Elizabeth Swados brought to the stage the unexpected, combining musical styles, dance, ritual and poetry, often collaborating with young people to bring their voices to the mix. Underlying much of her bold work was a commitment to social justice as well as to Judaism.
A writer, composer, musician, choreographer and theater director, Ms. Swados died last week in New York City from complications following surgery for esophageal cancer. An influential force in musical theater for more than 35 years, she was 64.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of “Hamilton,” posted these words online: “Liz Swados was using hip-hop on Broadway in 1978, ahead of EVERYBODY. A colossus, singular, unequaled.”
Ms. Swados’ wife, Roz Lichter, said, “Liz was an artist. It’s not that she was ahead of her time. She was on Liz time.”
She was 27 when she wrote, choreographed and directed “Runaways,” created by, cast with and based on the lives of 18 troubled young men and women. The show moved from the Public Theater to Broadway in 1978, earning five Tony nominations.
In a 1998 interview, she told The Jewish Week, “I had a lot of struggle when I was young. I love to see people who don’t have a chance work their way out — to see that they can do something.”
“‘Runaways’ is the most Jewish piece I’ve ever done,” she said, “My version of being an observant Jew is to try to bring good to other people and to work hard and to argue over justice.” She said that the late Joseph Papp would tell her that there was a Jewish song in every one of her productions, even her rock opera about Vietnam.
“She was an original, a true genius who wore it lightly,” painter Tobi Kahn, a close friend of Swados’ since the 1980s, said. He collaborated with Ms. Swados, including work on her musical “Jonah,” when they turned the set and theater into the inside of a whale. “Working with her was heaven. She was the most creative human being I’ve ever met.”
Judith Ginsberg, also a close friend for decades and her literary executor, said, “Although she wasn’t traditionally observant, she was profoundly Jewish, in her worldview and her sympathy for the underdog, her desire to improve the world, her bringing different talents together.” Ginsberg worked with Swados when she headed the Covenant Foundation to launch “The Hating Pot,” a musical with city teens about racism and anti-Semitism. That show was performed off Broadway, in schools and broadcast on PBS.
Ms. Swados grew up in Buffalo, where her father, a graduate of Harvard Law School, was a prominent attorney. Her mother, an actress and poet, suffered from depression and took her own life. Her brother Lincoln had schizophrenia and died in 1989. She chronicled her family’s story in her 1991 memoir, “The Four of Us.”
At Bennington College, Ms. Swados studied music and creative writing. Her first experience of working with “kids on the borders, those at risk” was in Africa, when she was 20 and touring with Peter Brook’s theater group. Her job was to go out into the villages with her 12-string guitar and engage the local children before the actors arrived. She was part Pied Piper and part troubadour: She’d exchange noises with them and teach them songs. Once they were interested, their parents would join them outside, and the troupe would have an audience for their performance.
During her student days, she began working with Ellen Stewart at LaMama in New York City and later with Papp at the Public Theater. She collaborated with Gary Trudeau on the musicals “Doonesbury,” based on his comic strip, and “Rap Master Ronnie,” a rap music satire of the Reagan administration.
She also wrote and directed “Missionaries,” an opera about the four churchwomen killed in El Salvador in 1980, and “The Story of Job,” a biblical musical based on the biblical book and depicted by clowns. For the Public Theater, she created “Alice in Concert,” a musical adaptation of the works of Lewis Caroll, and then adapted it for television as “Alice at the Palace,” with both productions starring Meryl Streep. She adapted S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” for the stage and composed 20 original songs for “Nightclub Cantata,” an evening highlighting the writing of Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda and others. Her multi-language oratorio “Jerusalem,” based on Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, was inspired by a trip to Jerusalem, when the poet was her guide. She performed in many of her works, including “Bible Women.”
“For Liz, the stories of the Bible were the best stories in the universe,” Lichter said.
Among other projects with teens are “Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together,” with the voices of Dominican and Jewish teens, sharing their own stories and the history of Jews given refuge during the Holocaust in the Dominican Republic, and “The Reality Show,” a musical comedy PSA she created with NYU students, featuring rock music, dance and frank talk about issues like sex and depression.
Lichter, an entertainment lawyer, said that many of the young people Ms. Swados worked with stayed in her life. “Her email was filled with young people updating her. She thought of them as people who were following their own music. She would never say she influenced then, she would just listen to what they were doing. She was very unpretentious.”
“Her joy was in making her own sounds and making her own words, very much in the present,” Lichter said. They have been together since 1989.
A decidedly downtown New Yorker, Swados was the recipient of three Obie Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture Award. Described by friends as always working on several artistic projects at once, she also scored other musicals, and wrote screenplays and music for several ballets. In addition, she published novels, works of non-fiction, children’s books, a theatre textbook and poetry. She made an animated film based on her memoir “My Depression,” which was presented at the Tribeca Film Festival and broadcast on HBO last summer.”
Her final novel, “Walking the Dog,” will be published this summer by The Feminist Press at CUNY.
One of her most recent projects was directing “Guns: A Cabaret,” a rock concert in cabaret style, blending comedy, tragedy and outrage.
“Her heart’s language was music,” writer Nessa Rapoport, a longtime friend, said. “Every musical idiom engaged her, and she mastered — and could be playful with — the most complex and sophisticated sounds from all over the world. She loved sound — birdsong, clicking, folk music; any culture on any continent was immediately accessible to her.
Rapoport, who is married to Tobi Kahn, added, “She had a plumb-true intuition for Jewish authenticity and, unlike many renowned contemporary artists who are Jews, never viewed her Jewishness as provincial, but as her unshakable identity and a source of infinite interpretive riches.”
At many family events that Kahn and Rapoport hosted, Ms. Swados performed with a chorus of singers from diverse backgrounds. As Rapoport recounts, she concluded each performance with her gospel composition of “Holy, holy, holy/The whole earth is filled with His glory.”
At these brief concerts, I was struck by Ms. Swados’ seriousness of purpose, energetically and lovingly conducting her singers and also having great fun. Her work was experimental, empathetic, accessible and as eclectic as her reggae “Song of Songs.”
Jenny Lyn Bader, a playwright and author, first saw “Haggadah,” Ms. Swados’ theatrical version of the seder, as a child. “In that production, theater became pageant and ritual and event, the way it’s supposed to be,” she said. “She mixed ancient and modern texts, music with puppetry, making a familiar story new, creating a world that felt momentous, moving, timeless. That play forever changed the way I think about theatrical experience.
Bader continued, “I love that she wasn’t someone who made distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow art; she took elements she needed from different categories and unified them. In my experience, she also didn’t make distinctions between people.”
In a new development, City Center has announced that it will present “Runaways” in the summer of 2016, directed and choreographed by students of Ms. Swados, cast with an open call to high school students. Artistic director Jeanine Tesori said that she had always wanted to present something by Swados and “Runaways” was on top of her list.
“Since we can’t do “Runaways” with her, we’ll now do it for her.”
A memorial service for Swados is planned for next month.