Remembering Liz Swados

Lesbian and Jewish theater icon Elizabeth Swados died in January at the age of 64. Swados was an American writer, composer, musician and theater director.

Michael Friedman, the Obie Award-winning composer and lyricist of musicals including Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Fortress of Solitude, and Pretty Filthy, shares his memories of his collaborator and mentor.

It says a lot about how dumb I was as an undergraduate that, when I was offered a chance to work with Liz Swados, I nearly turned it down to be in a collegiate drag show.

Instead, I dropped out of the Hasty Pudding show and changed my life. The show was “Cantata 2000, Liz’s setting of contemporary poetry, stories, and other writing by young and mostly under-the-radar writers, a sort of State of the Union in song, written on and with her undergraduate performers.

I had no idea theater could do that. Or that a major theater artist could have such faith and trust in a young music director, treating me, and the actors, like equals and partners, while always maintaining complete authority.

After I graduated, I moved to New York and was working at a consulting firm when Liz called. “Would I work on a new piece at La Mama? Oh, and maybe something at BAM? And then maybe this Brecht adaptation with Andrei Serban at Columbia?” …until I was basically working in theater full time. At some point, the consulting firm kindly told me that since I had stopped coming to work, they assumed I had quit (this happened, perfectly, at the firm Christmas party). I had made the choice, this time without realizing it. I was free. Liz showed me, like she was always trying to show the American theater, that it doesn’t always have to be like that (whatever THAT might be): it (work, life) can be more personal, more political, more resonant, more timeless, more.

And that unique “more” was evident in her entire body of work: the most exciting and radical American confrontation with the Greeks, perhaps the most archetypal and thoughtful musical of the ’70s, the most unexpected “Alice in Wonderland,” the always-searching works on Jewish themes (over 20 of them across her entire career), the extraordinary oratorio “Missionaries,” and, recently, a dizzying array of myths and stories, contemporary and classical—“Kasper Hauser,” “The Golem,” the Triangle Shirtwaist fireUbu, and, in an astonishing work, her own depression. And let’s not forget the too-little-known masterpiece “Beautiful Lady,” a deeply felt meditation on the triumph and catastrophe of the Russian avant garde. And look, I’ve neglected the collaborations with Gary Trudeau! And, the confrontations with ShakespeareBrecht, Chekov! (Also, not that it matters, but she was the only person ever nominated in one year for best musical, direction, score, book, and choreography at the Tony Awards. I mean…)

We don’t know how to talk about teaching in America. But as Liz’s teaching and work were inseparable, let’s just say it’s hard to think of another theater artist who loved young people more, who understood and listened to them better, and who wrote for them so well. Only Liz could make Runaways, a work of “community theater” featuring at-risk youth performing their own stories, and see it become her “big hit” on Broadway. For Liz, there was no contradiction. Take a look at the list of the people who worked with her as students, from Diane Lane to Jason Robert Brown to Shaina Taub; it is a devastating who’s who of theater artists.

That would be enough, but I think another of Liz’s achievements has been underplayed—her understanding of music and lyrics.

She set words as she heard them, creating satisfying musical structures that were never as interested in rhyme or scansion as much as in intention and communication. Her songs would seem hard to learn (especially her notorious quarter-note triplets), but in performance her music was deceptively, amazingly, natural. Almost, if I may be solemn (and Liz was seldom solemn), Liz’s music was as if the achievements of Stravinsky, of Janacek, of the Seegers and the folk movement were being applied to musical theater. Anyone who worked with her, certainly I, could never quite look at songwriting the same way again. Liz is in the DNA of my work.

I wish I could say that in her lifetime Liz really got her proper due from the theater community, from the New York Times, from the institutions she defined, from me. She did not. But she continued to make work with a huge sense of mission, of purpose, of commitment; setting another example of how to make art that made nonsense of the culture market.

At some point Liz sensed that I was itching to make my own work. We were in the loft she shared with her wife Roz and the dogs, and she mentioned that maybe we should take some time off from each other. And that was it. She set me free yet again, which is a gift I will never ever be able to repay.


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