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As Far Back As The 1970s, This Out-Of-The-Box New York Artist Was Combining Hip Hop With Musical Theater

Jeryl Brunner

Elizabeth Swados once said that her faith was very practical. As the writer, composer and director told the Jewish Women’s Archive, “It is about helping people to sing, dance and make shows.”
"The Liz Swados Project" celebrates the life and legacy of Elizabeth SwadosCourtesy Ghostlight Records

Not only was Swados ferociously devoted to artists, she was a unique force in theater who mined and mined the struggles we face as humans. Her creativity was limitless. Her music sounded like no other. She defied music genres and created new forms in rap, world, folk and experimental music.

“I just remember Elizabeth as a person with an inexhaustible creative energy,” said Meryl Streep who starred in Swados’ updated Alice In Wonderland, Alice in Concert, with Debbie Allen at the Public Theater in 1981. “The voice that emerged—unique, female, eternally young and tied to childhood—has not been duplicated in the theater.”

In 2016, when she was 64, Swados passed away after battling esophageal cancer. Her epic memorial which celebrated her life and legacy was held at La MaMa ETC, Swados’ creative home for decades. “After a lifetime of coloring outside the lines, if any child of God should be allowed to break the rules and attend her own memorial, it should be Liz,” said her friend and collaborator Garry Trudeau. (Swados wrote the music for the musical Doonesbury.) “She would certainly make the most of it darting about in red sneakers, re-blocking everything, exhorting, cajoling, inspiring, annoying, adding bird calls, knocking each of us out of our comfort zones into versions of ourselves we didn’t know existed ….we'd all be amazed.”

Swados shed light on topics that were not traditionally written about in musical theater like racism, murder and mental illness. She wrote about runaway children living on the street (Runaways). She used Greek, Nahuatl, Latin, Navajo to spotlight ancient Trojan Women. She wrote about genocide in the midst of the Salvadoran civil war (Missionaries).

“There are a special few who can reach out and touch many, creating wonder and delight and mystery and mayhem all at the same time. For forty years, people emerged from Liz's theatricals and novels and poems as if exiting dreams, shaking their head and asking themselves, “How did she do that?,” said Trudeau.

Her work was performed everywhere: on Broadway, Downtown (La MaMa ETC, The Public Theater), at The Manhattan Theatre Club, Carnegie Hall and in clubs, churches and synagogues around the world. Runaways, which she wrote, composed, directed and choreographed, made her one of the few people to be nominated for four Tony Awards in one season, (for Best Direction, Score, Book, and Choreography). Ever prolific, Swados also wrote novels, children’s books, memoirs and collaborated on film scripts with Milos Forman Marlon Brando, Sean Penn.

In fact, Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose parents saw Runaways on their wedding night, once tweeted:

“Musical theater composer mashes up hip-hop, pop music with traditional musical theater forms, diverse cast, debuts masterpiece at @PublicTheaterNY. It moves to Broadway. The year? 197eventy freaking EIGHT. The writer? Elizabeth Swados. The show? Runaways.”

“People always said Liz was ahead of her time,” explains Rosalind “Roz” Lichter, Swados’ longtime partner. “In some respects she was: Hip Hop on Broadway, color-blind casting, the desire to shake up Broadway. All of that is true. Just as importantly Liz was on Liz time. And what she wrote and cared about was not so much about being ahead of her time as much as what she wanted to write at any time in her life.”

Lichter was an executive producer with Kurt Deutsch on “The Liz Swados Project,” a tribute album devoted to Swados and her legacy on Ghostlight Records. The eclectic album features artists who have been inspired by Swados and includes songs from many of her works performed by some of the most influential theater artists working today.

“For every song on this album, she wrote twenty more equally as unique and powerful,” says Shaina Taub who first met Swados when she was a student in her class at New York University and sings on the album. “We could have filled a hundred albums, no exaggeration. The largely unheard body of work she left behind is enormous.”

The voices on the album include a dream roster of talent: Starr Busby, Sophia Anne Caruso, Damon Daunno, Amber Gray, Stephanie Hsu, Jo Lampert, Alicia Olatuja, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Grace McLean,Ali Stroker, The Bengsons, Heather Christian, Michael R. Jackson, Taylor Mac, Dave Malloy, Taub, and the late Michael Friedman. “The Liz Swados Project” was produced by Lauren Fitzgerald, Kris Kukul and Matt Stine.

“I loved working with Liz because she demanded boldness and specificity. She wanted big choices, but directional ones. She wanted teeth, consonants, full body commitments,” says Grace McLean, who also first met Swados when she was her teacher at NYU, worked with her on many productions for over a decade and sings on the album. “Liz gave me permission to sing in a way I wasn’t able to in other theatrical settings. And she gave me permission to write in a way that felt like me, that felt personal and deeply vulnerable but that also left room for interrogation, to eschew trope and sentimentality.”

Lichter’s inspiration for the “The Liz Swados Project” came from the many letters she received after Swados died. People, both known and unknown, wrote about the profound effect Swados had on their professional and personal lives. “It was life-saving in some instances,” shares Lichter. “Liz spoke in music and I wanted to share her music with those she knew, but especially those who never shared a musical conversation with Liz. Her music is evergreen and speaks to times old and new, especially with the new generation of singers singing on the recording.”

At its heart “The Liz Swados Project” is deeply collaborative, which speaks to who Swados was as she touched so many. As Trudeau shared at her memorial, so much of the message of her work was, you are not alone. “You are part of a community. The burdens of life can be shared. And if you are open and generous to those around you, together you are stronger,” said Trudeau. “And together you will find what you can do. And combine it with what others can do. And what a beautiful, joyful noise we shall make.”

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New York based journalist who has written for Forbes, Parade, InStyle, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. Author of the book "My City, My New York, Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places" and podcaster, ("When Lightning Strikes"). I cover the arts, theater, entertainment, food, travel and people who are motivated by their joy and passion.

New York City, NY

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