Elizabeth Swados, a Buffalo-born composer, writer and director who fashioned a unique style of socially engaged musical theater, drawing on a global menu of musical styles and a street-level engagement with the politics of the dispossessed, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 64.
The cause was complications from surgery for esophageal cancer, her wife, Roz Lichter, said.
Swados was already a talent to watch when, while still a student at Bennington College, she provided the music for Andrei Serban’s adaptation of “Medea” at La MaMa, the Manhattan avant-garde theater.
In 1978 she had a breakout hit with “Runaways,” a musical revue about runaway teenagers that originated at the Public Theater’s cabaret and made the move to Broadway, winning four Tony nominations. Swados wrote and directed the play, whose cast was made up of 18 troubled young people she had interviewed while researching broken families. She also composed the music and wrote the lyrics.
Over the next decades, she poured forth a stream of stage productions that tested the vocabulary of critics, who described them variously as song cycles, mosaics, tapestries and oratorios. In the 1980s she collaborated with cartoonist Garry Trudeau on two social satires for the theater, “Doonesbury” and “Rap Master Ronnie.”
Swados wrote three novels and seven books for children, as well as the memoirs “The Four of Us: The Story of a Family,” about her difficult family history, and “My Depression: A Picture Book,” an account of her mental struggles that she translated into an animated film.
Audre Bunis, a close friend of Swados and her father Robert Swados and a board member of the former Studio Arena Theatre, remembered her as a restlessly creative and curious person who relished her relationships with theatergoers, fans and collaborators.
Elizabeth Swados, known as Liz, was born Feb. 5, 1951, in Buffalo. She was a 1968 graduate of Buffalo Seminary. Her father, Robert, helped establish the Buffalo Sabres as a National Hockey League franchise. Her mother, Sylvia, slipped into depression and alcoholism and committed suicide just as her daughter was starting her career in the theater. Her brother, Lincoln, developed schizophrenia and died in 1989.
When he reviewed “The Four of Us” in 1991, News Arts Editor Jeff Simon called the book a “harrowing memoir” about her family life.
But Swados did not think of herself as unhappy. “I live in wild swings of mood, but I sure live!” she said in 1978.
Her musical works included “Lullabye From Baby to Baby,” “Every Now and Then” and “Lullaby and Goodnight,” which, despite its soothing title, dealt with pimps and prostitutes. She wrote two works on Jewish themes, “The Haggadah: A Passover Cantata” and “Jerusalem,” an oratorio adapted from poems by Yehuda Amichai.
In 1984, after collaborating with Trudeau to bring his comic strip to the stage, she was the composer for “Rap Master Ronnie,” a sequence of satirical story-songs about the Reagan administration billed as a “partisan revue.”
Besides her wife, Swados, who lived in Manhattan, leaves no immediate survivors.
In the yearbook entry for the Seminaria in 1968, this was written about her: “She can face cold reality, yet she can dream in a field of flowers. She can sit in a boat and carry on a conversation with the waves; she can sit in a room full of people and make them laugh. Is anyone more alive than she?”
Includes reporting by News Arts Critic Colin Dabkowski.