This show, a classic example of succes d’estime on Broadway but still a perennial favorite of local theater to this day, still has fierce detractors in many circles, but it also receives a level of respect in the legitimate theater scene that few other musical have achieved. Written by one of theater’s most underrated geniuses, the late Elizabeth Swados, it is often described as the Rent of its day, but is also the direct forerunner to the post-Sondheim avant-garde musicals by composers like Michael John Lachiusa.
The show deals with an ultra-serious subject (the problems of child and teen runaways) in a brutally honest fashion that pulls absolutely no punches (sample song title: “Song of a Child Prostitute”); this would become something of a pattern for one-woman creative team Swados, with later shows taking on subjects like the Vietnam War (Dispatches), prostitution and domestic abuse (Lullabye and Goodnight), and even the Holocaust (A Nightclub Cantata).
The show is structured not too differently from another famous production that got its start in Joe Papp’s Public Theater, A Chorus Line, with individual skits and songs rather than a linear plot, and the score is a mix of exotic World Music rhythms, amorphous, unconventionally-structured melodies, and haunting, disturbing emotionalism.
Some of the songs, such as the opening street-game collage, “Where Do People Go?”, or the terrifying ‘theme song’ “Lullaby From Baby To Baby”, sound like then-current disco music with all the elements of fun drained out of it. The more lyrical passages are often accused of being ‘tuneless’ because they don’t follow conventional melodic structure, but then, neither does Wagner, and there’s no denying the haunting power of songs like the hypnotic “Every Now and Then”, the deeply sorrowful “Sometimes”, and the contemplative “Lonesome of the Road”. “Find Me a Hero”, which sounds like a musical-comedy ditty heard through a funhouse mirror, is one of the strangest pieces of music ever heard on Broadway, but there’s something oddly charming and even catchy about it.
Also striking are the uptempo numbers with their strange, exotic rhythms, including the desperate dance number “No Lullabies for Luis” and an early Rap song entitled “Enterprise” that is notable for being the very first use of Rap Music as such on Broadway. And Swados’ emotional scope isn’t limited to sorrow; the exuberant “The Basketball Song” and the comforting “We Are Not Strangers” are two of the most genuine expressions of joy in musical theater. Swados even managed to find humor in the subject with the wryly funny and highly insightful “Revenge Song” and the wistful spoken-word fantasy piece “The Undiscovered Son”, which slashes at the heart even as it amuses.
About the only number to be less than completely successful is “Where Are Those People Who Did Hair?”, which features a bitterly biting lyric about the decline of the hippie generation, but sets that lyric to an embarrassing stab as Punk Rock (Swados had a deep understanding of most of the genres she employed here, but she openly admitted she knew nothing about Punk, and it shows). Still, even this number has a certain visceral power, and the lyrics make several genuinely good points amid their mockery.
Swados always seemed to toil in relative obscurity, but she was one of the theater’s most amazing renaissance women…playwright, director, author, composer, lyricist and even choreographer. She also had an honesty and compassionate spirit that few writers of such ‘problem plays’ can claim…she researched this show by interviewing actual teen runaways, and several of those interviewed wound up following the show all the way to Broadway. When seen today, it’s actually quite amazing how far ahead of its time this show was, incorporating elements…like the use of sign language…that would turn into full-blown trends only decades later. This show is a masterpiece, featuring one of the most ambitious and interesting musical-theater scores of the Seventies, and the original production launched the careers of such future stars as Diane Lane, Trini Alvarado, and Josie de Guzman.
Due to the inaccessibility of much of the music and the sheer darkness and bleakness of the subject, this is not one of the easiest musicals to get into, but it represents a belief that the theater can be used to support social progress, that a musical can change the world, and even if you don’t share that belief, you have to admire Swados’ conviction. And given how much influence Swados had on later writers in the field, any serious student of musical theater should display both familiarity with her work and respect for her artistic achievements.