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Runaways

New York City Center revives Elizabeth Swados' legendary musical.

A scene from Elizabeth Swados' musical Runaways, being presented at New York City Center under the direction of Sam Pinkleton.
(© Joan Marcus)

In 1978, 27-year-old Elizabeth Swados, one of the rising stars of the downtown theater scene, set the industry on fire with her musical Runaways. Inspired by a desire to examine the reasons why scores of abandoned youths were suddenly playing house on the streets of New York City, Swados wrote, composed, choreographed, and directed the production at the Public Theater.

Like it's Public predecessor A Chorus Line, Swados went to great pains to make the work realistic, spending the better part of a year interviewing real youngsters who had fled broken homes or violent situations on their own or under duress. Some of them actually made it into the show as actors. Despite being the off-Broadway Hamilton of its day and earning five Tony nominations (four of which were for Swados) when it moved uptown, the Broadway transfer lasted only 274 performances.

More than 30 years later, Runaways is back on a major stage for the first time, and there's reason to be thankful to New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center series. This new production, which harks back to Swados' original process by assembling a cast through open auditions of New York City students, is a badass tribute to a work of theatrical genius and its author, who died in January at age 64.

Runaways is a patchwork of a musical, a series of monologues, poems, and songs woven together without much of an overarching narrative besides the idea of explaining the situations that caused kids and teens leave home. "Where do people go when they run away?" the cast sings in the opening number. "Tell me where do they go and where do they stay if they stay?" To that end, director Sam Pinkleton and scenic designer Donyale Werle have suggested that they're squatting in an abandoned construction site, sleeping on scaffolding, ratty sofas, and flea-bitten mattresses, waking up to tell their stories to one another and, more importantly, to us.

Most of the stories are about abuse, fathers who beat their sons and daughters, parents so unexcited by the prospect of raising a child that they go to extreme lengths to show them how much they're unwanted. One little girl (the painfully fragile Ripley Sobo) explains how she'd break the television to get her mom and dad to pay attention to her, and how they'd retaliate by bathing her in boiling water. Another young woman (a magnetic Sophia Anne Caruso) becomes a child prostitute who takes pleasure in helping middle-aged men "feel like a daddy" if "he can't get along with his family." As Runaways continues, Swados delves into what it takes to survive in situations like these, and how all they really want to be are kids.

Presenting a work that is so much a product of its time more than 30 years later isn't an easy task. There is always the possibility that the authenticity could be lost when contemporary actors don't connect with the material. But under the exciting direction of Pinkleton and with head-banging choreography by Ani Taj (both students of Swados' at NYU), those fears are banished in the first 30 seconds. This is an ensemble of young people who truly get what they're talking about, not just kids in Cosby Show sweaters and outfits that feel like a pastiche of decades (Clint Ramos' colorful costumes are spot-on).

The words pour from the teens with a fiery passion, which is matched only by music director Chris Fenwick's nine-member band. Presented more as a concert with scripts in hand, this version of Runaways features unnamed characters, but Sobo, Caruso, and their fellow company members Matthew Gumley, Jeremy Shinder, M.J. Rodriguez, Deandre Sevon, and Taylor Caldwell make major impacts with their scorching passion.

As for the material itself, it is still startlingly relevant, with an exciting score and fascinating script that are still unparalleled in their truthfulness. "A cop killed a kid who threatened him with a toy gun and got six years. And soon will be up for probation," Sam Poon says with fervor during a segment titled "Current Events." Those words were first spoken on a stage in 1978. Runaways, while an important artifact of the American musical canon, had a lot to say back then, and it has just as much to say right now.

Elizabeth Swados' musical Runaways is being presented by Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)
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