Home / News / “Illinois,” the musical from Sufjan Stevens’ album, opens in Chicago

“Illinois,” the musical from Sufjan Stevens’ album, opens in Chicago

NEW YORK — Choreographer Justin Peck rose to theatrical fame with the 2018 Broadway revival of “Carousel,” followed by Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film “West Side Story” and the magnificent tunes of Richard Rodgers and Leonard Bernstein in this New York rehearsal room. It seems to float.

But Peck, just 36, is seriously working on the music of his friend Sufjan Stevens, a Detroit-born singer-songwriter whose deeply esoteric music has been variously described as indie rock, electronica, baroque pop, chamber pop and even more. folktronica. Stevens is one of those musicians who, when his name is mentioned in a bar, provokes either blank stares or immediate rhapsodic monologues; as you’d expect from someone whose work often includes unusual instrumentation and song subjects such as birds, highways, zodiac symbols and figure skaters.

But Stevens’ followers are similar to Stephen Sondheim fans. One of Stevens’ Tumblr fan sites includes New York magazine’s famous “Is Sondheim God?” It comes with the title “There is Sufjan Stevens between hipsters and God”, which is reminiscent of his article. Fans see Stevens’ intense music, which he releases on his own label, Asthmatic Kitty, as a vehicle for their own emotions, a kindred spirit, even a spiritual guide of sorts. Danny Wright, writing in Vice a few years ago said about stevens“He showed that whether he played 20 or one instrument, he could crush your chest like an empty box.”

Sometime after the turn of the millennium, Stevens (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) came up with the idea of ​​recording an album for each state in the union; You might say it’s like August Wilson writing a play as an organizing manager. Every decade in the 20th century. But he recorded only two records on the Fifty States project and later rejected the entire venture: “Michigan,” a 2003 album that included tracks about Detroit and the Upper Peninsula, as well as Flint, Romulus (home of the Detroit airport) and the Netherlands. Stevens attended Hope College). Not that he limits himself to just cities: there’s also “Wolverine” and the melancholic “Vito’s Ordination Song,” about his friend and priest, the Reverend Thomas Vito Aiuto.

In 2005, Stevens released “Illinois,” which has now been turned into a theatrical production and will officially premiere Feb. 3 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, before moving to the Park Avenue Armory in New York and then to commercial producers . I hope to Broadway.

“Illinois,” workshopped at the Bard College Angler Center last summer, is now called “Illinoise” — the added “e” no doubt helps with online searches for the show, as well as “Come On!” He also salutes the song called. Feel Illinoise! (Part I, “The World’s Columbian Exposition” and Part II, “Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream”). Other tracks on the “Illinois” album reflect Stevens’ unusual tone and sensibility: the only song written strictly about Casimir Pulaski Day, a tribute to Metropolis’ Superman, and a track about serial killer John Wayne Gacy. “We are incredibly excited to premiere this project,” says Chicago Shakespeare creative producer Rick Boynton as he heads to rehearsal.

What exactly is “Illinoise”? You could call it a performance hybrid, although Peck says it was “very important to me” that the work lived in the world of theater rather than the world of dance; He already has formidable clout as the resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet, and could probably have created this work with less trepidation than a theatrical piece.

The track is unusual in that it is based on a specific album and not a body of work in the traditional jukebox musical style. But if you’re looking for a Broadway predecessor, the closest example might be Twyla Tharp’s 2002 project, “Movin’ Out,” which also debuted in Chicago and celebrates Billy Joel’s music with movement (there are rumors that it’s coming to Broadway ). revival). Stevens and Joel are of course far removed from what’s happening onstage, but both pieces are clearly grappling with how much narrative to create. With “Movin’ Out,” Tharp created it all; Peck enlisted renowned playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”) to help him craft a narrative.

Sufjan Stevens performs at the Chicago Theater on April 24, 2015.

Essentially, the dancers each portray a character that unfolds around a campfire where “creative types” (in Peck’s description) from Illinois regularly gather, and tell personal stories inspired by one of the songs. album.

“It’s not that different from ‘A Chorus Line,'” Peck says. “Everyone will tell their own story. But there is also a central hero.”

“This is a new narrative,” says Drury. I was inspired by the album. I see this partly as a nostalgic, coming-of-age story about a weird guy who falls in love with his best friend in a small Midwestern town in the early 2000s.

The dancers don’t sing, at least not in the lead vocal style. However, the piece features a large orchestra and three vocalists singing Stevens’ lyrics. These all bring their own potential problems. Like the Grateful Dead, Stevens has long been known for changing how and what he plays from one live show to the next, and a theatrical version seeking free-flowing emotion and catharsis can’t get too hung up on his studio’s flawless re-creation. albums – especially when audiences hear three different voices than Stevens himself.

“I want to do justice to Sufjan and at the same time honor the experience of listening to one of the best albums of the last 20 years,” says Peck, which explains the huge attention paid to the music here, especially when it comes to casting talented musicians. From working in what you might call Stevens’ gestalt (many have worked with the man himself).

Watching the rehearsal, you can see themes emerge: the conflict between small-town Illinois and big city Chicago, Chicago’s identity as a kind of way station before self-actualization in New York, the need to find oneself. voice, the pressure to find one’s tribe. So to speak. That is, dancing.

2005 album by Sufjan Stevens "illinois" He came second in the Fifty States project "Michigan." The cover reflects my writing on the third track titled "Come on!  Feel Illinoise!"

Peck was clearly well-liked by his dancers; The dancers all know that they can do most of what they can do. They see him as one of the art form’s true intellectual artists and someone who pushes deep-rooted emotional boundaries; He is very comfortable with everything from syncopation to the self-actualizing dancer. “You want to feel something glarehe says to one of his ecstatic artists at one point. “That’s what sets your tone.”

How well did Stevens really know Illinois? Certainly at Chicago’s Pitchfork Festival in 2016, at the Chicago Theater in 2015, at the Metro (the whimsical carol Christmas tour) in 2012, at Champaign’s High Dive in 2009, at the earlier Metro and Riviera in 2004 He played concerts and Shubas, not to mention other out-of-town gigs at folk festivals, but this is not a travelogue, and the Illinois landscape surveyed here is more figurative than geographical.

“This is someone who has a natural talent for writing great music for dance and theater,” Peck says. “This is genre-defying and genre-bending. Sometimes it sounds like show tunes with huge orchestrations. I really felt like there was something important to discover in this music. And I wanted to give us the challenge of creating a show that was a satisfying piece of theater. “I feel like there is a way to try to make sense of life here.”

Peck is widely praised as one of the best choreographers of his generation, with good reason, and as he talks about this piece you sense his growing awareness that what he chooses to make his work will define the coming pinnacle of his career. He clearly sees the pitfalls of falling into established patterns. “Here, I try to present a language of movement specific to the artist I am in,” he says.

“I cry every time I see it,” Drury says while watching. “You will experience what it feels like to be in love.”

Chicago, of course, is a logical location for the premiere of “Illinoise,” considering the city lent its name to one of Stevens’ biggest hits. The chorus of “Chicago” is both melodically sticky and apt, as most Chicagoans would certainly allow.

And that was true even before Peck started.

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In previews starting Jan. 28, opening Feb. 3 and running through Feb. 18 at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. will continue at Chicago Shakespeare’s Yard Theatre, at; 312-595-5600 and www.chicagoshakes.com

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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