Elizabeth Swados, Experimental Musical Composer, Dies at 64

News   Elizabeth Swados, Experimental Musical Composer, Dies at 64
 
Elizabeth Swados, whose experimental and socially searching pieces of musical theatre were a mainstay of 1970s and '80s theatre in New York, died Jan. 5 from complications following surgery for esophageal cancer. She was 64.
Liz Swados

Ms. Swados work didn’t sound like conventional musical theatre, drawing, as it did, on sources such as folk, blues and world music, and her subject matter was drawn from contemporary societal and political concerns, as well as Jewish themes. She was also unusual in typically writing both the music and libretti of her works, and often directing as well.

Her breakout work was Runaways which, like many of her subsequent shows, ran at the Public Theater under the aegis of founder Joe Papp. The show was a series of songs, monologues, scenes, poems, and dances, and Ms. Swados drew on disco, salsa and country music while composing the score. The narrative was derived from workshops conducted by Swados with actual runaways of various races and ethnicities, and was initially intended to be a sort of musical public service announcement. However, it proved a critical hit, and won Swados an Obie Award for Direction.

Liz Swados
Liz Swados

Runaways transferred to Broadway in May 1979, where it ran for eight months and was nominated for a slew of awards, including five Tonys. Ms. Swados, amazingly, was the nominee in four of those categories: Best Book, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Direction. The fifth nomination, for Best Musical, she could additionally take credit for. She was also nominated for four Drama Desk Awards.

She arguably gained her greatest mainstream fame through two collaborations with Gary Trudeau, the politically oriented author of the comic strip “Doonesbury.” Ms. Swados wrote the music and Trudeau the book and lyrics for a 1983 Broadway musical named after the strip, and based on its characters. Critics, however, found the show uncharacteristic tame, given the artists involved. “There is no point of view to the show, no commentary, no insight,” wrote the Chicago Tribune.

 

The following year, Trudeau and Swados collaborated Off-Broadway on Rap Master Ronnie, which poked fun as one of the cartoonist’s frequent targets, President Reagan.

Ms. Swados also frequently wrote accompanying music for productions of classical works such as Agamemnon, Hamlet and Cymbeline at the Delacorte Theatre, The Cherry Orchard on Broadway, The Seagull at the Public, and Phaedra Britannica at CSC. On several of these projects, her collaborator was director Andrei Șerban, who shared with her an urge to innovate and cast well-known plays in an unorthodox light.

Her show The Red Sneaks ran at Theatre for a New Audience in 1989, and she returned to the Public in 1990 for Jonah, which she also directed. She staged her own Groundhog at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1992.

Ms. Swados frequently collaborated with artists on the verge of breaking out creatively. In 1980, she worked with a young Julie Taymor, who provided set, costume and puppet design for Swados’ show The Haggadah, a Passover Cantata. Her 1981 work Alice in Concert, fetched its young star, Meryl Streep, an Obie Award.

Ms. Swados’ talents were far-ranging. She published three novels, three non-fiction books and nine children's books. Among the honors she received were a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Ford Fellowship, a Covenant Foundation Grant, a Cine Award, and a Mira Award. She also taught at NYU and The New School.

She composed music for films such as "Four Friends" and "Seize the Day" and several television movies. Her documentary short "My Depression," based on her own book, was nominated for an award at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014. The New York Times called it "as charming and whimsical a discussion of depression as you’re likely to find."

Elizabeth Swados was born on February 5, 1951 in Buffalo, New York, USA. Her father, Robert, was a lawyer. Her mother, like her daughter, suffered from depression. She committed suicide in 1974. Elizabeth studied music at Bennington College, where she graduated in 1973. She gained notice early on, working with legendary director Peter Brook when only 20. Soon after, she teamed up with director Serban—whom she had met while still in college—working on Fragments of a Trilogy, an adaptation of Greek tragedies, at La MaMa. The Times described their collaboration as an "extraordinary language...Greek, a smattering of other tongues, and the hissing, clicking, growling, howling means of delivery—that convey the movement of emotions even when the literal sense is hidden."

He first sizeable stage credit was Nightclub Cantata at the Village Gate, in which she also directed and performed. The revue drew on the texts of poets such as Sylvia Plath, as well as Swados’ own lyrics. It ran for four months and Ms. Swados received an Outer Critics Circle Award.

In recent years, her work was largely absent from the New York stage. However, in 2014, Cherry Lane Theatre produced A Fable, a collaboration with playwright David Van Asselt.

She is survived by her wife, Roz Lichter.

Her most recent musical The Nomad, was produced Off-Off-Broadway at The Flea in 2015. Composer Jason Robert Brown posted this remembrance on youTube:


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