It wasn’t that long ago when Broadway producers put originality before the box office and tourists. In 1979, the New York Shakespeare Festival moved Runaways, another in a series of sold-out shows (the most successful 1975’s A Chorus Line; the most recent 2010’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), uptown from Astor Place. The musical, featuring real runaway teenagers, was composed, written, and directed by Elizabeth Swados. Runaways received multiple Tony nominations and established Liz Swados’s reputation. As she makes clear in Waiting: Selected Nonfiction, she has been “trashed, resurrected, trashed, and mentored dozens of young artists. I’ve survived well.” Despite its brief length, Waiting is a thoroughly friendly introduction to Swados’s life and work, a wistful remembrance of a vibrant era in New York theatre, and a perceptive look at how theatre is created.
A Buffalo, NY native, Swados comes from a family of accomplished professionals (father Robert was a lawyer and co-founder of the Buffalo Sabres hockey franchise), writers (second cousin Harvey’s Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn is available from New York Review Books), and educators (Pulitzer Prize-winning professor and historian Richard Hofstadter married into the family). Thus it is no surprise that she discovered music at an early age. In an excerpt from Listening Out Loud, she recalls her first efforts at composing:
I’d found a language that was secret, controllable, and my own. My senses woke up; I sweated as if I was doing sports; I felt brave and excited as if I were a heroine at the beginning of a long adventure. At the age of five I didn’t care about the other composers whose music sat at the piano. The idea that anyone might know my sounds would have seemed absurd. No one else had been there. No one heard what I heard. I owned the world.
Such an artistic, upwardly mobile circa-1950s family unit was ripe for jealousies, resentments, and longstanding arguments. What further distinguishes the Swados family is tragedy. The author is candid about her bipolarism throughout this collection and in the 2005 memoir My Depression: A Picture Book. Elsewhere, particularly her 1991 memoir The Four of Us, she has discussed her mother, an alcoholic who committed suicide, and her older brother Lincoln, a schizophrenic.
The heart of Waiting—and indeed of Swados’s life—is contained in the essay “The Story of a Street Person.” Written with the alternating voices of a confused teenager and adult’s careful, deliberate reconstruction of her family history for the benefit of a close friend, Liz memorializes the brother that her parents treated like a “monster,” who “went to college and never returned.” Perhaps not so shockingly to those who grew up in post-World War thru late 1970’s America, her parents did not tell her of Lincoln’s diagnosis until she was in her twenties:
My family didn’t intend to create a damaging situation by lying to me. It was just that there was no precedent. They didn’t know what to do. Mental illness at that time constituted the shame of shames. My father could not accept that Lincoln’s sickness was not an act of will on the part of a severely delinquent boy. Schizophrenia is an extremely guilt-provoking disease…The acceptance that it is a disease is the only positive first step, and my parents, disgusted, terrified, and prejudiced about mental illness, couldn’t get that far.
Lincoln attempted suicide and ended up homeless. “Generalizations are worthless” his sister reasons; her brother was “brought low by a specific, personal demon.” He died at the age of 46 barricaded in a Lower East Side shack he refused to vacate.
Readers do not need to be told outright where the author finds her inspiration. Elizabeth Swados’s work speaks for itself. For example, Haggadah, a staged interfaith Passover oratorio, has its origins in early happy family memories of seders marking her “first exposure to real theatre.” In 2005, along with her New York University colleagues, she created the annual Reality Show, a musical, non-preachy presentation designed to help freshmen acclimate to their new school and its environs. Based on the true story of the Dominican Republic’s successful effort in rescuing 800 Jews during the Holocaust, 2010’s Sosua was devised specifically for and performed by children from the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. The essay “Job: He’s A Clown” is a detailed analysis of how Ms. Swados combined the Old Testament horror story with one of the earliest and most endearing forms of entertainment. Her description recreates the 1994 production in words:
Of course clowns do scream for relief. By the time thirty pies have been thrown in Job’s face, he would demand an explanation. “Why me? Why not Eilphaz, Bildad, or the clown on the unicycle or the one on the donkey?” The silence that meets Job’s entreaties makes his temper seem more ridiculous. A lonely clown shaking his fist in an empty tent yelling at the empty sky is a perfect image of madness.
Perhaps only a composer—an American composer open to sound, ideas, and ethnic diversity—can describe the city of Jerusalem as “a kind of ecumenical Charles Ives concert.” Even better, Elizabeth Swados also knows what music can mean in someone’s life: “Hearing good music is a little like falling in love. You’re not sure what hit you, but you suddenly feel shaky and excited and intensely alive. Superficial music may touch a listener in a superficial way, but only fresh, genuine sound truly moves the spirit.”
The same can be easily applied to Elizabeth Swados’ own music, theatre, and her engaging collection of essays.