Elizabeth (Liz) Swados was an American composer, writer, and theatrical director. Best known for her 1978 Broadway musical, Runaways, Swados created a diverse body of work that also included novels, poetry, plays, and music. After beginning her career writing musical accompaniment for off-Broadway plays, Swados’ works of fiction for both children and adults in addressed issues such as mental health, homelessness, and human rights. During her career, Swados received three Obie Awards, five Tony nominations, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an honorary doctorate, among many other accolades and awards.
Early Life and Career
Elizabeth (Liz) Swados was born February 5, 1951, in Buffalo, New York, to Robert and Sylvia (Maisel) Swados. Although Robert eventually became a lawyer and Sylvia wrote poetry and newspaper columns, both had some early experience as actors. Sylvia was of Russian Jewish descent; Robert’s family was from Lithuania and changed “Swaidisch” to “Swados” upon their arrival in America. Liz had one sibling, an older brother named Lincoln, whose lifelong struggles with schizophrenia and homelessness greatly influenced her work’s themes and concerns—as did Sylvia’s death from suicide in 1974, after a long struggle with depression. Robert died in 2012 at the age of 93.
Liz was a creative and somewhat lonely child who spent her time writing short stories and playing folk music on the guitar and piano. She ran away from home several times before enrolling at Bennington College when she was sixteen. There, she studied creative writing and musical composition. Her first full-length composition, a symphonic work starring thirty actors portraying a Balinese monkey chorus, foreshadowed her eclectic and decidedly theatrical career. While still a student at Bennington, Liz began working with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in Manhattan’s East Village. The Club’s visionary founder, Ellen Stewart, took Liz under her wing, introducing her to artists and musicians from Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South America, whose works would be major influences on her own, both at La MaMa and later in her career.
Swados’ first major project at La MaMa was composing music for Andrei Serban’s adaptation of Medea. She later collaborated with Serban several more times at La MaMa and with Joseph Papp for a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Public Theater. Papp wanted her to write music for more productions at the Public, but Liz yearned to write, compose, and direct something of her own. After toying with the idea of adapting Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland for the stage, she approached Papp about creating a musical that would tell the stories of real children who had run away from home, from the foster system, or from someplace worse, and were living on the streets of New York. He agreed to produce it.
Runaways and Beyond
Runaways opened at the Public Theater on February 21, 1978, transferred to Broadway in May, and closed in December of that same year. The show told the stories of runaway children and teens through song, monologue, poems, and dance pieces, highlighting the fear and abuse suffered by “street kids,” as well as their fleeting joys and triumphs. The ethnically and racially diverse cast of young people sang songs inspired by jazz, calypso, rock and roll, American folk music, and Latin dance music. Critics praised the show during its run at the Public, but opinions were more mixed after its transfer to Broadway. Some disparaged its dark tone, at-times disturbing subject matter, and lack of a clear, happy resolution for the characters. Swados won the Obie award for Best Direction and was nominated for Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction of a Musical, and Best Choreography.
Swados returned to Broadway only once more in her career, for her 1983 collaboration with Garry Trudeau on Doonesbury: A Musical Comedy, based on his popular comic strip. From the close of Runaways in late 1978 until her death from complications of esophageal cancer more than 37 years later, Elizabeth Swados produced a constant stream of musicals, musical accompaniments, oratorios, song cycles, television specials, children’s books, novels, poetry, and memoirs. During these years most of her work for the stage was produced off- and off-off-Broadway, where the themes and forms that inspired her creative process were more widely appreciated. Notable productions included Dispatches at the Public Theater, a “rock-war” musical about the Vietnam conflict.
Like Runaways, much of Swados’ later work provided a voice for the children, teens, and young people whose trials and concerns were so often silenced in “adult” culture. In 1976, she wrote the children’s book The Girl with the Incredible Feeling, about the importance of staying true to one’s own unique vision of the world. Two years later, she adapted the story into The Incredible Feelings Show, for the First All Children’s Theater, an off-off-Broadway company of young actors. In 1989, she returned to addressing the difficulties of modern urban life for young people in The Red Sneaks, a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes. Swados published seven books for children, many focused on the importance of imagination and self-expression. Two of her novels, Leah and Lazar (1982) and The Myth Man (1994), feature young female protagonists dealing with extraordinary hardships.
Swados often drew on her Jewish heritage, to produce works based on Hebrew Bible stories and Jewish literature. In a 1990 interview with the New York Times, she explained that, although she was not a practicing Jew, she felt drawn to stories of the Jewish faith because they were simultaneously lyrical and narrative. Her first major work with Jewish themes was The Haggadah: A Passover Cantata, performed at the Public Theater in 1980. Swados adapted writer Elie Wiesel’s poetry and prose for the libretto, and the production featured shadow puppetry by Julie Taymor. In 1984 her work Jerusalem: An Oratorio was performed at La MaMa. A musical tour through the eclectic sounds of the Holy Land, it featured text by the poet Yehuda Amichai. Swados also explored the stories of Jonah (in a 1990 musical), Job (in a parable about AIDS and global famine), and the stories of biblical women (in a 1995 song cycle.) In 1994, her cantata based on the book, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust was performed at the United Nations. Jewish Girlz, a 2003 musical, explored the diverse experiences of young Jewish girls.
Inspired by both her own depression and that of family members, Swados also frequently wrote about mental health struggles. The Four of Us: A Family Memoir (1993) explored her early life and relationship with her brother, who was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Her 1992 musical play Groundhog was also inspired by her brother’s struggles with homelessness and mental illness. My Depression: A Picture Book (2005) is a playful but insightful exploration of Swados’ own struggles with mental illness.
Through poetry and prose, music and movement, Elizabeth Swados created a complex and nuanced portrait of the way she saw the world. She addressed her sexuality in a poem called “Bi Bi”, published in Feminist Studies in 2012. It begins, “Do I like girls? / Do I like boys? / At this age does it matter?”
Throughout her career, Swados remained devoted to helping young people cope with their struggles through art. She spent many years teaching at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. When the university saw a dramatic uptick in student suicides, she worked with undergrads to create The Reality Show, a musical about mental health that has been part of the NYU freshman orientation program since 2005.
At the core of Swados’ varied and extensive legacy is a dedication to giving voice to the unheard, helping others survive and thrive despite mental illness, and bringing joy and humor to the darkest aspects of our world. She is survived by her wife of nearly thirty years, Roz Licher.
Selected Works by Elizabeth Swados
Swados, Elizabeth. At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater. New York: Faber and Faber, 2006.
Swados, Elizabeth. Listening out Loud: Becoming a Composer. York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Swados, Elizabeth. “The Story of a Street Person.” New York Times (New York, NY), August 18, 1991.
Swados, Elizabeth. Waiting: Selected Nonfiction. Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 2011.
Grimes, William. “Elizabeth Swados, Creator of Socially Conscious Musicals, is Dead at 64.” New York Times (New York, NY), Jan. 6, 2016
Pall, E. “A Sulky Rock Star Among Prophets.” New York Times (New York, NY), March 4, 1990.
Shepard, Richard F. “Children Do Musical By Swados: Interpreting the Roles.” New York Times (New York, NY), Feb. 16, 1979.
Swados, Elizabeth. “Upfront: Broadway Baby.” Vogue, December 1, 2000.