VIDEO PROFILE: Theatre Pioneer Elizabeth Swados' Career of Musical Innovation
The Broadway Theatre District was not exactly a family-friendly place for tourists during the 1970s. The overflow of 42nd Street's hookers and drug dealers extended up through Times Square. Three-card Monte games, set up on cardboard boxes that could quickly be discarded at the first sign of police, swindled suckers regularly and despite the presence of long-running hits like A CHORUS LINE and ANNIE, many theatres remained empty for months.
Less-traditional fare like BEATLEMANIA and OH! CALCUTTA! enjoyed long runs and The Street began welcoming artists like Melvin van Peebles and Vinnette Carroll, whose gritty urban-based works might have remained on the fringes in more prosperous times.
Elizabeth Swados' RUNAWAYS might not have had an opportunity to light up Broadway in a more prosperous time, though having the support of Joseph Papp and originating at The Public Theater sure upped the chances. Her previous Broadway credits were regulated to composing incidental music for the New York Shakespeare Festival productions of THE CHERRY ORCHARD and AGAMEMNON, but now she was the composer/lyricist, bookwriter, director and choreographer of a Tony nominee for Best Musical, with herself nominated in each of those categories.
At the 1978 Tony Award broadcast, viewers saw polished, professional Broadway entertainment performed by cast members of the other nominated shows, AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' (the winner), DANCIN' and ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. But Swados was an artist who liked to show the rough edges, as demonstrated by her company of young actors playing kids struggling with the issues of urban childhood and adolescence.
The segment was introduced by Mikhail Baryshnikov, a runaway himself, who defected from the Soviet Union four years earlier.
Swados returned to the Public in 1980 with ALICE IN CONCERT, starring Meryl Streep as Lewis Carroll's child adventuring through Wonderland. The production was filmed for television as ALICE AT THE PALACE.
Swados' next Broadway project would be extremely high-profile one. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau had taken a hiatus from his popular satirical comic strip, Doonsbury, centered on a collection of college students dealing with the political and social issues of the day, to write the book and lyrics adapting his creation into a Broadway musical. As composer of DOONSBURY, Swados needed to create musical styles for characters audiences already knew and loved. She delivered a sweet folk ballad for the sensitive and shy Mike Doonsbury, a ballsy anthem for Duke, the character based on Hunter S. Thompson, psychedelic pop for stoner Zonker and bubble-gum rock for cheerleader and new-age feminist Boopsie.
Another of DOONESBURY's musical moments had actor Reathel Bean performing a rap as newscaster Roland Hedley. The next year Trudeau and Swados had Bean starring as President Reagan in RAP MASTER RONNIE, a satiric revue at The Village Gate. The show was adapted into a TV special four years later.
While these four projects granted Swados her most public notoriety, her contributions to theatre as a composer, writer and director are varied and extensive. The year before RUNAWAYS brought her fame, her NIGHTCLUB CANTATA ran for four months at The Village Gate. Here she sings that score's decidedly untraditional "Bird Woman."