Elizabeth Swados was a true adventurer, a singular composer, and a life-changing teacher.
The first time I met Liz, I was excited and nervous. She was a legend, and I was invited over to the book-filled loft she shared with her partner, Roz Lichter, to see if we would be a good fit to work together. Carol Ostrow at the Flea Theater had commissioned Liz to write Kaspar Hauser and she wanted Liz to work with a playwright on it. Liz had already written many gorgeous songs for Kaspar, and of course thousands of incredible songs in her career up to that point. I had written zero songs. I was nervous and I told her so. She said, “Don’t write songs. Write poetry, write what you want, and I will turn them into songs. I can turn all kinds of things into songs.” Liz and I wrote two librettos together, and now, even when I am not working with Liz, I can’t stop writing songs.
Liz always spoke right to the heart of the matter. She was not a proponent of small talk. We would cover a range of topics: personal life, family, health, travel, the projects we were making; but she always went immediately to the essential information. She went deep, quickly, and I really liked that. I always knew where I stood with her and where she stood in relationship to the world.
Which leads me to the work she liked to make. In the two projects we worked on together—Kaspar Hauser, based on the real life of a feral child cloaked in mystery, and The Nomad, about the real life of rebel/wanderer Isabelle Eberhart, who refused to be defined by traditional boundaries—Liz chose to explore characters that defied all expectations and that, through their very existence, provided insight into the cultural dynamic of the world. She was fascinated by groups, and by how groups reacted and responded to defiant and undefinable individuals.
Her art was panoramic. She wanted us to see the whole visual and aural picture all at once. She was delighted by multiplicity: layers of sounds, percussive rhythms, and visual landscapes that involved so many bodies that individuals became indistinguishable. Watching her work as a director and composer (she did both) was like watching an abstract expressionist painter. She brought a whole life of training and practice into an improvisational, collaborative process. Composing complex soundscapes using the bodies and voices of her performers, she made the work with them and through them. The work embodied the moment.
With 1978’s Runaways, she had brought to the Broadway stage not just a downtown aesthetic but a chorus of voices that had not yet been invited to that platform. She was not afraid to show the painful aspects of living, and she allowed for these painful truths to live right next to joyful ones. She was not a bullshitter. She wanted to paint it for you, the way it was. But! There was also magic, and the magic came in the form of her music. The joy and power that emerges when you are in the middle of an Elizabeth Swados composition is ineffable.
As we worked on The Nomad, I learned just how much Liz loved the Sahara. Just like Isabelle Eberhardt, she rode with nomads through the desert when she had travelled there with Peter Brook. I love to imagine Liz riding a horse through the desert. It seems to me like a perfect image of her passion and adventurous spirit.
The Nomad was also a ghost story. The play begins and ends with Isabelle speaking and singing after she has died. As Liz and I searched for the essence of Isabelle, the reason for telling her story, I asked her one day, very late in the process, to tell me what she wanted us to hear from Isabelle that we had not heard yet. And in her usual laser-like way, Liz spoke to me about why she felt Isabelle had such a lasting impact on the world’s imagination. After that conversation I wrote this monologue:
I won’t die because I found truth,
and truth keeps going
even after you die.
You look at me and you see someone that frightens you.
Someone living to the extremes,
someone bashing themselves into walls,
wringing their senses dry
but what I really am
what I have truly become
is someone who knows
that truth is in every moment.
That every grain of sand
holds an incredible life.
That part of the monologue ended up being cut from the libretto, but I wanted to share it here now because it reminds me of Liz’s life. Like Isabelle, Liz will continue to influence our culture. In January 2014, Liz issued this challenge to the next generation: “It strikes me that it’s been a very passive time in our culture, and I need to have the feeling of someone pushing back, pounding, yelling, challenging. I want to be woken up by someone! I want a hero. Or a bunch of heroes. I want to be jealous that I am not that young and strong and articulate. Make me jealous. I want to be proud that you are picking up speed and taking us to places we have not been to yet. I am challenging you to wake me up. I’m so in love with people who take risks!”
Listen to Liz. I always did. If you do, you will make braver art, tell the truth more, seek out new voices, different perspectives, and challenging experiences. You will let yourself appreciate life and love. As Liz did.