Elizabeth Swados 1951–
American playwright, composer, director, and juvenile novelist. The underlying theme behind Swados's theatrical works and music is the potential of the human spirit to overcome the harsh realities of life. Focusing especially on the resiliency of contemporary youth, she has presented their reactions to the world in her musical collection, Nightclub Cantata, and in Runaways, a musical theater piece about young people both literally and figuratively homeless. Swados synthesizes various forms of contemporary sound, combining them with Latin and tribal rhythms to create music that is vibrant, eclectic, and unconventional. She spent a year in Africa as composer and musical director for English director Peter Brook. Swados traveled with Brook's troupe throughout various African villages; the sense of community and the importance of ritual she experienced there has underscored much of her work, notably Runaways. Another important association for Swados was her partnership with director Andrei Serban, with whom she created contemporary stylizations of plays by such authors as Aeschylus and Chekhov. She also served as composer-in-residence with La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in New York City, and has been a faculty member at several universities. Swados has worked with producer Joseph Papp in many of his New York Shakespeare Festival productions, and it was Papp who was responsible for bringing Runaways to Broadway. The play evolved organically from Swados's interviews with students and runaways. Many of these young people later performed in the production, which has generally been praised as an honest and compassionate portrayal of the anger, energy, and courage of youth under pressure. Although Swados's songs are sometimes criticized for being too obvious, sentimental, self-conscious, or hysterical, and for having melodies that are unmemorable, songs like "To the Dead of Family Wars" and "We Are Not Strangers" from Runaways touchingly evoke the pain and pleasure of adolescence. She has been the recipient of two Obie awards: in 1972 for her score for Serban's production of Medea, and in 1977 for her direction of Runaways. In 1976 she wrote and illustrated The Girl with the Incredible Feeling, a fable about the importance of individuality, and recently adapted it for an off-Broadway production. Her musical adaptation of Dispatches, Michael Herr's autobiographical report of the Vietnam experience, was also recently staged off-Broadway. Merging highly charged emotional appeals with innovative dramatic techniques, Swados is credited with expanding the range of musical theatre and strengthening its appeal for a young adult audience.
["Nightclub Cantata"] is the most original and perhaps the most pleasurable form of nightclub entertainment I have ever encountered…. It is more in the pattern of the "Jacques Brel" show, but its accent, its manner and its atmosphere is quite different.
Miss Swados comes off as a force of nature….
What is fascinating about this "Nightclub Cantata" is simply its unique mixture of music, drama and pop entertainment. Miss Swados's own staging is a knockout—the actors are trained like human acrobats—and her choice of source material, much of it written by herself, runs from Sylvia Plath and Frank O'Hara to Carson McCullers. But in the event it is the music that does it.
I have always been interested by her music for other people's scenes. It sounded like Mr. [Peter] Brook and Mr. [Andrei] Serban, a little like Muzak for listeners, or background music for the thinking classes. Heard on its own its amazing perceptions become far more apparent.
From Mr. Brook she has learned the humble but radiant virtue of eclecticism. Miss Swados picks around the store-house of contemporary music like a bright-eyed jackdaw. To listen to her music is like hearing a collage of contemporary sounds; she is a sort of Kurt Schwitters of music. Her musical tone is both strange and familiar. Here you can pick up a touch of Kurt Weill, there will be more than a trace of calypso. But all this eclecticism...
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Let's go cautiously. Anyone expecting to discover a theatre piece in Elizabeth Swados's Nightclub Cantata had better take a second look at the title. It is not an opera, not one of the Greek plays Miss Swados is famous for setting, not a revue, not a play. It is a cantata, that quirky form halfway between opera and oratorio, a setting of somewhat dramatic texts that is meant to be sung rather than acted. And it is a cantata meant for performance in a nightclub, where the audience can smoke, drink, and at least whisper during the show, can observe coolly rather than being mobilized in a body to participate vicariously….
Not, of course, a cantata in the normal sense of the word, for Swados does not write "normal" music. Her methods are monodic or responsive chant, recitative, patter-singing, the percussive use of unpitched sounds, intoning in unison or parallel thirds, and the repertory of clicks, shrieks, growls, and wails that we associate with birds, animals, and the tribal languages of Africa and Latin America. Swados is, in short, a neo-primitive—though her "primitivism" has more sophistication than a hundred years of hack composing in the traditional Western musical theatre, a fact that is pointed up by her choice of texts. No primitives here: Delmore Schwartz and Pablo Neruda, Muriel Rukeyser and Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara and Carson McCullers. If not for the wildly different nature of the music, it might be a Ned Rorem...
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Miss Swados' idea [in "Nightclub Cantata"] is to take poems and passages of prose by various hands (including her own), set them to music for various instruments (including her own guitar), and turn them over to the four young men and four young women of the company (including herself) for performance. Several of the numbers are fierce and angry, and they are delivered with passion—Muriel Rukeyser's "Waking This Morning"…, for example …, and Sylvia Plath's "The Applicant."… Something quite different is "Bird Lament," which Miss Swados sings entirely in bird language…. The weakest numbers, to get them over with as quickly as possible, are a passage from "The Ballad of the Sad Café," in which Carson McCullers makes several obvious points on the subject of love with unwarranted emphasis, and "Are You with Me?," a love ballad by Miss Swados that … made me long for Rodgers and Hart or the Gershwins, who handled this sort of thing with more finesse and just as much conviction. Lest I make the show sound too earnest (it is quite earnest), let me say right away that there is some comedy as well—a bit about two ventriloquists' dummies (written by Miss Swados and Judith Fleisher), and another bit, of venerable antecedents, about a troupe of maladroit acrobats. The strengths of "Cantata" far outnumber its weaknesses…. The climax of the evening (for me, at any rate) is Isabella Leitner's "Isabella"—a woman's horrifying, numbing memories of...
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To call a Greenwich Village "barroom" show Nightclub Cantata may sound a bit uppity but as a matter of fact the name conveys the exact nature of its content…. There are numbers like the spoof on an acrobatic stunt act which fits a nightclub performance. For the rest, with a few exceptions, the show has a seriousness which justifies the designation of "cantata." On this occasion, [the Greenwich Village "barroom"] has been turned into an existentialist café.
The show's overall tone, "Conceived, composed and directed" by Elizabeth Swados is gritty, brave, somber and exhilarating withal. It reflects the best part of a youth which has for some time now lived in a discouraging world, a youth of few illusions, a youth emotionally and physically tattered, but yet eager to continue its life without renouncing joy, despite an experience and foreknowledge of anxiety, deception and pain. One has only to scan the list of the writers whose poems or prose Elizabeth Swados has set to her music: there is Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish poet who died in prison; contributions by Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara, David Avidan, an Israeli who writes in Hebrew; by Delmore Schwartz, Muriel Rukeyser, Isabella Leitner and Ms. Swados herself.
The collective import of the words spoken or sung, and for the most part, distinctly heard, is that one must endure life and even "dance" in it, though it be heavy and rough as a "fat rock." The...
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The first time I came across music by Elizabeth Swados was at La Mama a couple of years ago, during one of Andrei Serban's stagings of some Greek play or other. The room, as I remember it, was full of flying bodies: actresses being thrown off balconies, things like that. Although I spent most of the evening cowering in protected areas, I do remember every now and then picking up a snatch of something that sounded like bad Carl Orff (very bad, in other words) to texts that sounded something like gratch, grotch, pook. I left with the firm resolve that the mysteries of Ms. Swados's art—to say nothing of Mr. Serban's—might be safer in other hands in the future.
But now there is Nightclub Cantata …, and with it comes reason for an upward evaluation of Ms. Swados's musical qualities….
There are a couple of clunks, as there would be in twenty of any composer's songs. Ms. Swados is not on very firm ground in simple love ballads, and the one or two in Nightclub Cantata are somewhat awash in sentimentality. There are also a couple of rather hysterically angry pieces that tend to fly apart from a failure to control their inner tension, somewhat the way so many Jacques Brel songs do. But a good three quarters of the material is absolutely topnotch, and it covers a wide range of expression, from a throaty inner rage ("The Applicant," to a text by Sylvia Plath …, to a wild, antic hilarity ("Pastrami...
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Irene S. Levin
The relating of a fable is, at best, a difficult task. When it is attempted with a Y.A. audience in mind, it is even more difficult. Elizabeth Swados has accomplished the impossible. She has managed to instill in this fable [The Girl With the Incredible Feeling], the story of a girl who was different and found that when she listened to a drummer other than her own she lost her own individuality and sense of being…. It is meant to be a short read and a long discussion. Excellent for the beginning of a discussion on "being" and "to thine own self be true". Forget about the format of the children's book, which it is, teenagers will hear about this by word of mouth and read it anyway. (p. 32).
Irene S. Levin, in AJL Bulletin, Spring, 1977.
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["Runaways"] is an inspired musical collage about the hopes, dreams, fears, frustrations, loneliness, humor and perhaps most of all, the anger, of young people who are estranged from their families and searching for themselves. There are moments of joyfulness and youthful exuberance, but basically this is a serious contemplative musical with something important to say about society today….
[In a mosaic of songs, monologues, scenes, poems, and dances, we are given] a complete portrait of urban children on the run. We see what prods youngsters to leave home and what disturbs—and nurtures—them in their escapes. The musical takes a harsh and uncompromising look at the world of runaways, but it is written … with great compassion….
With "Runaways," [Swados] steps right into the front line of popular American theatrical composers. This is the first musical since "Hair" to unite, successfully, contemporary popular music and the legitimate theater….
A pivotal song—an absolute show-stopper and one of a dozen or so exciting numbers—is "Where Are Those People Who Did 'Hair'," a lowdown travesty of punk rock. On one level, "Runaways" poses the question: What happened after the Age of Aquarius? With the death of Woodstock, the wilting of the flower children, America was faced with nuclear dropout. Confused and undirected, adolescents unmounted their "Easy Rider" motorcycles and looked for methods...
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There is no story [to "Runaways"]—one number just follows another—but underneath run the themes of abandonment, anger, and bewilderment, and (lest you think all is unrelieved gloom and reproach) of chipper opportunism in any number of situations, and of innocence and humor and bravery and bravado. Rarely have I seen so much energy and spirit on a stage. In a sense, "Runaways" could be considered a confessional musical, like "A Chorus Line," in that the characters talk directly about themselves to the audience and act out their stories…. Although these characters are for the most part victims (and for the most part victims of parents), there is not a moment of sentimentality or commercial wistfulness. It is their remarkable toughness and their ability to improvise in one dangerous situation after another that set the tone of the performance…. [Although] the theme of "Runaways" is sad and often agonizing, the show raises the spirits. For some reason, however, it lacks the absolute authenticity, the firsthand quality, of "A Chorus Line"…—or, more aptly, of the original production of "Hair"…, which was also about street children. These characters seem to be composites—devised by the shrewd, intelligent, and gifted Miss Swados but composites all the same.
About Miss Swados' gifts there can be no question. Every word spoken on that stage, whether in lyrics or in lines or in recitations, is plausible, and so is every movement;...
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Multitalented 27-year-old Elizabeth Swados has what D. H. Lawrence called an intelligent heart. It's this quality of highly charged feeling shaped by insight, empathy and compassion that makes her extraordinary urban pop cantata "Runaways" an immensely affecting show. To call it far and away the best musical of the season is to insult it. "Runaways" seizes your heart, plays with your pulse, dances exuberantly across the line that separates entertainment from involvement.
Swados's runaways are the deracinated, disconnected kids of the metropolis who have been cut off from the human continuity that families are supposed to provide. As writer, composer and director, Swados over a ten-month period assembled and worked with a cast ranging in age from 11 to 20, many of them actually runaways or "problem" children. In an astonishing feat of theatrical and social creativity, she organized these young people into an expressive community that electrifies the stage with power, poignance and pride.
Swados calls "Runaways" a "collage about the profound effects of our deteriorating families." Like some lost tribe of children bivouacked in a secret playground …, the nineteen kids play out their emotions—their fear, hope, despair and defiance—in shifting deployments from solos to choruses. For Swados everything is music: "Runaways" vibrates with city rhythms from rock to jazz, from soul to salsa. Swados's songs are sonic shapes...
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Let's pretend that nobody has overused the word "nice." It is, therefore, still fresh and available to describe a show that is decent, appealing, enjoyable without being extraordinary. Such a nice show is Runaways, by Elizabeth Swados…. [The] most authentic runaway is Liz Swados herself…. The true runaway quality about her is mental; her invention races freely between the near-classical and the quasi-popular styles of composition, much of it in a special, somewhat fey, faraway province of the imagination. Miss Swados … writes tunes and words about a wonderland often as bizarre and menacing as Lewis Carroll's and, unfortunately, real.
Here the subject is, of course, runaway children from eleven to their early twenties, and the sequence of unconnected but strategically ordered songs concerns, sometimes, the brighter moments of being young and streetwise or -foolish, and, more frequently, the pains of being alone, alienated, and in the process of becoming one of the metropolis's victims or victimizers. There are, however, glimpses of home life as well, so that the show (to a certain extent improvised by the cast) is really about growing up—absurdly, tragically, and sometimes, despite everything, even triumphantly.
The music, in all conceivable pop, folk, and ethnic modes, is fair to excellent. Swados, like most composers with genuine theatrical facility, is sometimes a bit too facile, and there are...
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"Runaways is about anybody who's in transition, anybody who's separated," said Swados; but the songs and monologues are about one sort of distance more than any other, the distance between ourselves and our families. Parental fights, divorce, child abuse and general neglect are what the kids describe: their fantasies are about belonging. "Let me be young before I get old," is the climactic plea. "Let me be a kid." They sing about life on the street, about heroin and prostitution and violence; they also demonstrate skateboard technique, play basketball and dream….
The music composed for Runaways is as straightforward as the rest of the production, mainly variations on a few hard-hitting themes, contrasting with the plaintive monologues. "This music is the folk music of the village, the Runaways village," Swados remarked. "The music tries to cover what is consciously agreeable to their age—I use salsa, rock, jazz—and the monologues to me are music, too."…
Although its theatrical and emotional heritage is in productions like Hair, Tommy and the Joffrey Ballet's groaningly hip Trinity, Runaways successfully avoids the gaseous self-indulgence of those Broadway efforts…. Most musicals can be tied up with a bow and delivered whole; Runaways is different. There is no happy ending, no glorious resolution; the stark question, "Where do people go?/When they run away?/Where do...
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Once upon a time, Elizabeth Swados wrote a children's book called The Girl with the Incredible Feeling. In 1977—when I was still interested in Swados's work, though beginning to be troubled by it—I bought the book for my daughter Maja, then four. The story was about a girl who had a feeling (drawn as a multicolored blob) which made her sing, dance, "laugh at things others fought over," and have visions…. One day a man came out of the shadows and said the world could use this terrific feeling, so it was dressed up, therapized, explicated, plagiarized. The girl became "more popular," but the feeling grew weak and disappeared. After a while the girl felt empty inside and had horrible dreams. Every thing and person looked the same to her. So despite the blandishments of the shadow-man and offers of other people's feelings and "amazing facts," she hunted for her feeling and, by returning to the place she started from, reclaimed it. The Blue Bird of Art is found in the Self.
The cartoony drawings and kindergarten vocabulary were about right for Maja, but she didn't like the story much. So I put the book away. It is more about Swados than for children. And her idea that feeling, or insight, or imagination, or skill is a precious blob one mustn't let others touch seemed a deadly notion for a child.
It's not such a terrific notion for a theatre artist either. From Swados's experimental (or Brook/Serban) phase,...
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It may sound pat … to praise a small inexpensive show. I risk it happily…. Swados made a musical from her book for children, The Girl with the Incredible Feeling, and called it The Incredible Feeling Show. It's the perfect title…. It's a long while since an hour and a quarter in the theater has passed in such sheer delight.
Swados's songs, a few of them reminiscent of her past works, are ingeniously based on pop forms….
If you're in New York during the run, even without children, take a plunge into a pool of bubbles. (p. 25)
Stanley Kauffmann. "Slay It With Music" (copyright © 1979 by Stanley Kauffmann: reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents. Inc.), in The New Republic, March 24, 1979, pp. 24-5.
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[What] went wrong with "Dispatches"?
Certainly, in addition to all her other creative talents, Miss Swados proved (in "Nightclub Cantata" and "Runaways") an abundant aptitude for original musical-theater entertainment. "Dispatches," Michael Herr's hard-hitting, graphically authentic reportage from Vietnam, offered a challenge which unfortunately has not been met….
The magnitude of the subject [of Vietnam] looms over the inadequacy of Miss Swados' noisy gallimaufry.
Using passages from Mr. Herr's book as spoken links and lyric themes, Miss Swados embellishes the text with 21 musical numbers in a score that features rock-and-roll but which also includes blues, country, and western, and even a setting of the 91st Psalm in a black-gospel treatment. Since she is a gifted melodist and lyric writer, "Dispatches" offers some rewards to relieve the general monotony….
On the whole, however, this musical amalgam … trivializes its source material, and more important, the enormous subject with which it strives to deal. Besides seeming dated, the attempt underscores the limits of the rock idiom. (p. 18)
John Beaufort, in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 The Christian Science Monitor Publishing Society: all rights reserved), April 25, 1979.
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This is not an apocryphal story: A Vietnam combat veteran went to see Elizabeth Swados's Dispatches in preview. After the show he introduced himself, saying that he had been in Vietnam when Michael Herr was there and would like to talk to her whenever she had a moment. "I'm sorry, I can't," said Swados, "I'm too vulnerable."
Swados has always worked with material that cuts to the emotional quick and, based as it is on things that happen to real people, should allow us no recourse. At the same time she apparently needs to make art pretty, to create easy affect through coarse effects. To be moved by one of her pieces is to be pushed around; this was true of the concentration camp and political material in Nightclub Cantata …, and the child abuse and desertion in Runaways…. But to be pushed around emotionally is not, of course, to be moved. Swados provides experiences of a measured, mollified harshness and her ideal spectator is confronted just enough to be absolved of further thought. She wants us to be vulnerable: but only to her work, and only for the moment of watching….
Herr's book is apolitical, almost antipolitical, all about looking-at-him-looking-at-the-war. But at least he looks at himself (and his colleagues) with some irony and toughness, and the book is understood to be a report of what he—scared, skewed, stoned, there by choice, and having his happy childhood—picked to see. It...
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Dispatches doesn't have any dramatic continuity; it is another Swados nightclub cantata, a setting of disconnected passages from Michael Herr's book of war reportage. Herr's main interest is what Vietnam did to one's consciousness, his own as much as the soldiers'. At one point he equates the moral upheavals caused by the war with the social upheavals going on back home, and refers to a "rock-and-roll war." This dubious phrase is the one that has misled Ms. Swados. Her war is staged as a rock concert…. It is not the silliest damn thing I've ever seen in my life (close, though), but it is certainly the most frustrating waste of a major opportunity….
[The net effect of Swados's] tinpan tunes and cute diddy-bop routines is to soften and mute the gritty realities on which Herr's speculations are based; the words go racing by semi-audibly, usually cheapened by the visual component. An interesting anecdote about a female Viet Cong sniper is turned into a Lady-in-Red honky-tonk number; a disturbing list of the superstitions G.I.s clung to is lightened with a cheery ragtime tune.
Imitations of famous rock acts, and tableaux copied from news photographs, add to the distraction. What does the story of a legless soldier and the priest who lied to him have to do with Jimi Hendrix's guitar-smashing act?…
A performance that dealt with the facts, causes, and effects of the Vietnam war in an...
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Though billed as a "rock-war musical," there's hardly a moment of rock in Elizabeth Swados's adaptation of Michael Herr's Dispatches and only a child's storybook sense of war. One of Herr's triumphs was the invention of an electric-mosaic prose style whose intense emotional cross-currents and streetwise rhythms are the literary equivalent of hard-rock music. Dispatches is a sustained riff on the romance of fear, the pornography of war, and the limits of machismo. Like the greatest rock music, especially the voodoo psychedelic funk of Jimi Hendrix, its mixture of pain, humor, and superstition is as close to unbearable as it is compelling. The book takes off on the McLuhanist assumption that the same technology that produced rock, produced Vietnam when America grafted its electric-circuit consciousness to Asia. One of the many ways Herr dramatized this interface was by sprinkling rock lyrics throughout his chronicle. The language dissolves into funk into techno-jargon and back, explosion, feedback, and reverb: amplification and remote control, technical precision guided by insane superstition.
There's no evidence in her musical that Swados has ever seriously considered Herr's techno-military ironies or their relation to American machismo. Swados carved a modest niche in the musical world by ignoring just such issues to forge a sentimental/primitive salon theatrical style, antithetical to the very concept of rock power....
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[Dispatches is a] sordid, even sinister, business. I am willing to believe that Herr's book is all they claim for it; all the more reason to bemoan the self-indulgent, sophomoric, and tuneless mess Miss Swados has made of it. Indeed, the entire Vietnam experience is trivialized, vulgarized, and, worst of all, made boring. It is one thing to take runaway children and portray their dropping out through clever verbal-musical vignettes; such kids do develop a gutter cleverness, are drawn to and drugged by rock music, and can be choreographed into dances of protest, wistful self-expression, kinetic energy as a substitute for purposeful activity.
But the Vietnam war, the soldiers, dismemberment and dying, national shame and personal tragedy submerged in heat, mud, humiliation, and sometimes modes of perishing that are denied even the dignity of combat (such as being shot by one's own buddies)—these cannot be judged by words cut out of context and turned into lyrics by a dubious art of découpage, and accompanied with music that, this time round, is all monotonous non-melody. Almost every "tune" here could be done full justice to by a penny whistle, baby's rattle, and tin drum…. (p. 85)
John Simon, in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), May 7, 1979.
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