“I’m not a legitimate theatrical composer like Steve Sondheim, that sort of thing,” insisted Elizabeth Swados to New York in 1980. “I’m not such a good musician, but I do have an excellent ear. People say I don’t write melodic music. I was talking to a Broadway producer who told me I could learn to write melodies. But my orientation is different; I’m writing music that can’t be dissociated from a theatrical piece, from the event itself.” In fairness, one should note that the same affront – “he can’t write melodic music” – was hurled at the young Sondheim who also asserted that his songs were written purely to serve a piece of theatre, not as standalone songs for the top 40 or otherwise. Swados, who died in 2016 at the age of 64, can happily be proven wrong with Ghostlight Records’ release (currently digital-only) of The Liz Swados Project. Over nineteen tracks (seventeen newly recorded, and all previously unreleased) performed by a cast of theatre’s finest actors and singers with a full band, it’s clear that experimental theatre icon Swados could be melodic when the spirit moved her, and also that her songs can live and even thrive divorced from their original theatrical sources.
The Liz Swados Project presents songs from ten of Swados’ works, arranged and orchestrated by her longtime musical director Kris Kukul (who brought much of the musical flair to Broadway’s Beetlejuice). Swados was one of the young writers whose talents were shepherded by Joe Papp at The Public Theater. (The visionary impresario also took an interest in a young theatre composer named Jim Steinman, and much later, in the already established Todd Rundgren.) Her music blended rock, pop, folk, jazz, opera, soul, blues, modern classical, and very occasionally, what we think of as “musical theatre.” Whatever the style, it was always tailored to the subject about which she chose to write. If one song isn’t a listener’s cup of tea, there’s a solid chance the next one will be.
Swados made her Broadway debut in 1977 under Papp’s aegis, providing incidental music for a revival of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. That production was directed by her frequent collaborator Andrei Serban, and just months later, she and Serban conceived a new production of Agamemnon for Papp on Broadway. She again wrote the incidental score. Her biggest splash came the following year, though, with a full-blown musical. Runaways hadn’t been conceived as such, but ended up transferring from Papp’s downtown off-Broadway venue to Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre. It was built around the stories and words of children who had run away from home and ended up on the streets; Swados wrote the book, music, and lyrics and also directed, choreographed, and played guitar in the pit. She remains one of the few artists to be nominated for four Tony Awards in one season (for all of the above-named roles other than the guitar). A fixture of the off-Broadway scene, she was never entirely comfortable on Broadway, and only returned once more.
Runaways characterized Swados’ style which emphasized social consciousness. Whether writing a musical, an opera, an oratorio, or a song cycle, she took on heavy and significant themes. Not all of her musicals are featured – there’s nothing here from her collaborations with cartoonist-satirist Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury (based on his comic strip) and Rap Master Ronnie. But the almost 20 songs here fully showcase the depth and breadth of her talents as a composer, lyricist, and storyteller. It may be impossible to capture every facet of Swados’ art, including her humor (often in unexpected places), on one album, but The Liz Swados Project comes admirably close.
The opening track, Runaways‘ anthem “We Are Not Strangers,” was described by its composer as “a hymn for wanderers, a coming together of people who’ve been through hard times.” The hypnotic, shimmering rendition comes courtesy of Heather Christian. It’s one of four songs from the show here. As a devotee of experimentalism, Swados would surely have approved of the transformation of her compositions. She originally set “Every Now and Then,” an expression and exploration of the sadness and regrets experienced by a runaway, to a slow Brazilian samba; the interpretation here by Dave Malloy (composer-lyricist-librettist of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) moves the song from Brazil to a seedy New Orleans bar after dark with boisterous group vocals and Kukul’s woozy horns.
Sophia Anne Caruso, so memorable in both Beetlejuice and David Bowie’s off-Broadway musical Lazarus, gives a chilling reading of “Song of the Child Prostitute,” a piece composed in monotone to reflect the dulled senses of the 13-year old character for whom it was written. (Caruso appeared in the 2016 City Center Encores! Off Center revival of Runaways.) Michael R. Jackson, recent Pulitzer winner for his musical A Strange Loop, leads Runaways’ finale, “Lonesome of the Road.” Wishing to leave the audience on a hopeful if realistic note, its uplifting lyrics (reiterating the difference between being lonely and being alone) were married to one of Swados’ most traditionally accessible and happily rousing pop melodies.
Meryl Streep starred as Alice in Swados’ 1980 Alice in Concert (later filmed with its star for television as Alice at the Palace), a freeform musical retelling of the famous Lewis Carroll stories. Performance artist and playwright Taylor Mac embodies “The Red Queen” to a seductive tango rhythm with head-chopping gusto. (Debbie Allen played The Red Queen in the NBC adaptation which squarely set the show within a Victorian music hall.) For Alice, the versatile composer adopted a different musical style for each song. The sweet, acoustic guitar-based opening number “In This My Green World” (with lyrics from Kenneth Patchen’s poem) is delivered with childlike whimsy by Stephanie Hsu.
Ali Stroker, the big-voiced, Tony Award-winning Ado Annie of the latest, controversial Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, sings the hell out of “Take Me to Paris” from 1984’s The Beautiful Lady, based on Russian poems adapted by Paul Schmidt. The musical chronicles a group of Russian poets before the 1917 October Revolution; while there’s a Russian air to the song’s melody and arrangement, it’s also a potent showstopper. Damon Daunno, Curly in that same reimagining of Oklahoma!, brings a throaty rock edge to “Isadora.” On the third song from The Beautiful Lady, Starr Busby makes the triumphant promise that “A Change Will Come.”
Swados never stopped seeking change and empowering those who would work toward it. Grace McLean goes soul deep on the stirring “War Gets Old” from 1979’s Vietnam-themed rock musical Dispatches, with lyrics by Michael Herr. Missionaries, a “choral drama” about the murders of four American Catholic women in 1980 El Salvador by members of that country’s National Guard, was composed using the words of the women from their own journals and letters as well as sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero. “Salvador” (“…is such a beautiful country”) has the same delicate, childlike music box feel as “We Are Not Strangers.” Apart from the production, it captures a lovely moment before the tragedy. It’s sung by Ashley Perez Flanagan, Rachel Duddy, and Hannah Whitney.
The earliest show represented on The Liz Swados Project Swados’ is 1977’s Nightclub Cantata. The work consisted of 20 original songs set to lyrics adapted from contemporary prose and poetry (including Sylvia Plath and Carson McCullers). Most critics singled out the Roma, or “gypsy,” song “The Dance,” performed here by musical duo The Bengsons in a modern, clattering, and very theatrical arrangement. A second piece from Nightclub Cantata, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” is performed by the late singer-songwriter and Swados disciple Michael Friedman. It was recorded live at a Lincoln Center American Songbook salute to Swados, and also features Rachel Duddy and Dara Orland. Swados set music to a poem by Turkish author Nazim Hikmet; it’s very nearly a droned recitation allowing for close attention to be paid to the words.
Shaina Taub, a talented songwriter herself who’s currently penning lyrics to Elton John’s score for the upcoming stage version of The Devil Wears Prada, sings “You Do Not Have to Be Good,” written by Swados and Mary Oliver for Atonement, a 2007 oratorio for Yom Kippur or “concert with liturgical underpinnings” as Swados called it. The ballad is arranged for piano and strings. Another liturgical composition, the choral “Amen,” is culled from her score to Haggadah: A Passover Cantata (1980).
Along the way, songs are also sampled from a 1978 Bottom Line concert (Amber Gray’s “Oh King Daddy”) and Swados’ first opera, 1982’s Lullaby and Goodnight (Alicia Olatuja’s “You Gave Me Love”). In a wonderful tribute, the late composer herself is heard on “Bird Lament,” a voice-and-guitar art song in which she calls, crows, and caws. Most appropriately, it’s the most avant-garde track on this release.
2015’s The Nomad, written with Erin Courtney, is the most recent Swados work here. It was billed as “a desert musical” with “holy men, kief smokers, spies, soldiers, and tribes of nomads.” The melody and arrangement of “Souf,” thrillingly sung by Jo Lampert (David Byrne’s Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, Burt Bacharach and Steven Sater’s New York Animals), evokes an exotic and adventurous spirit. That latter quality, in particular, defined much of Elizabeth Swados’ oeuvre. The downtown doyenne prolifically wrote throughout her career, always staying true to her muse. “Every now and then,” an uncompromising and unconventional artist like Elizabeth Swados comes along. With impassioned performances by so many artists influenced by her body of work, The Liz Swados Project proves that her songs will, indeed, live on.