By Donna Herman
It wasn’t planned to coincide, but it sure is apt, that American Songbook: The Songs of Elizabeth Swados was scheduled on International Women’s Day 2017. According to Taylor Mac, the host of the evening, Ms. Swados holds the record for the youngest woman to be nominated for 5 Tony’s for Runaways in 1978. She was nominated for Best Score, Best Book, Best Director and Best Choreographer, and the musical was nominated for Best Musical. She was 27 years old at the time.
Then again, the producers may not have been thinking about her as a specifically female icon when they scheduled American Songbook: The Songs of Elizabeth Swados at this particular moment, but they were surely responding to her lifelong dedication to producing socially informed work. In fact, Taylor Mac who opened the show and acted as the host said at one point that since the election he’s been getting calls about how to make work that’s socially conscious. He says his advice is to go to the catalog of Elizabeth Swados and “pay attention.”
Taylor Mac then proceeded to sing “Undiscovered Son” from Runaways. Ms. Swados had a lifelong interest in children and teenagers and proposed developing Runaways to Joseph Papp as a public service piece. She little dreamed it would go on to Broadway. The opening lines of the song are “I am the undiscovered son of Judy Garland/ And I can dance and sing and wear fancy clothes/ Whereas my sister Liza has to really work for applause/ all you have to do is look at me/ and you weep with standing ovations.” The crowd at The magnificent Appel Room gave Mac a big round of applause at the end but he was not satisfied. “The line is ‘standing ovation’ he cried, gesturing broadly. “Get up. We have to make the world we want. That’s what they’re doing in the White House! Standing ovation!” The audience was on their feet in a flash.
There was an embarrassment of riches on stage celebrating Ms. Swados. During the evening, 14 principal singers, 6 chorus vocalists and 8 musicians, all of whom have worked with Ms. Swados paid tribute to her in 14 songs from 9 of her musicals. Runaways was also represented by Josie de Guzman, who originated the role of Lidia, singing “No Lullabies for Luis,” and “Lullaby from Baby to Baby” voiced powerfully by the three talented young singers who were part of the Encores! Production in 2016, Frenie Acoba, Taylor Caldwell and MJ Rodriguez. Swados’ own tribute to theater pioneer, Ellen Stewart La Mama Cantata, was compellingly rendered by lush vocalist Alicia Olatuja, with an assist from Grace McLean and Preston Martin with the song “The Beginning.” This narrative piece tells the first person story of how Ms. Stewart moved to NYC and got a job at Saks Fifth Avenue. She walked in wearing clothes she had made herself and they assumed she was a model. So despite the prevailing racist attitudes that prevented black female employees from being called “Miss,” Stewart wound up rising through the ranks and becoming a dress designer there.
In “Facts” from Rap Master Ronnie which Swados collaborated on with political cartoonist Garry Trudeau, rapper/actor Utkarsh Ambudkar, spewed out prescient lyrics written in 1985 that sounded like they came right out of Kelly Anne Conway’s mouth last month. “Facts can be whatever you want them to be. Here’s one for you and one for me.” Mr. Ambudkar originated the role of Aaron Burr in developmental readings of Hamilton, including the 2012 opening of American Songbook: Lin-Manuel Miranda where several songs from what was then called The Hamilton Mix-Tape were previewed.
The evening came to a close with two extraordinary performances. The incomparable Grace McLean who had her own evening in the American Songbook series last year in the Kaplan Penthouse, sang the satirical “Red Queen” from Alice in Concert. Ms. McLean is not just an incredibly soulful and versatile singer, she’s a talented actress as well and uses her face and body to inhabit the character of a song completely. She went from satire to bitter reality in the blues number from the Vietnam-era musical Dispatches from which she sang “This War Gets Old” and brought down the house.
Finally, actress and singer Emily Mattheson closed the remarkable evening with “The Dance” from Nightclub Cantata. The singer confesses that she pushes a heavy rock uphill but “If the choice is to sit in the sand or to dance, why not dance, Mother, why not dance?” she cries triumphantly.
American Songbook: The Songs of Elizabeth Swados all music by Elizabeth Swados, lyrics by Elizabeth Swados except “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” Lyrics by Nazim Hikmet; “Quakin’ and Shakin’” Lyrics by Michael Herr; “Just One Night” and “Facts” Lyrics by Garry Trudeau; Arrangements by Kris Kukul
WITH: Taylor Mac (Vocals); Alicia Olatuja (Vocals); Josie de Guzman (Vocals); Michael Friedman (Vocals); Rachel Stern (Vocals); Greg Hildreth (Vocals); Frenie Acoba (Vocals); Taylor Caldwell (Vocals); MJ Rodriguez (Vocals); Shaina Taub (Vocals); Utkarsh Ambudkar (Vocals); Karen Kandel (Vocals); Grace McLean (Vocals); Emily Mattheson (Vocals); Catherine Brookman (Chorus); Rachael Duddy (Chorus) Roe Hartrampf (Chorus); Tom Hennes (Chorus); Preston Martin (Chorus); Dara Orland (Chorus); Kris Kukul (Piano); Matthew Dean Marsh (Keyboards); Earl Gardner (Trumpet); Dylan Schwab (Trumpet); Gregory Riley (Reeds); Sean Driscoll (Guitar); Richard Hammond (Bass); Rohin Khemani (Drums and Percussion)
Lighting design by Matt Berman; sound design by Scott Stauffer; wardrobe assistant, Angela M. Fludd; company manager, Janet Rucker. For Lincoln Center Programming Department; Jane Moss Artistic Director; Jon Nakagawa, Director, Contemporary Programming; Charles Cermele, Producer, Contemporary Programming. For The Songs of Elizabeth Swados; Lauren Fitzgerald, Producer; Laura Been, Assistant Producer; Pamela Remier, Stage Manager; Jakob W. Plummer, Assistant Stage Manager.