Interview: Singer/Songwriter Shara Nova Brings Her History With Sufjan Stevens to Broadway’s Illinoise

Nova contributed to the original album on which the Tony-nominated musical is based.

Shara Nova has a long history with the songs she sings in the Tony-nominated Broadway musical Illinoise at the St. James Theatre. That history began almost 20 years ago, when the singer, songwriter, and composer collaborated with her friend Sufjan Stevens on his acclaimed 2005 indie folk concept record Illinois, on which the folk ballet is based.

There’s no dialogue in Illinoise, so Nova sings and plays guitar with two fellow vocalists and a 14-piece band, while a group of dancers interpret a coming-of-age queer love story through movement around a campfire. Another longtime Stevens collaborator, Justin Peck, directs and choreographs, in addition to crafting the story with Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury.

Illinoise has brought Nova back to these songs, and she’s giving the production the historical weight of contributing to its original creation and touring with Stevens. However, Nova also steps into the world of Illinoise with a unique perspective, being a musician who co-composed the Grammy-nominated album The Blue Hour in 2022 and has her sixth LP with her My Brightest Diamond music project arriving later this year. As she looks back on her past, Nova is looking toward the future, too.

CST Illinoise 08 byLizLauren
Shara Nova (foreground) in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production of Illinoise
(© Liz Lauren)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Illinois was heralded as a masterpiece almost 20 years ago, but did you ever you imagine back then that these songs would be performed on Broadway — and there would be Tony nominations?
Not ever in a million years. Sufjan hand-made our Illinois cheerleading outfits frantically before the tour and we were getting skirt fittings, so there was always a theatricality. He kind of came up from the Danielson Famile, which was a very theatrical band. In hindsight, [we had] the playfulness of 20-year-olds. There’s a kind of silliness and sweet goofy weirdness in the music and Sufjan’s personality that I think still finds its way in songs, especially “Zombies.”

While singing these songs in this new context, have you had any new revelations about them?
One hundred percent. The wild thing about time is that it changes the meaning of the work. As I sing the word “United Nations” in “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” one hears that word differently. “Where have your laws gone? I think about it now.” Even the way those words were originally meant in terms of the World’s Fair being held in Chicago, it takes a different interpretation and the listener can contemplate on that. It’s beautiful to see how meaning keeps evolving.

Is there a particular one that’s most special to you?
In the show itself, the beauty of “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” is central to the meaning of the play. Falling in love and being in a relationship, and exposing the most vulnerable parts, and being loved by another human being, is the scariest thing in the world. We are all afraid of vulnerability. These characters fall in love and share in loss and are comforted by one another, and the radical nature of that being a gay relationship. Coming into accepting one’s queerness and to boldly live that out, I think, is central to what this work is.

How was it collaborating with Justin, Jackie, orchestrator Timo Andres, and the cast, versus collaborating with Sufjan and the collection of musicians on the original album?
I’m in a little bit of a tricky spot, honestly, because, I’m carrying the tradition of a style, having sung with Sufjan for years. I’m trying to maintain a touch of his aesthetic. Sometimes that means you don’t play down beats on a resolution chord. There were times in the orchestration where I’m like, “Oh, I wrote that part. That’s not how that part goes.”

When it came to the [original] live tour, I was making up my own guitar parts. So in some cases, I kind of go off grid a little bit and just check in with Timo like, “Hey, this is this is the way I used to do it.” There was historical knowledge I had, but I’m also not a decision maker. I wasn’t the orchestrator, I’m a player in a band playing a chart. For the most part, Timo steered the ship and [musical director] Nathan Koci has done a phenomenal job of leading the group. But there were moments when I needed to kind of say, “That’s not how this goes.”

What kind of toll does performing this show eight times a week take on you, as opposed to touring the album as a concert?
Dealing with the physical aspects are quite real and so is body maintenance. I’m doing 45-minute warm-ups with the dancers and that has been helpful. They talk about de-robing from the role. You can de-robe from the role except when it’s so personal. I can’t de-robe from being Sufjan’s friend, and I can’t de-robe from my own loss, of suicide, in my own family. So, it’s not as clean as just taking the costume off, because this is personal.

How so?
You can’t sing about suicide and the murder of thousands of people every night and go home. How are you going to do that? People said to me a month ago, “You’re putting too much of yourself in the piece.” And I just think you have to actually go through the emotion of it, in order to figure out how to pace one’s heart and to actually be witnessed through one’s own grief. I think how I prepared has been needing to get more support for myself. I’ve also done this show so many times that I’ve been able to work through my own grief. You can’t just tell yourself to de-robe or to de-costume, you have to go through being witnessed in the emotion and in the process in order to be okay.

I get that, and it makes me wonder if doing these shows can be more complicated and more emotional than performing your own songs.
The suicide in my family happened 21 years ago now, so it was actually in 2003. Illinois was happening in my early grief period. I made music about it and I shelved it because it was too difficult. I never would choose to engage with suicide as a public thing that I was going to talk about. It’s through this piece that I have, in a sense, been forced to process suicide. Singing about it is something that I would never have chosen to do myself, but I have come through the fire. It’s not something I take lightly.

How has your relationship with Sufjan changed over time?
It was hard for me for a long time because we started out as friends, as equals, and then he skyrocketed to a different level of fame. Fame creates a certain perception that gets annoying after a while. I have my own skill set, and I’m continually asked, “What did you learn from being in Sufjan Stevens’s band?” I would answer those questions with “Why don’t you ask, ‘What did he learn from me?'” That’s my string quartet that I put together on the record. There was a contribution that I made to the culture that also created that record.

I did learn a lot from being on those tours, and I’m certainly not saying that I didn’t. But that, I think, has been hard for me over the years. So, the relationship has changed, but we’re in a beautiful place. Asthmatic Kitty [Stevens’ record label] put out all my records, so we’ve also had a business relationship. He’s been very supportive of me in many ways, and I think that we can both support each other as we can. I’m thankful for where he and I are right now.

Resentment ends up being your own. You’re the one that carries around your resentment. Now, when people ask me, “What did you learn?” I can say, “Well, I never would have thought this relationship would take me to Broadway and to have these childhood dreams fulfilled.”

Shara Nova (center) with fellow Illinoise singers Elijah Lyons and Tasha Viets-VanLear
(© Matthew Murphy)

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Final performance: August 10, 2024