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Elizabeth Swados, Downtown Theater Icon and Creator of Broadway's Runaways, Has Died

Swados received four Tony nominations for her work on the 1978 musical.

Elizabeth Swados, the Tony-nominated writer, director, and choreographer of the musical Runaways, has died.
(© Aaron Epstein)

Elizabeth Swados, composer, teacher, downtown theater icon, and a four-time Tony Award nominee for her musical Runaways, has died at the age of 64 after a battle with esophageal cancer.

Born February 5, 1951, Swados was the daughter of attorney Robert O. Swados and actress Sylvia Maisel. She studied music at Bennington College, receiving her bachelor of arts degree in 1973.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Swados, who went by Liz, made a name for herself in the burgeoning downtown theater scene, not just as a composer-lyricist, but also as director and performer. Her works from this time include Nightclub Cantata, her Obie- and- Outer Critics Circle Award-winning work featuring 20 original songs set to texts by writers including Sylvia Plath and Carson McCullers; The Haggadah, a retelling of the Exodus story produced during Passover at the Public Theater; and Alice at the Palace, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories, which starred a young Meryl Streep, among other shows.

Swados' biggest hit, which also made history, is Runaways. Examining the lives of children who run away from home and live on the streets, the work was inspired by interviews Swados conducted with real-life runaways. Premiering at the Public Theater on February 21, 1978, it moved to Broadway's Plymouth Theater that spring where it ran 274 performances. Swados, then 27 years old, was the show's composer, book writer, director, and choreographer. She was nominated for four 1978 Tony Awards for each of her contributions to the work, as well as Drama Desk Awards for her direction, music, and lyrics.

Also on Broadway, Swados provided incidental music for productions of The Cherry Orchard and Agamemnon. With cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Swados was the composer and orchestrator of the musical version of Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury. Her recent theatrical works include The La MaMa Cantata, Kaspar Hauser, and The Nomad, both of which were coauthored with Erin Courtney.

Swados has published novels, nonfiction books, and children's books. Her autobiography, The Four of Us, A Family Memoir, was released in 1991. She received the Ken Award and a New York Public Library Award for My Depression: A Picture Book, which explored her struggle with depression. It was turned into an animated short film that was an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014. She taught at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and at the New School's Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts.

Swados is predeceased by her parents and brother, Lincoln. She is survived by her partner, lawyer Roz Lichter.