“She would be in the streets, absolutely,” Shaina Taub told me at the end of a conversation one Thursday afternoon in early June, as we discussed the legacy of her late, great mentor Elizabeth Swados, the form-breaking theatre composer who is the subject of a stunning new anthology album on Ghostlight Records simply called The Liz Swados Project. From Runaways to Jerusalem, and in her influential teaching at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Swados was known for giving passionate, idiosyncratic expression to the voices of the marginalized, and Taub—the preternaturally gifted composer of a series of Public Works Shakespeare musicals, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, as well as a couple of excellent pop records—said she was sure that Swados, who died in 2016, would be joining the Black Lives Matter marches in the streets of NYC were she alive today.
Hours later, Taub and her husband were arrested by NYPD on her Upper West Side stoop after curfew, in a troublingly surreal scene that could have been ripped from a Swados musical: from the litany of historical and contemporary horrors matter-of-factly recounted as headlines by Iggy in Runaways, or the plagues raining on Egypt in The Haggadah, or the swirl of the Algerian/French riots in The Nomad. Indeed our current moment of upheaval and protest would seem to rhyme perfectly with Swados’s insurgent ethos, fired in such downtown forges as La MaMa and the Public Theater amid the tumult of the 1970s.
The work she made there, most of it staged as well as written by her, was a unique hybrid of populist and experimental, of timely and timeless. As her partner, Roz Lichter, puts it in a new documentary about the making of The Liz Swados Project (embedded below in its exclusive debut), “I think her intention was mostly political, and mostly melodic.” Referring to any other composer, that might like sound like a non-sequitur, but not to Liz Swados. The best of her work pulsed with the life of the times she lived in, and the reverberation rings out loud and clear on the new record, which is notable in part for the breathtaking range of its styles—from lush pop to grabby dissonance, from campy excess to koan-like simplicity. She contained multitudes, and they all got a hearing.
Another striking thing about The Liz Swados Project is that it helps correct for the criminal scarcity of available recordings of Swados’s large body of work; apart from the cast album of Runaways, which miraculously made it to Broadway in 1978 (and the Tonys), and her 2010 oratorio Resilient Souls, there’s not much out there for the public to hear. (As ever, YouTube contains its share of treasures.) This was part of the impulse behind new album—not only to commemorate but to release some of this work for the first time on record, including selections from two little-heard anthologies of poetry, 1977’s Nightclub Cantata (setting Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers, and others) and 1984’s The Beautiful Lady (Russian poets, in translation by Paul Schmidt).
This reclamation, crucially, is not just being made by first-rate singers and interpreters, who here include such formidable talents as Amber Gray, Stephanie Hsu, Ali Stroker, and Alicia Olatuja, among others. It is, appropriately enough, also being made by Liz’s many heirs in alt-musical experimentation: singer/composers like Dave Malloy, who turns “Every Now and Then” into a growling Kurt Weill stomp, Heather Christian, rendering “We Are Not Strangers” as a delicate vocal soundscape, Michael R. Jackson, giving an ebullient rendition of “Lonesome of the Road,” Grace McLean, whose “War Gets Old” is a scorching gospel throwdown, and Taub, making “You Do Not Have to Be Good” sound uncannily like one of her own soulful piano prayers.
“Part of the push of the album,” explained music director Kris Kukul, who worked with Swados from 2000 until her death, “was showing that her legacy exists in the next generations of musical theatre writers, who were either directly or indirectly influenced by her. All of them, in their different ways, brought downtown uptown, which used to happen more often.”
Taub is one of the direct descendents, having studied in Swados’s famous Performance, Composition, Adaptation class at NYU and having been hired by her, at the tender age of 18, to music-direct her oratorio Atonement at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. “I was not ready for that gig at all!” Taub said with a laugh. “She pushed me off the cliff before I was ready, and it made me ready.”
She credits Swados, in fact, for inspiring her to write music in the first place. “I came to school to play Elphaba, basically—I had never thought of writing or making my own work as a viable option,” she confessed. And not just any kind of work, but work with “social and political consciousness, which, because Liz was one of the first theatremakers I worked with, I assumed everyone did that. You make art to humanize issues of the day—I thought that was the norm. It’s something I take for granted.”
Lest that sound heavy-spirited or medicinal, another lesson Taub took from her late teacher is that “there was always a sense of joy.” The motto of Resistance Revival Chorus, which Taub sings with, is that “joy is an act of resistance, and I feel that connects me back to Liz.”
Taub recalls a vocal warmup Liz taught her that she still uses. “Her warmups with the cast would range from silly to almost religious in their fervor. I used to think they were from some ancient language, but I only realized recently it was Liz-ian.”
She put her stamp not only on language but on space and time. “People always said Liz was ahead of her time,” says Roz Lichter in the documentary. “I always say to people, She was on Liz time.”
Maybe at last we’ve caught up.
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