‘Illinoise,’ a Newish Kind of Musical, Is Headed to Broadway

After sold-out runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Park Avenue Armory, the dance-musical inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ acclaimed concept album is set to debut on the Great White Way.

A group of dancers in street clothes dance on a colorful stage
‘Illinoise’ at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 2024. Photo: Liz Lauren

Broadway is set to welcome Illinoise, the show inspired by Grammy and Academy Award nominee Sufjan Stevens’ acclaimed concept album Illinois from 2005, beginning April 24. Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Justin Peck, it features an original story by Peck and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury. Here’s what you need to know about the latest new musical to come to the St. James Theatre stage.

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The people

Illinoise is the brainchild of a creative Dream Team: a who’s-who of experimental yet accessible artists.

Peck is best known as the Resident Choreographer of the New York City Ballet, but he is no stranger to musical theater. He choreographed the 2018 Broadway revival of Carousel, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021), Bradley Cooper’s Maestro (2022) and Buena Vista Social Club (2023). In a recent podcast interview, he shared that it was the tap musical Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk that made him want to be a dancer. Theater was his first love; ballet came later.

Peck is no stranger to Stevens, either, whom he has admired since he was a teenager and collaborated with on seven projects over twelve years. The idea for Illinoise grew from Peck’s deep personal attachment to Stevens’ album, which he admits he’s been listening to on repeat for eighteen years.

Stevens is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist known for his soft (in texture, not volume) voice, genre-spanning style (electronica, folk, folktronica, baroque pop, indie rock), and piercing lyrics (he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School). While the music and lyrics for Illinoise are straight from his album, the show features new arrangements by composer, pianist and Peck’s frequent collaborator Timo Andres for an 11-member band and three vocalists.

Drury, another creator known for pushing boundaries, is an author and playwright best known for her humorous and poignant plays Social Creatures (2013), Fairview (2018) and Marys Seacole (2019)

As for the cast, Peck picked performers he’d either worked with before or long admired. Among them are Ben Cook (West Side Story), Jeanette Delgado (Miami City Ballet, West Side Story), Gaby Diaz (Maestro, West Side Story), Robbie Fairchild (An American in Paris, former NYCB principal dancer), Ahmad Simmons (Hadestown, West Side Story, Carousel) and Ricky Ubeda (West Side Story, Maestro, Carousel).

The process

Peck first suggested a staged adaptation of Illinois in 2014, but it took several years for Stevens to agree to it. After finally getting the green light and gathering his Dream Team, Peck got to work. He knew he wanted to honor Stevens’ music, and his experience of it, but wasn’t sure exactly what the resulting performance would be. He was influenced by Twyla Tharp’s unconventional jukebox musical Movin’ Out (2002) based on the songs of Billy Joel as well as the structure of A Chorus Line, and wanted the choreography to be a mashup of his lifelong influences—theater dance, break dance, tap dance, modern and ballet. Drury helped develop the characters and the narrative arc, giving the show shape.

The first iteration of Illinoise was commissioned, developed, produced and premiered at the Fisher Center at Bard in June of 2023. Then it moved to Chicago before landing in New York City.

The show

So, what is Illinoise? It’s not a traditional musical, though there is music and theatricality and movement. It’s not a rock opera or a straight jukebox musical, either. It is something else, something—while not entirely new in concept—unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

The performance I attended was at the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall in the middle of the sold-out March run. The Hall is enormous. As I waited for the show to begin, the soaring ceiling and stadium seating kept tricking me into thinking I was at a rock concert, which wasn’t entirely incorrect. But Adam Rigg’s set with its hanging upside-down pine trees, vintage “Welcome to Illinois” billboard and under-an-overpass feel reminded me this was theater. And the program—I don’t think I’ve ever before mentioned a production’s program—reminded me this was serious. “Handwritten” text by Drury, taken from the central character Henry’s journal, covers many pages throughout, offering insight into his backstory. It was a wonderful distraction while waiting, and in the days following the performance, too. It felt deliciously private and intimate as if the words had been written for only me to find.

Two men dance on a colorful stage; one is holding a steering wheel
Ricky Ubeda and Ben Cook in ‘Illinoise’ at Park Avenue Armory, 2024. Photo: Stephanie Berger

When the lights came up on the stage, the performers rushed on with lit bulbs, swirling around like fireflies and the beginning chords of “Three Stars” rang out, I felt chills of recognition. Those of us who know the album will be flooded with memories. For a moment, I was back in my early 20s, walking down a lonely southern sidewalk, wearing my headphones. And then I was back in the Hall, watching two men curled up sleeping on a blanket. One man stands, puts on his shoes and shirt, and kisses the other goodbye. But part of me was still in 2005, in 2008, in all the years I listened to that song. Such is the power of music.

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The live band, spread out on an upper level of the stage, is extraordinary. And though I was concerned I would miss Stevens’ voice, the three vocalists—Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova, who was featured on the original Illinois album, and Tasha Viets-VanLear—are incredible. They stand in street clothes and butterfly wings (Stevens is known for wearing wings), watching over the space as they sing. The cast comes back on stage, dressed as hip, grungy hikers, and they encircle a cluster of lanterns. This image—friends gathering around a campfire—is the backbone of the show. It is what we come back to again and again.

People crouch on a dimly lit stage in front of several lanterns
‘Illinoise’ at Park Avenue Armory, 2024. Photo: Stephanie Berger

One by one, the characters stand up and “read aloud” from their journals (which look a lot like our programs). There is no dialogue, but they tell their stories through movement. Both “a story about Zombies” and “a story about The Man of Metropolis” were fun and theatrical, but standout performances in Act I came from Rachel Lockhart (recently in The Metropolitan Opera’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X) as Morgan and Byron Tittle (long-time member of Dorrance Dance) as Estrella. Lockhart translated Peck’s choreography perhaps best of all, and Tittle’s virtuosic tapping is a joy to behold. Even when I wasn’t sure what their “journal entries” were saying, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

But Act II was where things really began. This is when Henry’s story comes forward—about his first love, his first love’s first love and his newer love. The lack of cohesive narrative in the first act hadn’t bothered me, but once we got a taste of cohesiveness with Henry, Carl, Shelby and Douglas, I didn’t want to go back. Henry, played by Ubeda, is our connection to the world of Illinoise, and he guides us comfortably and gently through it. Carl (Cook) and Shelby (Diaz) have palpable chemistry, and their story, especially in the duet to “Casimir Pulaski Day,” is heart-wrenching.

Another striking section is Carl’s battle with his demons in “The Seer’s Tower.” It is here that the show does what it is trying to do best. Stevens’ song creates context, Drury’s story creates meaning, Brandon Stirling Baker’s lighting design creates atmosphere Rigg’s set makes sense in a way we couldn’t understand until then, Cook fully inhabits Carl, and Peck’s choreography gets at a feeling beyond what words or dialogue could ever express.

Toward the end, there is a repetition of the opening image: two men curled up sleeping on a blanket…one stands, puts on his shoes and shirt, and kisses the other goodbye. But this time we know the two men. We know their stories, and we miss Carl and love Douglas (Simmons), too. Such is the power of theater. This moment is the show’s most assured, most literary, and one I may never forget.

Two men dance on a colorful stage; one is holding a steering wheel
Ricky Ubeda and Ben Cook in ‘Illinoise’ at Park Avenue Armory, 2024. Photo: Stephanie Berger

When Henry dances to the reprise of “Chicago,” we remember his memories with him. We see Peck’s strongest choreography and Ubeda’s best performance. After this, things become a bit saccharin, though the final image—I won’t give it away—is very powerful.

Illinoise is, thematically, a coming-of-age work. Some moments feel adolescent and gangly, and I believe many of those moments are purposeful. But it does have room to grow. The decision to perform the entire album while also attempting a narrative occasionally backed the show into a corner. And this isn’t Peck’s most revelatory choreography. I could have done with fewer pirouettes, box steps and swinging arms. Less trembling hands. But did I cry? I did. Twice. I laughed and tapped my fingers to the beat, too. And I felt I experienced something almost transformative with a group of people who by the end no longer felt like strangers. Which is what performance—no matter the genre—is all about.

Illinoise will be at Park Avenue Armory until March 26 and then at St. James Theatre for a 16-week engagement beginning April 24. 

‘Illinoise,’ a Newish Kind of Musical, Is Headed to Broadway