Elizabeth Swados Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.