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Zombies, UFOs, a murder ballad and sweet youthful discovery all set to a soaring, orchestral score. Sufjan Stevens’s seminal 2005 album Illinois is imbued with stories that seem tailor made for the stage.
Or at least choreographer Justin Peck thought so. Stevens, it turns out, wasn’t immediately on board.
Peck lobbied the Detroit-born musician — an enigmatic folk artist with an almost spiritual following — for years before Stevens gave the green light to adapt the album into something new.
“It took me about five years to get him to give in and say ‘if you’re really serious about this and you want to do something with it, go ahead,’ ” Peck recalled. That was in 2019, which was followed by a long gestation period, when the 36-year-old dancer-turned choreographer-turned-director explored a central question: What would a second life for a beloved album look like?
Now, Peck is leading the charge on that something new — a dance-forward musical called Illinoise that, like the near-perfect album that inspired it (Pitchfork gave it a 9.2), attempts to bend genres. Defying categorization, it draws audiences into a fantasy world that is not exactly musical theater, nor a full-length dancework. It is neither — and both: an “exciting, singular event,” as Rick Boynton, the creative producer at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, puts it.
On Saturday, the show, which had a quiet staging last year at Bard College in New York, will officially open in Chicago, complete with a first exposure to press reviews, before heading to the Park Avenue Armory in New York and, the team hopes, other high-profile stages beyond that. In the tradition of music-musicals that honor a singular artist, it is built around Illinois, the album, part of Stevens’s ambitious 50 states project, which he abandoned after two records. (Michigan was released in 2003.)
But the singer’s ode to the Land of Lincoln — complete with mentions of the World’s Fair, John Wayne Gacy Jr. and Casimir Pulaski Day — developed a cult following, especially among creative-minded millennials. The album’s most recognizable sound is the explosive track, “Chicago,” which has retained relevance as an anthem of sorts for being young and finding yourself. In 2022, it appeared in season one of FX’s hit The Bear over a montage of Chicago history.
For devoted fans, including Peck himself, the track — and the album — are deeply personal and nostalgic. The Tony Award-winning dance maker, who choreographed Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, first discovered Stevens’s music as a teenager and was instantly taken by the indie artist’s ability to make music that was, as Peck put it, danceable. As Stevens was building his body of work, so was Peck, first as a dancer with the esteemed New York City Ballet, then as the company’s resident choreographer. From time to time, Peck would play with dances set to Stevens’s music.
Eventually, the two were connected and became fast friends and collaborators. As they developed works together for the ballet, Peck consistently asked Stevens, “Is there anything we can do with Illinois? Like, is there a musical in there?”
Fast forward to a foggy January day less than a week before previews open on Navy Pier. Peck is commanding a tech rehearsal with a who’s who of New York dancers — most of whom he’s worked with before, giving the room a feeling akin to a creative family reunion. He’s precise in his notes — stopping the opening scene several times to fine tune one movement — but his demeanor is gentle. He’s calm and collaborative, a reminder that he’s not far removed from his days as a full-time performer.
Peck is joined at the creative helm of the show by Jackie Sibblies Drury, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who has helped shape the story, being told mostly without dialogue, and Timo Andres, who has rearranged all the music for 14 musicians, including one vocalist who sang on the original album nearly two decades ago. (As a co-commissioning organization, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater serves as a financial and creative backer of Illinoise and will continue its involvement beyond the Chicago run.)
Notably absent, however, is Stevens himself. After giving Peck his blessing to develop the show, Stevens had always planned to be relatively hands off, Peck said, citing the elusive multi-instrumentalist’s preference to always look forward, rather than delving back into old work.
But then Stevens was dealt a set of circumstances in his personal life that removed him from the show — and all public life — entirely. In April, Stevens’s partner died. Then, in August, he woke up one morning and could not walk. His limbs were numb and tingling and he had no strength, feeling or mobility, he wrote in a post on social media. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the nerves. After months in the hospital, Stevens posted in October that he was going home to continue outpatient therapy.
The tremendous hardships stacked up around the same time Peck and the team were first workshopping the show for audiences last summer at the Fisher Center at Bard in New York’s Hudson Valley. Stevens has not seen the show — “maybe one day,” Peck said.
Still, the Bard performances were enough to convince the team they were onto something.
“I think we came away from that all sort of saying, ‘Yeah, this is going to work. We have a lot to work on still, but we’re on the right track,’ ” Andres said.
A lot has changed since that run, including the decision to tack an “e” onto the end of the show’s name, now Illinoise, said like you’re mispronouncing the state name. It’s an ode to the album’s cover art and also gives the show its own identity. But the changes went beyond just buying a vowel, the set has evolved to bring the musicians in closer, the first quarter of the show has been reworked and the ending is different.
Mostly, the changes were done with the mission of clarifying the narrative — which follows an age-old arc about falling in love and growing up, told through a series of campfire stories. (Expect plenty of flashlights and lanterns.)
The production itself is dance and vocals, with few speaking parts. Relying on movement rather than words allows for the stage romance to feel fresh and complex, where dialogue may have felt cheesy and off-putting, said Sibblies Drury, who worked out the story in a detailed document she passed back and forth with Peck.
“For the most part, it feels like they’re in a very complicated, silent film that isn’t actually being filmed,” she said.
The show, which Peck sets in 2005 — the year of the album release — follows Henry (Ricky Ubeda) on a journey into the woods, where he discovers a cast of characters who relate to his struggles. The universal themes of love found and lost, overcoming trauma and finding one’s way are portrayed by an allstar cast of dancers, including Ubeda. He and fellow performer Gaby Diaz both worked with Peck on West Side Story, they are also both past winners of the show So You Think You Can Dance.
Before a recent rehearsal, Ubeda, Diaz and dancers Ben Cook and Ahmad Simmons, who are all based in New York, spoke with a sort of sacred reverence for Illinoise.
“For those of us who have been with it from the jump, we feel really protective of the intimacy of the piece,” Diaz said. The show is unlike anything else she has worked on before, she said. In part because it puts dancers out front, rather than as support — and that alone is a bit of a lost art in the world of performing right now, Peck and others agree.
But don’t come expecting a classical ballet tour de force. Peck has always played with movement and the dancers in this show say being less technically precise is freeing — and, they hope, makes the work more accessible for audience members.
“That’s a difference with dancing usually being flashy and large and when you’re seeing dance, you know you’re seeing dancers dance,” Cook said. “Ideally, that’s not the takeaway (in this case). You forget that you’re watching dance is the goal, I think.”
Their movement, which is a blend of dance genres, is, of course, married to the music. The show, performed without an intermission, features the entirety of Stevens’s album — which Peck chalked up as being somewhat miraculous — aided by some new interludes to advance the story.
And remarkably, there’s one more tie to the original record. One of three vocalists onstage is Shara Nova, a Detroit-based singer-songwriter who sang on the original album. She shines on stage with her bright orange hair and brings an institutional knowledge to the vocals, which she performs along with Elijah Lyons and Chicago’s own Tasha Viets-VanLear, known professionally as simply Tasha.
“What I can bring, in terms of the role I’ve been placed in, is the way that (Stevens) pronounces things … I think in the way that I am singing the songs, I’m still trying to stay within his style of elocution,” Nova said. “That is what I am trying to keep.”
When rehearsals first began, the music brought back visceral memories for Nova — taking her back in time, the way music associated with memories can so powerfully do.
Nova anticipates the audience, some of whom may be paying their first visit to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, will be similarly transported.
If you go: Illinoise runs through Feb. 18 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets from $45.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ.