One of the things that bothers Elizabeth Swados about the current state of the theater is that whatever is seen on a stage is viewed as a final product rather than as a work in progress, one that will have other productions and change with each one. That is how she views "The Beautiful Lady," the musical currently playing at New Playwrights' Theatre that she directed and composed. It has had two previous productions -- one with college students and one with rock 'n' roll singers -- and she hopes there will be "more incarnations" of it.
"I grew up in a theater where it's all process," she said. "I spent a year working a play with Peter Brook that took five years to create. I write novels and they take five or six years. This whole notion that a piece of theater is done . . . what does complete mean anyway?"
Swados, 33, began her career as a precocious 19-year-old Bennington student hired by Andrei Serban to write music for a production of "Medea." Since then she has produced an awesome body of work -- including a novel, the music for "Doonesbury," "Nightclub Cantata" and more than a half-dozen other works. She has known the highs of Tony nominations and the lows of excoriating criticism, for work that can be inventive and exceptional or pretentious and eccentric. Now she does not read reviews, because "the treatment of my work over the last four years has been so unfair.
"I've been reviewed since I was 19 as either the world's latest genius or the worst piece of ----," she said. "I've found that the review process has gone from what it is supposed to be to selling the show, or not selling the show. My work is my whole life. I don't see why I should respect people who view it in a consumeristic way. My work is not a product."
"Consumerism" is hurting artists, she said, by enforcing a kind of censorship on them. "If a critic says a show is good and people buy tickets, then it's a masterpiece . . . My feeling about New York right now is that it is not a healthy atmosphere for artists."
Swados lives with a parrot in Manhattan, where she keeps a demanding schedule. She rises early, jogs and works out, and then spends the morning on her novel. "I write every morning, no matter what," she said. "But I don't touch theater things in the morning." Then comes what she calls "business meetings" -- about productions, grants, publicity. The afternoons and evenings are for composing and theater. She also teaches at New York University. "Someday I intend to have a social life," she added.
The genesis of "The Beautiful Lady" was her interest in poetry, the literary form closest to music. She read all the Russian poets who are featured in the play, and learned about their struggle to survive. That was three years ago. She then searched for a translator and met Paul Schmidt, her coauthor. "He was the best. So I asked him, 'Would you do this gig with me?' And gradually it began to evolve."
She does not feel the need to produce "The Beautiful Lady" in New York, although she would like the Washington cast to be seen by a larger audience. "I can do what I want in New York. It's a choice. You get into a certain kind of head here."
She is less interested in success in Broadway terms than in "not getting into a rut" and developing as an artist. "When you've been a so-called prodigy, it's important in your thirties to say, 'Okay, let's get down to it. What does a mature, responsible artist do?' I don't mean to say I'm cynical or unhappy by any means. You just become more realistic. You move ahead."