How Broadway’s ‘Illinoise’ Used Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 Album to Create a ‘Silent Film’ Told Through Dance

“Illinoise” may be considered a new Broadway musical, but its real language is dance.

Tony Award winner Justin Peck directed and choreographed “Illinoise,” a 90-minute performance without any dialogue.

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“Illinoise” opened Tuesday on Broadway at the St. James Theater, and the story follows a group of teenagers exploring their friendships and sexuality. It is based solely on the 2005 indie folk concept album “Illinois” by Grammy and Academy Award nominee Sufjan Stevens. The songs adapted from the album are sung by the singers of the orchestra. The main cast, which includes Brandt Martinez, Ricky Ubeda, Jeanette Delgado and many others, does not speak a single word during the entire musical.

“When I first heard it (‘Illinois’), I was like, ‘This is mind-blowing, and it has so much range,'” Peck said. Variety when the show opened on Tuesday. “Everything from those quiet whispers of song to the big orchestral moments and everything in between. And I just felt like there was a world to build from that, and I wanted to honor the music and present it in a way that was not only sonic, but also kinetic and visual.

Early in the process of creating the series, Peck and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury had a conversation about having dialogue in the series, but made the decision that the characters would speak, that weakened the quality of the series.

“We (Peck and Drury) thought if there was a way to tell this whole story, without speaking, that would be the most ideal because it just gives it this energy in the space that so many others don’t. things,” Peck said. “I think that’s why it feels a bit like a silent film because you watch all this action, body language, and also these incredible dance moments and it all comes to life without any words. It’s told in a very unconventional way, so it has all the elements of a musical. There’s music, there’s dancing, there’s a story, there’s lyrics, there’s singing, there’s singing, but all of those things are sort of broken up and then put back together in a very unique way that suits the show.

“Illinoise” is up for four Tonys this year, including best new musical, orchestrations, lighting design of a musical and choreography.

Drury adds: “I would categorize it quite clearly as a musical. I feel like there’s something funny about the way that the American Songbook musical has sort of taken over the way we think the musical can be, but I think it can be all sorts of things.

Ubeda, one of the show’s principal dancers who previously worked with Peck on Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Broadway’s “Carousel,” says he relies heavily on gesture and emotion to carry his performance.

“It’s cool to let the emotion carry us through the story,” Ubeda says. “As an audience member, you can understand what matters and what the gut feeling is and what these characters are going through, and you can kind of encounter the show wherever you are and put your own experiences into it. »

Peck says that because the series is unconventional, he faced obstacles in bringing “Illinoise” to life.

“Resources were a little more scarce and marketing was a challenge because it kind of defies genre, it’s like, ‘What exactly do you call this?’” Peck says. “I hope it helps add more variety to what a musical could be. A musical might look like this, but it might also look like something more conventional or standard in form.

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