Young people dressed in an array of colorful clothes covered with patches climbed atop a paint-splattered set in the Booth Theatre at Boston University Friday. In the dimly lit theater, over a dozen actors danced, sang and spoke for a small and intimate audience. They told the stories of children and teens who have fled broken and abusive homes.
According to Jim Petosa, director of BU’s School of Theatre, in the show’s program, “Runaways” had been on their radar for some years “because of its structure, method of storytelling and the rich demands it places on the actors and design team.”
The musical, which opened Off-Broadway for the first time in 1978 by playwright Elizabeth Swados, is made up of songs, poems, monologues and movements by over a dozen diverse characters.
“Elizabeth Swados was one of the few woman musical theater writers to make a big impact on the Broadway stage,” Petosa said. “Her recent passing made her body of work return to the mind.”
The director of the show at BU Elaine Vaan Hogue said Swados “deliberately collected a collage with no plot.”
Petosa said he feels the play is relevant today because of its evergreen themes.
“Social Darwinism is always alive and well in a society that considers too many people disposable,” Petosa said. “That phenomenon has not gone away.”
The show’s set was built like a small, makeshift industrial playground. Graffiti coated trash bins scattered the floor. A chain-link fence separated the band from the actors.
The audience was seated just feet from the action at eye-level with the performers.
“My image [for the set] was that I wanted to create an abstracted playground to give us place to play,” Vaan Hogue said. “I wanted the audience close to the action — almost in it.”
Swados spent over a year collecting the real stories of hundreds of children who had fled broken homes and used them as inspiration for the pieces in the musical.
In an essay about the creation of the piece, Swados wrote that she would “ask them questions and they would tell me stories. … Then I’d go off, and suddenly there would be a song — just from having been with them.”
The musical transition between songs focused on hardship and joy. One ballad centered around a physically abusive home. At its conclusion, the band ended with a hip-hop track, and the ensemble of characters burst into dance.
The music was played by an onstage band led by “Runaways” music director Matthew Stern.
Matthew Singer, a sophomore at BU in the College of Communication, attended the production and said he was surprised by the musical, as he didn’t know much about its structure before attending.
“I thought it was very interesting,” he said. “I’m impressed with how well all the different levels blended together.”
He said his favorite part of the performance was a song called “The Basketball Song,” an up-tempo piece that featured choreography involving a basketball being passed between the performers.
Vaan Hogue said she believed the show featured a variety of impressively synchronized movements that were executed on cue with no sign of a hiccup. According to the director, the choreography was well-practiced with an intentionally ragged edge.
“We didn’t want a polished veneer,” Vaan Hogue said. “We wanted to create movement together, as opposed to having an outsider come in.”
She said the result was a performance that mirrored its subject matter: disjointed, confused and ever on the move, but making the most of life regardless.
“The universal messages in the play are alive today,” Vaan Hogue said. “In a sense, everyone is a runaway.”
The show will be performed daily at the Booth Theatre through Sunday. Admission is free with a BU ID.