Jeanine Tesori has lit up the theatre scene with her work as one half of the all-female Tony-winning writing team for Fun Home and as the artistic director of Encores! Off-Center. But Tesori says her success is owed in part to another female powerhouse: the multi-disciplinary Elizabeth Swados. This summer, Tesori will welcome Swados' hit Runaways as part of City Center's Encores! Off-Center, her final season as artistic director. The announcement was made in the days following Swados' death this January, seemingly added to the season in memoriam. However, Tesori had been working with Swados for several months to bring Runaways to a new generation.
Elizabeth Swados served as author, composer/lyricist, director and choreographer for the break-through musical Runaways, which premiered on Broadway in 1978. The production was cast with children from troubled homes, people Swados had lived with and gotten to know as she developed the musical. She made history that year, with Tony nominations for book, score, direction, and choreography.
But to see Swados' influence on musical theater, Tesori recommends you look to the people. Before the two women met, Tesori recalls that Swados’'disciples were everywhere. "I was meeting all of her students," she says. From Broadway's Lin-Manuel Miranda, who performed in Runaways at Wesleyan University, to singer-songwriter Jay Stolar who was mentored by Swados while at NYU, a generation of artists have learned from Swados by performing in her work or sitting in classes she taught with titles like, "The Golem and Political Snorts."
"Liz is a visionary," says Trevor Bachman, her assistant and collaborator on the upcoming Piano Bar. Bachman still talks about Swados in the present tense, a sign of how relevant she remains in the lives of those she taught. In a month plagued by the deaths of many great artists, including Alan Rickman and David Bowie, social media lit up with deeply personal posts about Swados' passing as her vast collection of students and artists shared their own memories of working with her. Before ever meeting her, Tesori witnessed the community Swados created, "I saw her making families wherever she went. I saw people devoted to her."
Tesori, a fan of Swados' since seeing Runaways at The Public, describes her as a "pioneer," who fearlessly lived her creative process while creating family out of artists. "The fact that she was there doing her thing," Tesori says, "was so gratifying for me to know." Bachman tells stories of when he would arrange music based on Swados' notes and scribbles, deciphering what she might mean in the hurried scratches of a creative mind at work. When finished, he'd ask her if she'd like to check his transcription and she'd reply, "I'll hear it in rehearsal." Another way in which she instilled confidence and power in those learning at her feet.
When asked why she did it all: write, direct, and choreograph, Bachman explains, "She sees a vision and she makes that happen on stage… She's like a quilter. Someone who brings all of these different fabrics together and sees how they're going to go together even though they don't match at all." Those pieces of fabric included many young artists, founts of potential that Swados had a knack for discovering. Tesori notes that Swados was not only mining talent, she was "picking people who were not heard from theatrically and putting them onstage."
While preparing for its Encores! Off-Center performance, Tesori and Swados traded ideas about how to include today's young people in Runaways. Although Tesori has had the musical at the top of her list for some time, there are plenty of moving pieces that influence an Encores! season, including casting. In the spirit of the original production, this production features children from New York City schools, which meant coordinating with the end of the school year. Swados approached casting with her trademark "nothing is off the table" philosophy. "She told me, 'Cast it well. Make it good…'" Tesori explains, "It's very freeing when someone says, 'Just make it good.'"
Tesori is following Swados' direction, and with two of Swados' students at the helm, Sam Pinkleton directing and Ani Taj choreographing, her spirit will be undeniably present.
When asked why now is the time for Runaways, Tesori responds, "[Runaways] is timeless. There are always people left out of center… We need to make sure that we present it [so that] there is a constant examination of us as a community and that we shift our gaze from the center to the outside and find who’s there."
In the months leading up to her death, Swados was thrilled that Runaways would appear again on the New York stage. It may have been validation that she herself had not been forgotten, left outside of the community she helped shape. But Bachman is quick to point out Swados is not excluded as stories of marginalized groups play to thousands in the audiences of Hamilton and Fun Home alone.
As Swados wrote, "The world is full of runaways." Indeed, today's theatre community is full of Swados' students, collaborators and runaways. This summer, another generation will have the opportunity to be a part of her legacy.