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Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury discusses her latest project, Illinoise

July 5, 2024 Mandie-Beth Chau and Peter Stamelman
Jackie Sibblies Drury. Photo courtesy of Marc J. Franklin
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Jackie Sibblies Drury is fresh off writing Illinoise, a Tony award-winning Broadway musical revue inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album Illinois. The playwright, a Brooklyn resident for over a decade, wrote the musical with choreographer Justin Peck.

“I’m so proud of this project and deeply grateful to every single person that has made it, makes it every night and has contributed to it, and I’ve learned a lot from all the performers, designers and Justin,” said Drury. “This is a unique piece of theater in that the performers have all this training, but I don’t know if they had the training to do a dance musical based on a Sufjan Stevens indie album. Part of the magic is that we found ourselves here, and we’re inspiring each other and it’s exciting.”

Foreground: Ricky Ubeda, Ben Cook, Gaby Diaz
Background: Tasha Viets-VanLear,  Shara Nova. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Foreground: Ricky Ubeda, Ben Cook, Gaby Diaz; Background: Tasha Viets-VanLear, Shara Nova. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Stevens’ work was previously nominated for both an Academy Award and a Grammy award for his song “Mysteries of Love” featured on Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” (2017). Illinois, his first album to top the Billboard 100 chart, was his second work named after a U.S. state, playing on a joke that Stevens would eventually release 50 state-inspired albums. 

“It was a pretty extensive process to get the go-ahead from Sufjan, and he’s been incredibly generous about just giving the project its space to develop, allowing us to honor this music, and trusting us with what is such a beloved album,” Peck told WNYC.

Ben Cook & Broadway
Company of
Illinoise. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Ben Cook & Broadway Company of Illinoise. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Nearly two decades after the album’s release, Drury co-wrote Illinoise with Tony award-winning choreographer Peck. 

“[Justin and I] hadn’t known each other. We’ve gotten to know each other throughout this project,” said Drury. “The genesis of the show came from him, and once Justin started to work on adapting Illinois in earnest, he’d done a workshop to put some of his choreography onto some close collaborators of his. I came in to help shape it into an evening-length narrative.”

Ricky Ubeda & Broadway Company of Illinoise. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Ricky Ubeda & Broadway Company of Illinoise. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The revue bases its story on Stevens’ songs, but Drury and Peck created characters and a storyline that extends beyond the songs. 

“[Stevens is] just the consummate storyteller among musicians of his generation,” Drury said in an interview with WNYC.  “I knew the album well, I thought before going into this process, but then really looking at the lyrics, and the density and poetry of them is something that I hadn’t fully realized before really drilling down into it.”

The show deviates from the album’s original song order, and it features certain songs more prominently than others. Illinoise takes Stevens’ album and turns it into a character-driven patchwork of interconnected stories. The show is about a group of people unified by their connection to Illinois, and the songs are a medium through which the characters share their stories. The overarching plot is about protagonist Henry’s evolving relationships as he connects to his past. 

Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, Tasha Viets-VanLear. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, Tasha Viets-VanLear. Photo by Matthew Murphy

“When Justin and I were first talking about the project, he wanted to try to keep the album intact and not add things, not change things, and go through the album as is,” said Drury. “It was only once we started to get deeper into creating these characters and creating the central protagonist that the piece required us to reorder the album. While every track on the album is utilized in the show, it’s not straight through as it was originally on the album anymore.”

Drury wrote a unique Playbill insert to further the story beyond the stage.

“It came from Justin; he wanted me to write something for the program that wasn’t an essay or an artist statement. I tried to create some journal entries for the central protagonist because that’s a big part of the show,” said Drury. “In previous versions of the show, the journal entries were in the playbill. It feels like liner notes, how you would get an album and have this whole other vantage into the creation of that album. I like the idea of people not noticing it and reading it on the subway home.”

Foreground: Ricky Ubeda, Ben Cook; Background: Tasha Viets-VanLear, Shara Nova. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Foreground: Ricky Ubeda, Ben Cook; Background: Tasha Viets-VanLear, Shara Nova. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The production was nominated for four Tony awards this year and won Best Choreography thanks to Peck. Its nominations were Best Musical, Best Lighting Design of a Musical and Best Orchestrations. Drury explained the process of making artistic choices when designing the show.

“We went back and forth about adding in spoken text, and ultimately, I felt like the show didn’t need it, especially because it’s dealing so much with emotion that it feels like dance and music are both excellent at conveying emotion, and speech is less effective sometimes,” Drury said. “The American musical can be traced back to vaudeville, which rests on the shoulders of tap, an art form created by formerly enslaved people in this country. While it’s not necessarily the subject of the play, we talked about how our American identity is created on the shoulders of people brought here against their will and managed to create art, even though they were in circumstances that none of us in the present can conceive of. That is really moving and exciting.”

The Broadway Company of Illinoise. Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Broadway Company of Illinoise. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Illinoise initially played at Bard College’s SummerScape. Following a brief run at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater, the show continued off-Broadway at the Park Avenue Armory in March 2024. On Broadway at the St. James Theater since April, Illinoise will run there through Aug. 10. 

“I don’t know that the play is thought of, at least by some people, as like an overtly political work, but in its empathy, it’s incredibly radical,” said Drury. “It feels like a very American piece of theater to me. With so much polarization politically in this country, calling something American tends to be thought of as being owned by the right. That doesn’t feel fair to the people who make this country what it is. It feels good to contend with the America I’ve grown up and live in.”

Foreground: Byron Tittle, Christine Flores, Kara Chan & Ricky Ubeda (kneeling); Background: Tasha Viets-VanLear, Shara Nova. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Foreground: Byron Tittle, Christine Flores, Kara Chan & Ricky Ubeda (kneeling); Background: Tasha Viets-VanLear, Shara Nova. Photo by Matthew Murphy


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