I hope that by doing that, I can both present something to audiences that will wake them up a little bit and will wake me up, too.”
Runaways’ original cast included Josie de Guzman, who later received two Tony nominations (for West Side Story and Guys and Dolls); Trini Alvarado, who was Meg in the much-acclaimed 1994 remake of Little Women; Toby Parker, who’s played Doctor Dillamond in Wicked more than any other actor; and Kate Schellenbach, who was a mere twelve when Runaways premiered. After that, she became a drummer for The Beastie Boys, but time does pass: Schellenbach turned fifty on Jan. 5 — the very day that Swados died.
At this interview in 1992, — fourteen years after Runaways’ had closed – Swados said “The show has been done in almost every big city in the country, so that means a lot of kids have done it and have heard its message. Maybe some have become better adults because of it.”
The sound Swados created for Runaways certainly doesn’t resemble any Broadway musical. “I’ve been serious in trying to make the musical vital for this time,” she said. “And I say ‘try,’ because I haven’t always succeeded. Still, I try to find music, form, characters and subjects that move away from the ‘40s Broadway musical which is how many people still think of them. I think I’ve continued to work because I’m very prolific and can write in many styles and I know a lot of different music. That appealed to many people who, like me, were driven to make musical theater go beyond show tunes.”
Swados’ retreat from conventional musicals began in her native Buffalo (which is, of course, the city from which a more traditional Broadway musical theater artist hailed: Michael Bennett). “One night there I saw Oh What a Lovely War,” she said, citing Joan Littlewood’s anti-war musical. “That was really amazing and made me say ‘I want to write like that!’ Then when I heard Richard Peaslee’s songs for Marat/Sade, I said I really want to write like that! By the time I attended college and saw shadow plays I said ‘There must be a way to weave music into stories like those.’”
But the big leap came a little later. “One of my professors was doing something at La Mama, and I accompanied him and met Ellen Stewart,” she said, referring to the woman known as “the earth mother of the American theater.”
“Ellen was really supportive and gave me a home for five years,” Swados said. “She recommended me to Joe Papp, who invited me to the Public and helped me enormously. But before then, Ellen recommended me to Peter Brook, too, who took me on tour with him to Africa.”
Here’s where the big epiphany occurred. “In Africa,” she said, beginning to swirl her hands around, “I saw a big ceremony where the priests were dancing in a circle and a whole slew of women dressed like birds danced around – and then the priests went after them with axes. I had no idea what the specifics of the myth were, but it got me to feel scared, then empty, then excited, then hopeful. My emotions were titillated in unnamable ways. They weren’t just emotions I’d had at home; they were emotions I didn’t know I’d had.”
There was more. “In Nigeria I saw an Oedipus in which the people’s voices sounded like instruments, pounding away like drums – but here the ‘drums’ were able to tell the story. The dancing wasn’t just pretty but was like West Side Story in that it pounded home the drama. I was swept into a parade of intense emotion.”
So these mentor-like experiences helped her to find her distinctive sound. “I’ll admit I’ve done some clunkers in my day, like Lullabye and Goodnight at the Public,” she said, meaning her 1982 musical. “It was an opera about pimps and prostitutes, whom, I learned, have a union. I think I wrote a dynamic score, but I couldn’t get a handle on the book.”
The critics agreed – not that Swados could cite chapter and verse on what they had to say. “I don’t read reviews,” she said flatly. “There’s a tendency in the negative reviews to be unbelievably cruel beyond what I consider to be necessary. When they say your melodies don’t stick, okay, that’s somebody’s opinion. I spent some time with Harold Clurman,” she said, naming one of theater’s most brilliant critics. “He was very supportive. When he was disappointed with me, though, he’d compare my works with works that came before and show me why he thought I hadn’t done as well. That’s fine – but when critics make fun of me and demean me, I can’t get anything out of that. So now, after a show opens, I let the producers tell me this paper was good, this paper was bad. I’m not going to let my insides get shmushed.”
Easier said than done. “Yes, there’s always a vicious one, which I learn from all the condolence calls that friends give me: ‘I can’t believe he said that.’ So I know when someone’s hung me out to dry. I don’t understand the motivation for this kind of writing – unless it’s for self-promotion. But they’ve made it harder for me to get grants.”
Swados shook her head slowly from side to side. “Getting shows on is painful and difficult and getting worse,” she admitted.
“Still, every time you get a bunch of people together you hear the harmony for the first time, the story starts to be told, the characters start to progress and you find some secret you didn’t even know was there. Nothing is as risky, exciting or transforming as a theater piece that really works. It can change people with images that will be in their dreams forever. I hope that twenty years from now that there will still be theater – that everything won’t be videocassettes and laser discs.”
Videocassettes and laser discs. There’s an irony for you. They’re essentially gone, so Swados had nothing to fear from them, because theater has indeed gone on. So does her work. Runaways is still getting productions from sea to shining sea, be it a production at California’s San Luis Obispo High School next month or a concert version at New York City’s Encores! Off-Center this summer. Says the series artistic director Jeanine Tesori, “Since we can’t do Runaways with her, we’ll now do it for her.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.