Runaways, an original musical by Elizabeth Swados which bowed on Broadway in 1978, presents an interesting paradox. The show, adapted from the true stories of teenage runaways (more on that in a bit), most likely could not be developed in the way Swados worked now because of red tape; she literally interviewed thousands of children in NYC, asking them questions about their personal lives to find just the right inspiration for the songs in the show. Furthermore, Swados almost did everything: she directed, she choreographed, she led the pit orchestra, she cast the show, she wrote the book, and she composed the score. It's rare to find a one-person score/book combination that makes it to Broadway nowadays; it's inconceivable to think that person, shy of a one-man show, would be allowed to do everything.
However, the show itself, featuring an inventive score and serious subject matter, was way ahead of its time. I could see the show being a massive critical and commercial hit on Broadway today. Even if the critic/awards groups thought another show was better, the sheer ambition of the effort would have guaranteed Swados a Tony Award for something (perhaps even a Special Tony Award for artistic contribution to the theater community). Not to trivialize the musicals of the 77-78 season, but the competition was Ain't Misbehavin' (which won everything), On The Twentieth Century, and dance show Dancin'. None of these are exactly the most serious shows to bow on Broadway, yet all were considerably more successful than Runaways.
Perhaps some show material would help with understanding just what exactly Runaways is:
More after the jump:
Contrary to the rumors circulating around the theater community at the time, Swados admittedly did not pick up street kids and plop them down in a theater. Runaways, to her, exist over all levels of society, from childhood to maturity, and covers anyone trying to escape elements of their life. For example, parents can be runaways because they choose work over their children at all times, never finding a moment to say "I love you." Were some of the children homeless that wound up in the show? Yes. All of them? No. Were they all new to theater, even? Again, no. There was a "backbone" of three experienced theater performers to set a standard of professionalism necessary to really convey the messages of the show.
Even considering this conceit, what Swados accomplished is nothing short of astonishing. I can't even get high school students to sing in two-part harmony for shows sometimes; she produced a multi-faceted score with sweeping harmonies, style changes, modulations, and multiple melodic lines performed by mostly untrained children. Add on that much of these words and images come directly from the minds of young people, that cast members were put in charge of translating lyrics into Spanish or even writing some of the songs, and it becomes that much more impressive.
So what, exactly, is Runaways? There is no plot, for one thing. It's the real stories of real children/teenagers taken from their own words. There are monologues and songs to create an emotional and thematic arc covering everything from leisure time and trust to drug abuse and child prostitution. There's a bit of the script available (as with most Samuel French plays) on Google Books and it's heartbreaking. This is not feel-good theater; it's about exposing a truth of society that far too often is ignored.
A song about child prostitution? And it's arguably the highlight of the show? Yes. Here's Swados's own description of the song:
Then a thirteen-year-old sings "Song Of A Child Prostitute." It's a monotone because this girl is dulled. A lot of pimps on the streets of New York take these runaway children and offer them drugs so they don't know what to think. They give them money, employment, nice clothes, and that creates an illusion of security. Then they intimidate them further by beating them up if they don't co-operate. It's much the same way they are treated by abusive parents. So they're used to it, and they feel like they are home.
Elizabeth Swados has dedicated much of her career to working on real, accessible theater projects by young people, for young people. Runaways was just the first in a string of projects. She's written books on the subject of engaging young people in theater. She teaches theater. She lives theater. And she refuses to compromise herself.
I have nothing but immense respect for an artist who, in creating a project to expose the plight of runaways, began to question whether or not she was actually exploiting the children she was so dedicated to helping by creating this show and using their stories. That fact that she has a conscience, and an artistic vision, and is still able to produce powerful works of theater that ring true is a marvel.
I'll leave you with two more videos. The first is Broadway pianist/music director/comedian/theater gangster Seth Rudetsky deconstructing moments of the show. I must warn you: this video is not for those with a low tolerance for camp, as it heavily features a man lipsyncing to showtunes to demonstrate technique:
And, just to further cleanse the palette after the prostitution song, here's a selection of Elizabeth Swados's Alice at the Palace, starring Meryl Streep (playing Alice, as in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, which was turned into a TV movie. It's also a gorgeous score: