For over 20 years, Elizabeth Swados has worked with youngsters of all backgrounds in musicals such as her ’70s Broadway hit "Runaways." And she has collaborated with others to compose liturgical music like her ’95 album "Bible Women." But one group was noticeably missing.
"I never worked with people who had the same background," she told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. "I wanted to see what teenage middle-class Jewish girls had to say about sexuality, body image, relationships, and the influence of Jewish tradition."
Supported by a grant from Hadassah, and organizational help and a theater space from the JCC in Manhattan, Swados selected 13 girls ages 13 to 17 to create and perform dialogues, skits and musical numbers about their lives: from Passover seders to dating Jewish boys. The public is invited to attend performances of this work-in-progress at the JCC this week.
First, word was spread through schools and camps to get non-professional actors willing to devote themselves to countless afternoon and Sunday rehearsals. From auditions held in the fall, Swados selected a diverse, articulate group from a variety of Jewish and socio-economic backgrounds.
The collaborative process began with five weeks of group improv, music, discussion, and private interviews. Then Swados worked alone and shaped the raw material into song and story, and returned to work with the girls for another five weeks.
Rebecca Sweder, director of teen programs at the JCC, described the workshops as an "intense, almost professional acting experience."
Swados has plenty of experience persuading kids to discuss such tough issues as racism and aggression in her previous workshop-based productions "The Hating Pot" and "The Violence Project." The five-time Tony nominee and three-time Obie winner has had a number of shows on Broadway, including "Doonesbury."
The process was "amazing," Swados says. "All the girls are really, really smart and curious. They’re all in different states of being lost and being found. They have a combination of tremendous insight and naivete."
Swados encouraged them to talk openly about the stresses in their lives. One song, for example, about eating disorders is "about having too much of a good thing and starving at the same time," Swados says.
Another, called "Body Image," is about "the idea that Jewish women might have more problems with their body image because they traditionally have to cover their bodies." A song titled "Great Neck" is a send-up of "rich snobby Jews," she says.
Jewish rituals like Shabbat dinner and seders are covered, too, with an eye to "how their mothers do Jewish rituals as opposed to their grandmothers," says Swados. "They have their parents down pretty well," she laughs.
After this month’s performances, Swados hopes to regroup at the end of summer or in the fall for more workshops to ready the piece for a full production.
As far as she knows, there has never been anything like "Jewish Girls." The only play that similarly pays serious attention to the lives of young women of a certain ethnic group is Ntozake Shange’s 1976 classic "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf."
"Jewish Girls," which premieres on Mother’s Day, is appropriate for ages 11 and up. It happens to fall amid a series of JCC arts programs exploring the challenges faced by women in contemporary society. "Dangerous Beauty," an art exhibition examining the society’s pervasive emphasis on physical perfection, opens Wednesday. Related films, lectures, classes and concerts are scheduled as well.