This week, New York has the chance to rediscover the first musical for which a woman received not one, not two, not three but four Tony nominations.
What a shame that Elizabeth Swados – tabbed in 1978 for Best Book, Best Score, Best Direction and Best Choreography for Runaways — won’t be here to see it. The legendary musical theater wearer-of-many-hats died much too young this past January, one month shy of her sixty-fifth birthday.
Jeanine Tesori, the artistic director of Encores! Off-Center series, announced soon thereafter that she’d be producing the 1978 Best Musical nominee Runaways from July 6-9 at City Center. Tesori maintained that her motivation for scheduling Swados’ most famous work was not out of pity for a recently deceased artist; she said she’d been planning all along to give Runaways its first airing since its initial seven-month Broadway run.
If you can’t get to West 55th Street, there’s always the original cast album. Twenty teens become the kids who can no longer bear living at home with their mothers and/or fathers. Whether the parents were married or single, they couldn’t connect enough with their kids to make them feel that home was their home.
Swados herself first ran away from her parents’ Buffalo manse after writing a five-page letter explaining why. This may not sound so unusual, but the fact that Swados was a mere FIVE at the time does make the situation all the more remarkable.
As a result of parental issues – and a mother who eventually committed suicide – Swados had both a penchant and empathy for kids who weren’t happy with their home lives. She did want the best possible cast for the show, which didn’t at all mean the most professional ones who could dazzle audiences with their jazz hands; she wanted raw kids who understood the bleak scene of homelessness first and foremost. Swados wound up auditioning nearly 2,000 kids and selected less than.01% of them. They ranged in age from eleven to twenty-five, and none would ever pass for Shirley Temple or Frankie Michaels.
Runaways was done on a set with benches and bleachers, which was reminiscent of the 1962 musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. The difference is that in that earlier show, a nobody rises to prominence; no one in Runaways appears to have a bright future ahead of him.
In real life, this didn’t quite turn out to be true: Diane Lane, Trini Alvarado, Carlo Imperato and Jossie (now Josie) De Guzman all have made additional marks on the entertainment scene. So has Toby Parker, now better known as Timothy Britten Parker (or the brother of Sarah Jessica Parker). And yet, for thirteen of the twenty, this would be their only Broadway appearance. We’ll see how the 2016 cast members do in the future; for now, we can only wish them well.
They have some pungent characters to play. Hubbell feels alienated because his parents can hear but he cannot. A.J. leaves because his parents incessantly fight. Jackie uses a doll to show how she was abused. Nikki has fears about things that go bump in the night but her parents pooh-poohed these issues. Eddie’s current events oral report in school includes recent events in his home, which aren’t any prettier than what’s happening in the world. Eric comments on his parents’ behavior: “There are nights when you’re so drunk you even forget that I have a bedtime at all, and I stay awake all night and watch TV.”
Some kids felt that their parents “never admitted that he or she was born.” Others felt the strain that even silver-spooned kids have felt: “I’m no longer a child!” Nevertheless, the show’s last line does have all the kids plead “Let me be a kid again!”
“Once upon a time” begins one story, but this is no fairy tale. It finishes with “And this is not the end” because the storyteller is still suffering. In “Revenge Song,” A.J., Melinda and Eric all recall their favorite fantasy: “Do you know how many times I’ve killed off my mother and father?”
“And where do they stay?” is a good question which becomes a better one when three words are added: “if they stay.” Death is definitely an option, be it from others or oneself. Hubbell says “When people do notice you, they want you.” He doesn’t mean that they’ll offer full-time employment on a career track. Similarly, the song “Entrepreneur” has Diedre sing “There’s always hooking; there’s always men.”
“The Song of Child Prostitution” – which sounds blatantly Brechtian — is a long series of rationalizations in which Julie tries to convince herself that her life is good on “The Minnesota Strip.” These days, anyone walking on the much gentrified, four-restaurants-to-a-block Ninth Avenue from 42nd to 57th Streets would be quite surprised to know that this was the name when the area was a hellhole.
There’s another way they’ve been known to make a living: “God bless the blackout,” they state, referencing what happened on July 13, 1977, when arsonists had set more than 1,000 fires and looters had ransacked nearly 1,600 stores. These kids were part of the problem.
Of course there are three sides to every story, and Runaways doesn’t provide us with the parents’ rebuttals. We’re left to see if the kids can offer some level-headed perspective, and indeed they do. Many admit to their parents “I was inconsiderate. I made you worry without even thinking about it.” Manny acknowledges the isolation problems that adults have too while noting that “the world is an orphanage for grown-ups.”
No matter how acidic any play or musical is, there’s always some humor. That’s true of Runaways, too, when it offers a funny and fanciful theory that teaches that George Washington is responsible for DC Comics. Eric fantasizes that he’s “the undiscovered son of Judy Garland,” and if not she, well, then President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (which is more likely, when you think of it). Failing both of those, he’ll settle for Eddie Fisher or Pele, to mention two names that were still in the news at the time.
What happens to a runaway when he decides to stop running? The answer is not always a pleasant one. Iggy returns home and finds he is not welcomed as the prodigal son. So he breaks the glass on the TV his parents are watching and, he observes, “My mother picks up the broken TV glass off the floor, talking to it and weeping like an injured child.” And while two wrongs never make a right – and we can’t condone what Iggy did — we still feel for a child who sees that his mother cares more about an electronic object than a human being who came from her body.
Some songs, such as “We Are Not Strangers,” have Spanish lyrics, too. If you don’t know the language, you’ll wish you’d either taken it in high school or paid attention during class, for the intensity with which the Latino kids express their emotions make you desperate to know what they’re saying.
By 1978, we were seeing the first rash of kids who’d been born to hippies. Just as these youngsters’ mothers and fathers did before them, they questioned their parents’ values – to the point where they either considered running away or bolting. But lest we think that the thirty-eight-year-old Runaways is dated, how about this line? “A cop killed a kid who threatened him with a toy gun, got six years and will soon be up for probation.”
Joe Papp, the Public Theatre’s producer who shepherded Runaways from his off-Broadway home to West 45th Street, called Elizabeth Swados “the mommy-daddy-teacher-and-truant officer to these kids.” She is no longer here to do a hands-on job in guiding today’s disenfranchised youth, but her Runaways can still advise and enlighten 21st century kids who are enduring their own special pain.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.