Illinoise' Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury on Crafting a Musical With No Dialogue and All Dancing | Playbill

Tony Awards Illinoise' Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury on Crafting a Musical With No Dialogue and All Dancing

The musical, based on the Sufjan Stevens album Illinois, is now Tony nominated for Best Musical.

Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury Heather Gershonowitz

When choreographer Justin Peck was 16 going on 17, he moved to New York to study at the School of American Ballet. In that whirlwind of a first year, trying to find his place in a new city far away from his hometown of San Diego, California, Peck stumbled on the album Illinois, the breakout hit from singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Immediately he was hooked, taken in by the record’s poetic storytelling and its lush orchestral arrangements—it was both intimate and grand at the same time.

“It touches on a lot of themes of coming of age, and finding your place in the world and your tribe,” explains Peck. “Those were things that I was experiencing a lot when I was at that age. And so I connected quite closely with the album and the songs.” The music made him want to create his own dances, which he would later do and win a Tony Award for. 

Now, Peck has come back to his initial artistic inspiration. Illinois the album has been adapted into Illinoise the Broadway show (taking its name from the album’s cover art that says, "Sufjan Stevens Invites You to: Come on Feel the Illinoise"). Peck directed and choreographed the production, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury provided the book. But compared to other musicals this season, Illinoise stands out because it is entirely dialogue-less. Instead, dancers perform the story while singers above them perform the songs (Peck was inspired by Twyla Tharp’s Broadway dance show Movin’ Out, which used the songs of Billy Joel). Illinoise has now been nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Choreography for Peck.

Justin Peck Heather Gershonowitz

Like Peck, Drury also listened to Illinois at a pivotal part in her life. In her 20s, she and her partner moved from New York to Chicago; they played the album on their cross-country car ride. “For a lot of people, especially in my millennial generation, the album came out at a time when we were making huge life decisions,” she explains about the record’s enduring appeal. “And so, it has a lot of memories and a lot of emotion in it.” 

Two years ago, Peck reached out to Drury about working on the project, wanting a collaborator who loved the album and analyzed it as much as he has. Over oatmilk cortados, they discussed how they saw the show—crucially, they both imagined stories being told around a campfire. "There's something about the intimacy of that campfire that seemed important and also, made sense with how I thought about the album," explains Drury. "And then it was just trying to figure out how to weave the stories together." 

A skilled wordsmith, Drury isn’t disappointed by the lack of spoken words in Illinoise. From the beginning, she wanted to honor Stevens’ music and didn’t want the show to be bogged down by any excess. “I have so much faith in Justin as a choreographer and a director to convey emotion directly from his brain to the audience’s brain through the song and movement,” says Drury with complete humility. “It just felt like any dialogue would just be a bummer.”

Jackie Sibblies Drury Heather Gershonowitz

Illinoise's path to Broadway has been surprisingly fast. In summer 2023, Illinoise had its world premiere at The Fisher Center at Bard in New York. It then subsequently ran at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, then Off-Broadway at Park Avenue Armory. The show closed at the Armory in March before immediately transferring to Broadway in April. Peck says that Broadway was always a possibility for the show considering its source material, though he didn't consider it a given. "It's something that that the [producing] team really rallied behind because they believe in the show," he says. "For me personally, the fact that it is such a dance-forward musical, those don't come around that often on Broadway. It's not like they're there every season. So it's a huge honor to get to present a show in the Broadway sphere that is so dance centric." 

Peck is right. Illinoise is so dance-forward that there's no dialogue. But though no one speaks, there is a clear story. Drury and Peck collaborated to create a central narrative that would tie the disparate story songs together. The show is about a young gay man named Henry (Ricky Ubeda), who moves from New York City to Chicago and is haunted by the friends he left behind. In one poignant moment, one of his friend dies of cancer, which is theatricalized in the song, "Casimir Pulaski Day," that features the lyrics: "Goldenrod and the 4H stone / The things I brought you when I found out / You had cancer of the bone." 

That sense of loss and sadness pervades the show. When Peck's mother died in 2012 from cancer, it was the Illinois album that helped him grieve. In particular, the song "Casimir Pulaski Day" "feels very personal in terms of what that felt like, and to be a young person coming of age and losing someone in a way that feels unfair and hard, difficult to process and understand. That was a big part of this that struck close to home."

While there is a through-line, Henry also meets a group of other young people and they take turns sharing their stories, dreams, and demons around a campfire. That's how the team was able to theatricalize the more fanciful songs in the album that seem like their own standalone stories, such as Stevens' ballad about real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (who dressed up like a clown). It now becomes a haunting scene in the show, and the clown does pirouettes. "Sondheim talks about finding order in the chaos, and how he's able to create this orderly world in the shows he made," explains Peck. "That's kind of how we went about it, which was just trying to create an order that made sense with all the music. And it was this miraculous thing where we didn't have to lose any songs."

Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury Heather Gershonowitz

And through it all, Peck’s expressive and varied choreography is able to illustrate Stevens' evocative songs—the song “Jacksonville” features tap dancing from Byron Tittle, while “They Are Night Zombies!!” has the performers jerking and twerking their limbs like breakdancers. Henry and his boyfriend Douglas (Ahmad Simmons) dance a balletic pas de deux. For Peck, having a gay love story at the center of Illinoise was a way to honor the queer subtext of the album. "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" is considered a "queer anthem," says Peck—it's about two childhood male friends growing up in the suburbs, who fall in love.

Stevens is also gay, though he's been private about his personal life. He’s had a hands-off relationship to the show. The past few years has been hard for the singer/songwriter. He was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease called Guillain–Barré syndrome, that left him temporarily paralyzed—he's had to re-learn how to walk. His partner also passed away last year. 

“He expressed to me that he feels like the music is from a life removed, almost, for him,” says Peck, who’s been friends with the musician for 13 years and who has used Stevens’ music for seven of his projects. “He’s like, ‘I don’t want to get sucked into revisiting that.’ Because he’s a very forward-thinking, forward-making artist.” 

Stevens has seen the show now that it's on Broadway, sending Peck a text that said, "Bravo! It's really beautiful." He's also posted about the show on his Instagram page.

But Stevens' energy is in the show in other ways. The singers wear butterfly wings, in reference to how Stevens also wore butterfly wings during his tour for Illinois. And one of the singers, Shara Nova, also sang with Stevens on the album tour. It's clear that the musical, née dance-sical, was made by those with a deep love for the music. 

Poignantly, the show is a “full-circle moment” for Peck, as he remembers the boy he used to be listening to the album for the first time. In Illinoise’s title song, “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” the chorus sings, “Are you writing from the heart?” For Peck and Drury, the answer is an unanimous yes. “I found the album right on the cusp of starting to hone my craft as a dance-maker,” he says. And now to be on Broadway creating a show to the music that helped shape him as an artist “feels like the most authentic representation of my voice as a director, choreographer. So I’m really proud of it.”

Photos: Illinoise on Broadway

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