Elizabeth Swados, whose transcendent pan-cultural musical Runaways inspired generations of theater artists well beyond its 1978 Broadway run, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 64 and had recently undergone surgery for esophageal cancer, her wife, Roz Lichter, confirmed.
Runaways came out of the fevered artistic cauldron that was Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in the 1970’s. Swados, like Michael Bennett with A Chorus Line, was one of the young, irrepressible creators Papp took under his wing. Indeed, the two musicals came from similar impulses, though they could not have been more different artistically. Bennett was schooled in Broadway tradition and developed A Chorus Line at the Public in 1975 through interviews with the heretofore anonymous chorus singer-dancers known as gypsies. Swados was more tuned to the anarchic world of off-off Broadway, having worked at Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club with such towering figures as Andre Serban, before landing on Lafayette Street, home of Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and its home base, the Public Theater.
Runaways also came out of interviews, in this case with street kids who told their stories of alienation, disenfranchisement and loss and who would later became part of the cast when the deceptively ragtag musical moved from the Public, in New York’s East Village, uptown to Broadway. Its imagery was raw and urban — the poster featured a chain-link fence — and the show was a synthesis of Swados’ outside and internal influences. They included rock ‘n’ roll, classical and world music (like Olivier Messiaen, she was entranced by birdsong and incorporated it in her scores) as well as the personal demons, notably depression, that seemed woven into her DNA: Her mother’s death was a suicide and her beloved brother struggled with schizophrenia and died young.
Swados transformed her memoir My Depression: A Picture Book, an account of her own lifelong battle with the illness, into the film My Depression (The Up And Down Of It) that was shown last July on HBO. But her legacy is one of joyous creativity, as in the Act I finale of Runaways, “We Are Not Strangers.” Backed by a reggae beat, the kids sing, “We exist at the edge of the sky…we are not strangers / In fact I know you well.” Runaways received five Tony Award nominations, four of them for Swados as author of the book, composer of the score, director and choreographer (the fifth nomination was for Best Musical). In fact, she also played guitar in the show’s band, whose instrumentation included toy piano, congas, glass-and-ratchet and bongos.
Known universally as Liz, Swados had made a name for herself even before arriving at the Public. In addition to her work at La Mama, she staged a revue, “Nightclub Cantata,” at the popular jazz hangout the Village Gate in 1977, using works by poets Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda and others.
Swados found a kindred spirit in Lion King director Julie Taymor, another member, if briefly, of the extended Papp family. Both women were deeply influenced by the ritualistic theater of the Greeks and the shadows, masks and puppets of Japanese and Indonesian drama. In 1980, Taymor designed scenery, costumes, puppets and masks for Swados’ adaptation of the Passover story in The Haggadah, which she staged and composed music to a text by future Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Jerusalem was an oratorio using poems by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
Also in the 1980s, she collaborated with political cartoonist Garry Trudeau on the satirical off-Broadway show Doonesbury and composed the music for another, Rap Master Ronnie. In addition to My Depression, she wrote three novels and seven books for children, and another memoir, The Four of Us: The Story of a Family.
Liz Swados devoted much of her life to teaching and never lost a drivenness for using her talent to give voice to those who lacked words, power and, too often, hope — the very things that suffused her work and allowed her to connect. After Runaways, she soured on Broadway as a welcoming place for her eclecticism, calling it “a museum that’s not moving forward.” And yet Swados as much as any theater artist helped lay the groundwork for such shows as Rent, Bring In ‘da Noise/Bring In ‘da Funk, Spring Awakening and Hamilton. She never stopped being a revolutionary.