How ‘Illinoise,’ a Non-Traditional Musical Inspired by the Sufjan Stevens Album, Takes a Few Cues From ‘A Chorus Line’

The creators of “Illinoise,” the new stage show inspired by the 2005 Sufjan Stevens album “Illinois,” are the first to admit that the production isn’t a musical in the most traditional sense of the word.

“It has all the elements of a musical in it,” said director-choreographer Justin Peck (“Carousel,” “Buena Vista Social Club”) in the latest episode of “Stagecraft,” Variety‘s theater podcast. “It has music; it has stagecraft, design and definitely storytelling. But it’s not presented in the most conventional way.”

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However, speaking in a conversation with his “Illinoise” collaborator, Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”), Peck noted that he found inspiration in one of the most familiar Broadway musicals out there: “A Chorus Line.”

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

Now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater ahead of a March run at the Park Avenue Armory, “Illinoise” revolves around a group of hikers who convene around a campfire to tell their stories. “A big reference point that helped me find more confidence in this idea is ‘A Chorus Line,'” Peck said. “It’s about this group of humans, and one by one we’re getting their stories. They come forward and they share. Some of them are short, single songs. Some of them are a little more extensive. Some of them build and build and build, and relationships form. And somewhere in the background of all that is a more substantial, extensive storyline that eventually unfolds. I think there’s a parallel to that structure with the show we’re doing here.”

As a playwright, Drury usually works extensively with words. But as she collaborated with Peck to create characters and craft storylines for “Illinoise,” she began to think words weren’t the way to go.

“As we were talking about whether to add a lot of dialogue or text to the piece, I started to feel really strongly that it didn’t need it,” she said. “There’s something about the choregoraphy that Justin has created that allows us to connect empathetically in a really deep, emotional way with the characters. I feel like they’re describing what they’re experiencing so clearly that words would actually be confusing.”

Also on the new episode of “Stagecraft,” Drury and Peck discussed their connections to Sufjan Stevens and the original album, the production’s origins at the Fisher Center at Bard last year, and how the collaborators went about finding a form for their project that went beyond a typical musical. “I couldn’t imagine turning it into a jukebox musical,” Drury said. “I didn’t understand what that would be.”

To hear the entire conversation, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple PodcastsSpotify and the Broadway Podcast NetworkNew episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.

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