Celebrating Innovative Women of Theater: Elizabeth Swados

First in a series for Women's History Month.

In 1978 Elizabeth Swados was Broadway's wunderkind, a twentysomething who had created one of the season's musical sensations. Runaways, which transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater, was up for the Best Musical Tony, and Swados was nominated in four categories—book, score, direction, choreography—a feat unmatched in Tony history by anyone else, man or woman.

Her 1980 show at the Public, Alice in Concert, a musicalization of Lewis Carroll's famous stories, featured Meryl Streep, then on the brink of Hollywood stardom. A few years later, Swados wrote the music for Garry Trudeau's lyrics (and did the orchestrations) when he brought his comic strip Doonesbury to Broadway. She collaborated again with Trudeau on Rap Master Ronnie, a satire of the Reagan administration that was a hit off-Broadway and filmed for video (with the Smothers Brothers) in 1988.

Swados hasn't been back on Broadway since the short-lived Doonesbury, but she's been continually creating shows that have been produced off-Broadway and regionally, among them several based on books of the Bible (she's in the process of adapting the Book of Judith). She also has composed music for various productions of the classics, many of them directed by Andrei Serban, including his famed Cherry Orchard at Lincoln Center in 1977, the Greek trilogy at La Mama and the 1998 Shakespeare in the Park Cymbeline. Swados' latest original musical, Jabu, which tells the life story of absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry intertwined with episodes from his controversial masterwork Ubu Roi, is playing at the Flea Theater downtown until April 2.

Swados has had to spend much of the last two-plus decades living down her early success. "People really went gunning for me years afterward. They turn on you, critics and people in the industry," she says. "Now it's not so bad, but it took, I think, 15 years for people to get off my back. Everything was implied, from the fact that I was not talented and I was lucky to I was sleeping with Joe Papp or sleeping with Garry Trudeau. There was no way that I could get my stuff on with just my lack of talent—it was as much said. Until I was 35 I didn't read music—I was world music, rock; my ears were great—and that was horrifying to people. It happens, this enormous jealousy. When I did a piece about Vietnam [Dispatches], which happened to be a very good piece, they just descended on me: I had no right to do a piece on Vietnam."

She's also been criticized by those who balk at writers directing their own work, since she has directed many of the shows she's written, including Jabu. Doing both, Swados says, jibes with the offbeat nature of her plays and the input she encourages from her casts. "For me it's a total process that involves the actors a lot more than other musical theater pieces," she says. "That's why I direct, because I think it's more than just directing; it's making it. Directing and writing are the same thing in a way, because I make it while I'm directing, so I'm really writing and composing as I hear it." Swados began directing her own plays because other directors weren't sure how to handle her unconventional material. "The first thing I did in the city on my own was Nightclub Cantata, which was setting all these pieces of literature to music that nobody would think of setting to music, and doing bird sounds and all kinds of stuff. Who would direct that? Who would have any idea what to do with that, and who would want to?"

Swados hasn't expended a lot of time and energy fighting her way back to the Great White Way. "My shows aren't necessarily, to the ears of most people, commercial. The music didn't sound like you could hum it, the characters you couldn't hug," she says. "I've been approached a couple of times: 'Come on, you can write a really commercial musical.' I can't! I'm not very good at it. I turn things down where I'm going to do them lousy. I turn things down where I think the people are doing it for the wrong reasons.

"I've always tackled subjects that aren't necessarily mainstream," she continues. "Runaways was a fluke—it was the right place, the right time. It was never meant to go to Broadway. It was meant to be a sort of community service piece where we took it around and we put it up for a few weeks." She adds, "I don't make any effort to move things, even to other cities. I always move on to the next thing."

Although she's worked further from the limelight since the Runaways splash, Swados feels she has made significant contributions to contemporary theater. "I was one of the first people to not do a linear book musical," she notes. "The music that I bring to the musical theater is neither rock opera nor musical comedy, so I've been part of the people who've opened it up so musical theater can have a new kind of music.

"Also, I think I was part of a movement to change the sound of the voices in musical theater. I think I've added to the perception of what a great performer can be. When I started out, in musical theater there was tenor, bass, soprano, alto. The alto was the comedian; the soprano was the ingenue; the bass was the poor sad thing..." Breaking those molds and diversifying her casts have been important achievements for Swados: "Bringing in younger actors, bringing in people of all different colors and shapes and sizes and voices." Those innovations were on display in her most famous production, which had a multicultural cast of children and teens playing the title roles.

Swados, who hasn't had children of her own, counts as one of her biggest accomplishments "bringing children into theater as performers, as themselves…giving young people places and respect where they were always stereotyped before." She has made it a priority to involve youth in theater, she says, "because I had a horrible childhood, and the arts saved me." Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., she was surrounded by creative people who were mentally ill. Her mother, an actress, was plagued by depression and committed suicide when Elizabeth was a young woman; her older brother (her only sibling), a musician and artist, was schizophrenic and died at age 46. (Swados recounts her own struggle with depression in My Depression: A Picture Book, to be published next month by Hyperion.)

"My brother, who was my hero, taught me to draw, to sing—that's how you survive," she says. Anyone, not just troubled adolescents, can benefit from theater's "healing force," according to Swados. "You can heal the people who do it, you can heal the people who see it. And not heal them by making everything all right, but you can make them feel alive again. And just by doing that—taking the dullness, the sullenness out of everyday life—you're making a point that life is worth it, and that's very important."

Theater's potential for transforming society as well as individuals has also shaped Swados' art. "I was brought up to believe that theater was there to make a change, to wake up people's unconsciousness, to present ideas and feelings that were perhaps unusual and confrontational." But as she started composing, she wasn't inspired by traditional musical theater. "I loved folk music. I thought Bob Dylan was the greatest thing ever, and I wanted to do theater that had lyrics like Bob Dylan's. I was very influenced by Joan Baez, because of her politics," she says. "And then, after that, I was really in love with world music: African, South Indian, Native American, Balinese… It spoke to me because it was more dramatic to me than theatrical music and more intelligent than pop music."

Seeing Oh! What a Lovely War convinced Swados she could meld her music and ideas into theatrical compositions. The early-'60s British stage hit, later adapted for film, satirically encapsulated World War I in a series of music-hall numbers and slapsticky sketches. "Oh! What a Lovely War came—[the creator] who happened to be a woman [Joan Littlewood]—and I went, 'Oh! This can be done!'" Swados recalls. But she had virtually no female role models, at least for the type of musical theater she was interested in. "I had no women to look to when I was coming up," she says. Even today, when she has seen an increase in women in other theatrical professions like director and playwright, "I'd say the most retarded one is music," Swados states. "I think it has to do with men for all time being threatened by the power of music. Music is a very deep, unspoken, nonverbal, powerful force, and the idea of a woman having something like that is threatening and unpleasant. It's not very feminine to write a drum solo."

Swados is dismayed too by another aspect of theater's conservatism. "What's happened to institutional theater—it's been devastating to me. There's very little that I see in the way that people are making theater now that inspires me at all. The kind of information blowup—that anything can go on cable or be made into a movie—there's no cherishing of live values and little spaces like this [the Flea]. It's a very celebrity-oriented culture now. I always loved the person that you have no idea who they are. People don't appreciate that anymore. Surprise is not loved. Rebellion is not cared about. Edginess doesn't have the same influence. It's been redefined as something that says 'fuck' in it, it has gay people in it, it has naked people, it talks about sex. There is no real danger going on: challenging the power structure, challenging the forms that exist, challenging the theatrical institutions that exist instead of trying to get in them all the time. Everybody's looking for the next thing instead of really making the present on fire. They're not political, they're not daring."

As usual, Swados finds salvation in young people. "Since I teach at NYU and the New School," she says, "I see people who are studying theater now and some of them are really political, and some of them are incredibly talented. There's so much possibility; that's always extremely hopeful to me. Working with them is like another shot of optimism."

In addition to her college teaching, Swados works with younger students through the nonprofit organization Hospital Audiences, Inc., creating theater with disadvantaged youth. Their plays usually revolve around such issues as drugs, loss and violence. "They're very political and they're done for high school kids, who then get politicized," says Swados. "That for me is my deepest politics."

While Jabu runs at the Flea, Swados is writing music (mostly chants) for The Beauty Inside, a new play about honor killings in Turkey, to be produced by New Georges at the Culture Project starting April 15. She's done a lot of writing outside theater too. My Depression, her upcoming "graphic memoir," is her third nonfiction book, and she's written six children's books, three novels and scores for several films, including Arthur Penn's Four Friends, the documentary Rate It X and Seize the Day, a PBS presentation starring Robin Williams.

Photos of Swados and Jabu by Dixie Sheridan. 

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Adrienne Onofri Adrienne Onofri, one of BroadwayWorld's original columnists, created and writes the Gypsy of the Month feature on the website. She also does interviews and event coverage for BroadwayWorld, and is a member of the Drama Desk. Adrienne is also a travel writer and the author of the book "Walking Brooklyn: 30 Tours Exploring Historical Legacies, Neighborhood Culture, Side Streets, and Waterways," published by Wilderness Press.