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."

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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.