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Bard of Movement

The music of Sufjan Stevens comes to the stage

We live, mostly against our will, in an age of adaptations and reboots. What is true now in every medium is even more true on the New York stage, where the furthest you can get from big-budget musicals based on familiar intellectual property is low-budget parody musicals based on familiar intellectual property. One might reasonably fear the worst with Illinoise, a stage adaptation of Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 album Illinois. But the show—directed and choreographed by the New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck, with a story by Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury—is much more than a half-baked attempt to cash in on existing IP by bouncing it to a new medium.

The most obvious term for what’s happening on stage is “musical theater” because it’s musical and theatrical, but we know what “musical theater” is, and Illinoise is not that. It has none of the convoluted plotting, the lyrical awkwardness, or the emotive breathiness that have become tired hallmarks of the bloated Broadway production. Instead, it presents new constellations of music, dance, and acting; not a revolution in theater, musical or otherwise, but a very welcome gust of fresh air.

A sixteen-person band on risers plays the entire album while a sixteen-person cast performs on the stage below. Vocal duties are shared by Shara Nova, Elijah Lyons, and Tasha Viets-VanLear, all excellent; Nova, who records as My Brightest Diamond among other monikers, also contributed background vocals to much of the original album. By separating the music from the stage performance, the show easily and neatly solves one of the most irksome problems of musical theater: the strain on credulity of having to somehow force the songs into the diegesis. As Blythe Danner says on returning from a performance of Les Misérables in her guest-starring role as Will’s mom on Will & Grace, “In real life, poor people never sing that much.” Separated from the mise-en-scène, the songs become a soundtrack rather than a narrative burden, but because we can see the musicians and feel the kick drum, it also avoids the feeling of canned, from-thin-air music frequent in ballet and other dance-centered performance. The outcome is a genuinely fresh synthesis, a twenty-first-century silent movie in full color with live music, or maybe Dogville if Lars von Trier didn’t hate himself and all his actors.

The looseness of the story, with its alternately joyous and tragic generalities, feels capacious, rather than flawed.

The narrative framing of the show piece is a campfire anthology. In the opening scene, the band begins performing as the sort-of-central character Henry (Ricky Ubeda) wakes up in bed with his partner, dresses, and leaves, clearly troubled. He soon encounters a ragtag bunch of travelers; around a cluster of lanterns—what the program describes as “a special, air-filled, hard-to-reach place”—they take turns dancing out their stories. These are hinted at rather than fully delineated. The show’s first half is composed of four individual episodes, with dynamic solo turns by Rachel Lockhart, Jeanette Delgado, Alejandro Vargas, and Robbie Fairchild (Lockhart’s story segment also features hypnotic tap from Byron Tittle).

Eschewing the LP’s original sequencing, the show frontloads the album’s most energetic tracks, including “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!,” “Jacksonville,” “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!!,” and “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.” These are followed by a set of connected vignettes involving Henry and his relationships with three other characters: Carl, a childhood friend with whom Henry feels the first stirrings of homoerotic attraction; Shelby, the mutual friend with whom Carl falls in love; and Douglas, the first adult love Henry finds after Carl leaves his life.

There is no dialogue beyond the songs’ lyrics; no new musical or lyrical material has been created for the show. But the looseness of the story, with its alternately joyous and tragic generalities, feels capacious, rather than flawed. The point is not so much to present a fleshed-out narrative as to create a silhouette of broad but powerful affective strokes into which the viewer can pour their own details, much like an album tends to do. The story and choreography of the stage production are not more or less narratively coherent than the songs, and trade in many of the same aesthetic and affective coordinates as Stevens’s music in general. There’s hope, loss, excitement, disappointment, death, fear, and love, always love—though also measurably less God than in some of his other work. Interwoven with love, because this is still a Sufjan Stevens joint, is a constant sense of being haunted by the past. For some characters this means a post-traumatic reenactment of horrors, but for others, in the show’s second half especially, this means more familiar pains like grief over a lost relationship, or thoughts of self-harm.

The grace of the choreography telegraphs these feelings with bracing clarity. The sustained, years-long collaboration between Peck and Stevens—most recently on 2019’s Reflections, commissioned and first performed by the Houston Ballet—has yielded a gestural vocabulary molded to the musician’s practiced repertoire of oboe trills, banjo plucks, and heart-rending string sections. In Illinoise, the movements are neither sharp nor casual; precise but relaxed, the cast moves with a unison that seems more invested in camaraderie than perfection. Elegant without pretension, impressive without flashiness, the choreography has a language but not an accent. At times, the staging can be excessively literal (the John Wayne Gacy, Jr. number was probably creepy enough without an actual clown mask), but mostly, the show produces genuine effects without gimmicks. Illinoise may not challenge the modern dance aficionado’s sense of what dancing is or does, but it is well-poised to influence Broadway’s conception of how choreography can work, and how it relates to staging and music.

There is simplicity of lines as well as a distinctive blend of enthusiasm and darkness that can only be described as modernist. The same can be said about a number of Stevens’s encounters with elevated institutional settings like the Armory, where the show completed a sold-out run in March before moving to Broadway later this month. The BQE, his 2007 collaboration with Peck, was a multi-movement “tone poem” (a term coined in the 1820s but widely associated with modernist paragons Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg) dedicated to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Indeed, the fascination with movement, and especially with the way technology transforms our ability to move, is a hallmark of Illinois in particular—the most popular song on the album and one of the singer’s best known tunes is “Chicago” (aka “Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!”). It’s a song about driving in a van. Nowhere else do the two poles of the artist’s output—highbrow conceptual modernism and folksy Americana—meet so organically as in the fantasy of the open road. Illinois and Illinoise are both about an America that very few people make music about or for anymore: an America where people drive automobiles on the motorway, where Superman is a savior and not a symbol of imperialism, and where there’s nothing confusing about a rock star who also loves Jesus. It’s an America that has all the grit and horror of an Upton Sinclair exposé but still, somehow, remains in a state of wonder at itself, where the promise of good fortune commingles with the omnipresence of misery. Listening to Stevens’s albums, I sometimes ask myself the same question I ask whenever I read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop: “Why am I crying right now? This is a description of a leaf.”

Critics have accused Stevens of trading in emotionally laden generalizations, as if his songs were, in effect, parlor tricks in which yearning vocals and minor chords induce the effect of profound emotion, a Grey’s Anatomy of sound. But what confuses and even frustrates in Stevens’s music is actually the overbearing emotional intensity of things that shouldn’t, really, elicit strong feeling. What is it about the way he sings “All things go!” that makes me feel like I’m embarking on a celestial adventure instead of listening to a song about driving to Chicago in a van? Why am I so verklempt over a song about being attacked by undead neighbors? It’s not clear, but I suspect that at least some critics’ suspicion of Sufjan Stevens stems from his music’s effortless ability to grab both your heart and your throat with the nonchalance of an expert conman.

Illinois was the album that took Stevens from niche hipster favorite to global indie darling two decades ago. At the time, it was the second entry in an expected fifty-album survey of all U.S. states. By the late 2000s, however, Stevens admitted that he had never seriously intended to complete what had become known as the “50 States Project.” But the audacity and celebratory nature of the project, even as a joke, and the enthusiastic, deeply researched specificity of the two albums that did emerge, are rooted in a creative and cultural grandeur of vision that felt like a period piece even twenty years ago: by the time Stevens started working on the project, the most celebrated thing about America was its reality television and anti-terrorism units.

Though he never quite got to fifty, Stevens has been prolific by any measure: in a twenty-four-year career he has released over twenty albums’ worth of material, plus a live album. Of these, nine have been studio albums; the rest have been a dizzying array of companion albums, experimental and instrumental divergences, collaborations, mixtapes, and Christmas music. Even the albums themselves tend to sprawl: Illinois has twenty-two tracks; Age of Adz ends with a twenty-five-minute, five-part epic.

There are any number of ways to cross section or organize this creative output. You could plot his work along a spectrum from mostly acoustic, or “traditional,” to albums composed mostly of synthesized and electronic sounds. You could organize them by sonic density, from the stripped-back intimacy of Seven Swans to the symphonic overdrive of Illinois or the industrial density of Adz. You could organize them by energy levels—Illinois is bursting at the seams, almost frenzied, while The Ascension (2020) is dirge-like to the point of being exhausting. The Ascension is one of two song-based electronic albums in the singer’s catalog, the other being The Age of Adz (2010). Released a decade apart, they are in sonic and emotional counterpoint; one busy, frenetic, with a distinctive sound language, the other slow, dry, but composed significantly of paraphrases from electronic music of previous decades.

Stevens writes fast because he composes the way a Homeric bard rhapsodizes; a core set of melodic, thematic, and metric motifs are slotted into a practiced compositional matrix.

There is a small cluster of instrumental albums, including Enjoy Your Rabbit; Aporia, co-created with his stepfather Lowell Bram; and Convocations, an epic, five-volume, forty-nine-track work composed after the death of Stevens’s biological father. There are a number of soundtracks to prestigious commissions; aside from The BQE these include The Decalogue with Timo Andres, also for a ballet by Peck, and Reflections, a ballet score for piano with Timo Andres and Conor Hanick. In 2009 his second album, the electronica foray Enjoy Your Rabbit was reconceived as a suite of twelve string quartets called Run Rabbit Run, each arranged by an up-and-coming New York composer (including Nico Muhly, Maxim Molston, and Rob Moose, the latter of whom also played on the original Illinois album). And there’s 2017’s Planetarium, a vast, lush space opera about the solar system created with The National’s Bryce Dessner, composer/arranger Nico Muhly, and drummer James McAlister.

Stevens writes fast because he composes the way a Homeric bard rhapsodizes; a core set of melodic, thematic, and metric motifs are slotted into a practiced compositional matrix. The minor chord banjo arpeggios, the ascending and descending woodwinds in counterpoint. This is not an insult, or even a critique; it’s a testament to his attention to craft. Periodically, though, Stevens seems to grow frustrated with his own fluency in the form. In 2006 he told Pitchfork, “I’m getting tired of . . . the banjo. I’m getting tired of . . . the trumpet”; his next studio album after that was The Age of Adz. He voiced similar complaints with his routine before 2020’s The Ascension, which, as it turned out, was written and recorded mostly on synthesizers while his other instruments were in storage for a move upstate to break out of a New York slump. The same habits of craft also seem to push him again and again to familiar emotional terrain: grieving, yearning, longing.

This relentless, pained sense of looking either forward or backward is both his greatest strength as an artist and the main reason no one should ever play all nine of his studio albums back to back. I’ve been listening to Sufjan Stevens’s music for over twenty years now, and for me the albums are more like sacraments than records. Or maybe like medicine—when you need it it’s the best thing, but if you don’t need it, it can make you sick. Putting on Seven Swans if I’m not in a spiritual crisis, or playing Carrie & Lowell if I’m not grieving, is like putting on a wedding dress to go to work on a Tuesday or showing up to a funeral in shorts with a margarita.

Illinois is one of Stevens’s best-known records and inarguably belongs to the core of his discography, but it’s also an outlier in that group: more up-tempo, more energetic, more optimistic and far less grief-saturated than the others. It’s also the only one you can really imagine receiving a treatment like Illinoise. The more spiritual albums would be too abstract to form even the skeleton of a loose narrative; the more directly mournful albums would be a real drag. Only a relatively small audience would have the falsetto range to follow Stevens into a space opera about the Milky Way, and experimental, instrumental records are not for everyone. But here the emotional tsunamis are merely waves, and for ninety minutes, even an uncommitted audience can join the sacrament. 

It’s not just a question of facility, which album is “easiest” to adapt or easiest for a Broadway audience to stomach. It’s a question of mutual exchange. The album may lack the breathy improbability and awkwardly didactic songs, but what it has in common with most musicals is its demand for suspension of disbelief, its demand that you join the diorama instead of just watching it. Most of Stevens’s other albums venture outward into grim reality or inward on a spiritual journey—only Illinois reaches out to grab your hand. It is the only album in Stevens’s catalog to create a world others can actually step into, rather than merely identify with or observe in overwhelmed wonder.