Before the moment passes, I want to commemorate Elizabeth Swados, who died January 5, 2016, from esophageal cancer at the age of 64. Liz Swados was an extraordinary artist whom I admired tremendously and with whom I conducted a warm friendly acquaintance for over 30 years. I met her in July 1977 when she was in Boston remounting her off-Broadway hit show Nightclub Cantata and I interviewed her for the Boston Phoenix. I was a 23-year-old kid just a year out of college. She wasn’t much older (26) but she was already famous to me as a composer and theatrical wunderkind who had scrupulously recreated Greek choral music for Andrei Serban’s legendary Fragments of a Trilogy (powerful renditions of Medea, The Trojan Women and Electra), which premiered at La Mama ETC and toured the world, and she’d also spent time in Africa as an apprentice with Peter Brook. I enjoyed interviewing her very much – she was smart, honest, self-assured, down-to-earth, and friendly to me.
Nightclub Cantata knocked me out with its energetic settings of poems by fantastic writers, some of whom I knew (Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara) and some who were new to me (Nazim Hikmet, Delmore Schwartz), interspersed with original songs by Swados herself, all staged in a music/theater hybrid I hadn’t seen before, performed by a passionate young cast who became rock stars to me (especially JoAnna Peled, Jossie deGuzman, David Schechter, and Karen Evans, who soon married another actor in the show, Paul Kandel, and later became a mainstay with Mabou Mines). There was never an original cast recording but you can hear the music to that and many other of her shows on LizSwados.com.
I became a Swados groupie, trekking from Boston to New York in 1978 to see and review Runaways, her first Broadway musical and the show that launched her long association with Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival. (Rehearsal photo above by Nathaniel Tileston)
In the spring of 1979, I was fortunate to catch Fragments of a Trilogy remounted at La Mama with its incredible immersive staging (as we would call it now) by Andrei Serban and fierce performances by a gigantic cast that included Priscilla Smith, JoAnna Peled, and William Duff-Griffin.
The trilogy is still among the greatest theater pieces I’ve ever witnessed, and it cemented my relationship with Stephen Holden, with whom I’d spend the next 14 years living, loving, and seeing great performances. Stephen had admired Liz since she’d auditioned for him as a singer-songwriter when he briefly worked in A&R for RCA Records.
We both reviewed Dispatches, her terrific stage adaptation of Michael Herr’s exquisitely written book about Vietnam at the Public Theater (me for the Phoenix, he for the Village Voice), and together we saw The Haggadah (with its fantastic masks and puppets by the then-unknown Julie Taymor) and Alice in Concert (her adaptation of Lewis Carroll featuring wonderful performers like Sheila Dabney, Rodney Hudson, Michael Jeter, Mark Linn-Baker, Amanda Plummer, Deborah Rush, and oh yeah, Meryl Streep as Alice). I look back at the reviews I wrote of Runaways, Dispatches, and Alice in Concert, and I cringe with embarrassment at the snotty condescending tone with which I wrote about some of her best work.
Swados made a lot of shows in the 1980s and ‘90s, most of them not very memorable, but I dutifully saw most of them: Lullaby and Goodnight, Under Fire, and Jonah at the Public, Swing and Missionaries at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, Jerusalem at La Mama, The Beautiful Lady at CSC Rep. Every so often I had occasion for personal contact with Liz. I wrote about the Broadway musical of Doonesbury, which was her bid for a big commercial hit. I remember attending a rehearsal at 890 Broadway and being knocked out by the songs and the wonderful cast, which included Gary Beach, Reathel Bean, Ralph Bruneau, Kate Burton, Laura Dean, mark Linn-Baker, Albert Macklin, Keith Szarabajka, and Lauren Tom. Then when I saw it onstage in the Boston tryout and the Broadway opening, I was shocked at how underwhelming it was, perhaps because the director, Off-Broadway pioneer Jacques Levy, was burned out, out of his league, or both. After I wrote about Doonesbury for the Voice, I had a conversation with Liz in which she indicated that she didn’t disagree with my assessment.
My memories of New York City in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are dominated by the AIDS crisis and the swath it cut through the world I lived in. My dear friend Robert Ott Boyle, whom I met when we were volunteers with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was diagnosed in early 1987, and he was starting to get pretty sick when Liz cast him in Esther, her Purim show at the 92nd Street Y. Liz was very sweet and supportive, which meant the world to him and to me. After Bob died, I donated his piano to an AIDS residence in the Bronx, which invited me to teach a writing workshop there. I agreed to do it, even though I dreaded teaching, felt totally inept at it, and had never taught a writing class before. But I knew Liz was a great teacher who knew a lot about working with youngsters and untrained performers, so I prevailed upon her to give me a tutorial.
I remember going over to her loft on Mercer Street and sitting down with her to envision a storytelling workshop for people with AIDS. That afternoon gave me a wonderful glimpse of some simple tools she used to tap energy and creativity in people with no particular training in theater or writing. I still have the index cards I took with me to the workshop, which largely centered on the fun of telling outrageous lies, making up nicknames for yourself, describing people and events that make you mad, making sounds or saying words that you either really like or you really hate. When I showed up to give the workshop, it didn’t go very well. I found myself in a room with just two people, a man and a woman who had a list of urgent needs on which “writing workshop” was about #29. Nevertheless, I was deeply touched and grateful and inspired by Liz’s willingness to share her teaching wizardry with me.
As she once said in an interview, “Happiness…has been so hard for so many of us. The losses especially make it hard to grow naturally middlish-aged. The haunted empty feelings are an inheritance of mine, but I’ve found that very specific tasks, very concrete acts of giving, very strong rituals of grieving attached to beauty and religion (not even mine) and the passages of life are affirming. Helpful. So’s the samba, boxing, hiking with phony Indian guides and, as always, pounding on a teenager or two before he gives up.”
Somewhere along the line we started a funny little collaboration conducted by answering machine and postal mail. Since we were both poetry hounds, I aspired to find poems that she would want to set to music. She was totally game for this project. The first one I sent her was a speech from Robert Auletta’s adaptation of the Sophocles play Ajax, which Peter Sellars staged during his brief tenure at the Kennedy Center in Washington. She diligently worked on it and eventually sent me a cassette tape of her musical setting. The same thing happened when I sent her my favorite poem by C.P. Cavafy, “Growing in Spirit.” I have a handful of lovely handwritten letters from her. One says, “Please the next time a verse strikes you, don’t hesitate to send it along. Maybe, over the years, we can create a song cycle by mail. I like that idea. It gives warmth. Good writing for song is very hard to discover.”
The song cycle never happened. Time went by. I cycled out of writing about theater. In 1994 Liz published a novel called The Myth Man, a roman a clef about downtown theater centering on the main character’s relationship with a charismatic, manipulative theater director. I knew enough about Liz and that world to guess almost all the real-life people the characters were based on, which tickled her.
The next time we crossed paths was at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by my friend Jonathan Van Meter, whose lawyer was Roz Lichter, who turned out to be Liz’s girlfriend and eventually her wife. (They’re pictured above with director David Schweizer, a legend in his own right.) Oddly, I’d never perceived her as gay, and she’d never been identified as a lesbian anywhere in the zillions of articles I’d read about her, so I had a moment of retroactively connecting a few dots. I guess that’s the difference between a friendship and an acquaintanceship. There’s lots we didn’t know about each other. At some point she talked to me about the strange relationship she’d developed with Marlon Brando, with whom she was supposedly working on some kind of writing project. Yet I wasn’t privy to her mental health struggles until her book My Depression appeared. And I knew nothing about her battle with cancer, even though it had been going on for a few years.
The last time I saw her was when I went to see The La Mama Cantata, an oratorio she wrote in celebration of Ellen Stewart, the legendary off-Off-Broadway pioneer who died in January of 2011 at age 91. The show had a run at La Mama ETC and then toured to Italy, Croatia, and Serbia before returning for a homecoming October 1, 2012. The text consisted of stories by and about Stewart – sentimental, inspiring, hilarious, intimate. Two stories stood out for me, both touching and emblematic of Stewart’s spirit. During a tense press conference at the height of the deadly ethnic war that splintered Yugoslavia, Ellen said, “Look, I remember when you were all one thing – and you all can start loving each other any time you want.” And against a video of burning candles representing the AIDS crisis that devastated the East Village, she is quoted as saying, “How we got through that time, I don’t know.” The music was some of Swados’s best in years, succinct and dense, well-performed by nine young La Mama babies. Liz took a curtain call with the cast (above). I went up afterwards and gave her a hug. I will miss her and cherish her music forever.