REVIEW: The Liz Swados Project

Recording CoverLiz Swados was the kind of artist not easily categorized. When she died (in January, 2016), the headline of her New York Times obituary remembered her as "Creator of Socially Conscious Musicals." Although "creator" has become an over-applied term in our current moment, it is certainly apt for her: composer and lyricist, writer, director, choreographer, memoirist, filmmaker and teacher.

While none of her projects ever really penetrated pop culture consciousness to become part of the canon, Swados's impact might best be measured by the influence she had on the generation that learned from her, and by that measure, she was a giant. The presence of a number of notable writers performing on this album, including Dave Malloy, Taylor Mac, Shaina Taub, The Bengsons, Michael R. Jackson, Grace McLean, and in a poignant posthumously released track, Michael Friedman, speaks volumes about Swados's standing among her colleagues.

The Liz Swados Project offers audiences a taste of what Swados had to offer, a survey course that will surely inspire more than a few to sign up for further study. A songwriter of remarkable range, the selections here range from vaudevillian musical comedy (such as "The Red Queen" from Alice in Concert, performed with aplomb by Mac) to free verse ("Song of a Child Prostitute" from Runaways, essayed by Sophia Ann Caruso, who sang the song in the recent Encores! Off-Center production) to experimental performance ("Bird Lament," recorded by Swados herself).

The album features selections from ten of her stage works performed by some of off-Broadway's brightest lights, shaped by her longtime collaborator Kris Kukul who deserves special commendation for creating arrangements and orchestrations that unite these disparate songs as parts of a whole. That the album neither feels "too downtown" nor "too Broadway" is a testament not only to Swados's skill but also to Kukul's ability to knit together these works in a way that meets in the middle without ever feeling watered down.

Highlights abound, but my favorites include Dave Malloy's Randy Newman-esque spin on "Every Now and Then" from Runaways and Ali Stroker's deliciously burlesque "Take Me to Paris" from The Beautiful Lady. I was particularly surprised by how much I enjoyed the numbers from Runaways (which is perhaps overrepresented on the album with four tracks), given that I've never much cared for the original cast album. It turns out that giving these songs updated arrangements and adult singers transforms them just enough.

There was never any question in my mind from the first announcement of this release that it would be important, crystalizing a sense of Swados's legacy in the years immediately following her death. It's my great pleasure to report that it's also enjoyable, and I hope that means that it will not be the last opportunity we have to hear new recordings of her work in the future.


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