Swados (1951-2016) based Runaways on interviews she conducted with at-risk children and young adults – a theme she returned to many times in her work. Following its premiere at The Public Theater in 1978 where she had a long, successful association, Runaways transferred to Broadway a few months later. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda for In The Heights and Hamilton (also developed at The Public), Swados received multiple Tony Award nominations for Original Score, Choreography, Direction, and Book. She did not win – Ain’t Misbehavin’ and On the Twentieth Century were the big winners that year – but the show ran for 274 performances.
From Oliver! to Spring Awakening, troubled youth is a longstanding musical formula. Annie and her orphan gang were on Broadway at the same time as Runaways. What makes Runaways different is its frank directness. The large cast sings together or in small groups, but dialogue is primarily comprised of monologues regarding everything from the universal desire for love to specific occurrences of drug addiction, physical abuse, and prostitution. Equally disturbing are the kids wondering why parents never missed them. There are no adults to rebut claims, and Sam Pinkleton’s semi-staging has no scenery for distraction.
The other element that defines Runaways is its score. Swados combined world music, rock, Broadway show tune-type melodies and early rap. Everything works. Miranda cites Swados as an influence, and it is not hard to understand why after hearing her ambitious, pulsating score. For a serious, sorrowful work, Runaways contains beautiful music. ‘Let Me Be a Kid Again’ perfectly crystalizes the Runaways’ anthem: ‘Set me free and/let me play out in the playground/let me be just a kid out in the playground/let me be young before I get old/let me be a kid.’
Director Pinkleton and choreographer Ani Taj, both of whom studied with Swados at New York University, kept the cast front and center with occasional spilling into the aisles. The Runaways were comprised of both professional actors and students from the New York City school system. There was no distinction in their talent and professional promise. Among them were the tough team of hearing-impaired Ren and signer Siena Rafter. Sam Poon delivered a current events report on both the state of the world and himself. Jeremy Shinder saw and sang of New York City as a movie set. MJ Rodriguez, a fantastic dancer, described being a graffiti artist.
In no way was Runaways a memorial to its creator. Rather, it was a raucous celebration. Perhaps Encores! Off-Center sold-out run will lead to other productions of Elizabeth Swados’ seminal musical along with the revival of her Alice at the Palace (so what if Meryl Streep was Alice?) or her undeservedly neglected opera of the Kasper Hauser rural/urban legend. Still, for one night, it was great hearing and seeing her work live again.
Runaways played on New York City Center’s Mainstage from July 7-9, 2016. Information on Encores! 2017 season can be found here.
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