Broadway Q&A: Illinoise director and choreographer Justin Peck

The dancemaker opens up about grieving, journaling and the “beautiful vomiting” of Illinoise’s first version.

Written by
Brian Schaefer
Justin Peck
Photograph: Ryan PflugerJustin Peck

Nearly two decades ago, Justin Peck moved from San Diego to New York to dance with the prestigious New York City Ballet and ended up, somewhat unexpectedly, establishing himself as one of the world’s top ballet choreographers. He now serves as the company’s artistic advisor and resident choreographer, celebrated for infusing ballet with youthful, virtuosic vitality. In recent years, he has brought his elegant, protean style to Broadway, winning a Tony Award for his choreography in Carousel, and to Hollywood, where he reimagined Jerome Robbins’s iconic moves for Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. All along, Sufjan Steven’s seminal 2005 concept album Illinois remained a source of inspiration, and Peck dreamed of bringing it to life on stage. Last month, Illinoise (now spelled with a final e) arrived on Broadway under his direction, and shortly thereafter received Tony nominations for Best Musical and for Peck’s choreography. We talked with Peck by phone about the “beautiful vomiting” of Illinoise’s first iteration, what he learned from Spielberg about directing, and how the show has helped him process a recent tragedy: the death, in a train accident, of the show’s production stage manager, Thom Gates.

First, I want to acknowledge that it's been a difficult time for the whole Illinoise community. How are you doing with the sudden passing of Thom Gates?

It's a bit of whiplash emotionally for everyone. It followed our celebratory opening. Waking up to that news was just so devastating for everyone. There’s a lot to navigate for the show, emotionally and logistically—trying to check in with all the sides of ourselves as we move forward. But the company has been handling it with such grace and beauty. I'm really proud of them.

I saw Illinoise last summer at the Fisher Center at Bard College, but seeing it again, in light of what happened to Thom, I was newly attuned to how poignantly the show illustrates and processes grief. I'm curious what that element of the show meant to you before and if it registers differently now.

The beauty of this show is that it can be taken in through a wide array of lenses. For me to watch the show a couple of days after Thom’s passing, it was really through a lens of grief. There is so much in the show about coping with death and loss. It can be amplified depending on what you’re going through—and also, hopefully, it can act as a kind of catharsis for dealing with that. The process of making it was very much about going directly into that, in a way that sort of terrified me. So much of my work, whether I’ve wanted it to or not, possesses a lot of joy; with this, I had to really push to go head-on into storytelling that scared me very much. Sufjan wanted to be very hands-off about the storytelling, but one thing he said to me was that this album has a lot of darkness to it. When you listen to it, it first comes across as a bright, spirited album—and it has that, too. But peeling back the layers, there’s quite a bit running through it that deals with grief and loss and darkness. For me, the show is very personal and explores a lot of early and unexpected and sometimes expected deaths that came my way as a young person. It’s really focused on this late-adolescence coming of age, and what happens to us when we lose people that are close to us.

Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

You’ve called the album a kind of soundtrack to your adolescence. What’s it like to revisit that time and that version of yourself? 

I think it always helps to have a little bit of perspective when tackling storytelling. I thought a lot about what year this show is set in, and I kind of loosely tried to keep it in 2005, which is the year the album came out. I guess that helped maintain my own distance, and gave me a little more perspective to look back on certain things that I had gone through as a young person—and sort through a lot of stuff that still felt sort of blocked for me. That's the beauty of storytelling and theater: Just the act of making it can actually be a way to sort through some deeper emotions for the artist and hopefully others can find their way to relate to it. What I've been finding with Illinoise, from strangers and friends, is that there are people who seem to be connecting with that aspect of it. And that's the greatest gift. But it’s not something that can really be calculated. 

Watching Illinoise, I wondered whether you keep a journal. It’s such a prominent prop and symbol in the show, and I was curious if that’s a personal practice you have a long connection to, or if it just ended up being a storytelling device that allows you to structure the show.

Oh, I love that question. I haven't really thought about that. I definitely used to keep a journal when I was that age, and it acted in the same way that it does for the characters—particularly for the protagonist, Henry. I've done it less and less because my life has gotten crazier and busier, especially with having a family now. But I do like it. And that question makes me think that maybe subconsciously that was something I included. But in a more practical sense, it was a way to unlock the notion of storytelling and how we deliver that in this show. And it was inspired by some of the lyrics: the poetry of what Sufjan wrote that feels like a unique hybrid of poetry and storytelling and feels like something that could find its way into a journal. The lyric “are you writing from the heart?” was one of those tentpole lyrics that guided us in how we were going to deliver this whole concept in a theatrical way. So the notebook became very important in how it relates to the inner psyche of the characters and how that comes out in the context of the campfire: the exhilaration and fears and anxieties, the insecurities and the confidence that can come from that moment of opening yourself up to the community around you. I always thought of it conceptually as well, almost visually, like the words on the pages evaporating up into the air and filling the space and manifesting themselves in the form of the lyrics sung by the singers.

There were three productions of Illinoise in the year before it came to Broadway. I noticed that Henry’s story has been reframed as a kind of bookend, which emphasizes its importance as the show’s emotional core while also making it the storytelling’s structural spine. How did that change come about?

The version we did at Bard was the first iteration of the show and the point was to execute this kind of beautiful vomiting onto the stage so that the team of collaborators could understand it better, because so much of it was inside my head. And the main thing we all felt was that we weren't guiding the audience properly in the first 30 minutes—we weren't helping them know where to focus or who to focus on, even though it was always about arriving at Henry's story and he was the central protagonist. So we did a lot of work to pull him to the front and not lose him in the first act, which is the short story section. It was a very tricky balance because I think the first act is essential for teaching the audience how the show works so that they're adjusted for the moment when Henry finally steps forward and they're ready to experience his emotional arc. The breakthrough I had was actually watching the film Past Lives. It starts in a bar, and you see the three main characters, and there's that voiceover asking, “Who do you think they are? And how do they relate to each other?” And then it goes back in time and catches us up to that point. That was an inspiration for shaping the new opening and giving the audience little clues about this character but maintaining an air of mystery about him.

Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

You've talked about how Illinoise references a lot of dance-centric musicals of the past. How do you see it in conversation with those shows and also taking musical theater in a new direction?

Specific moments in the show are in conversation with those other shows and those influences and early inspirations. The tap choreography in the song “Jacksonville” is really a tribute to Bring in ’da Noise. And the structure of the show feels like very much in conversation with A Chorus Line; here they're in more of a circle, but it becomes that same framing device for the characters and their stories. And even Contact—how that was a musical and yet it really was expressed through movement and body language. And I think that's what we're doing with Illinoise. At the same time, I think what we’re exploring is very different in terms of the emotion and the stories. This deals more with the mental health struggles that a lot of young people feel today, and that feels unique to this show and within the canon of dance-powered musicals. In terms of how it’s contributing to widening the fabric of what a musical can be, you know, it has all the elements of a musical: staging, movement, acting, storytelling, lyrics, songs, and a really interesting 11-o’clock number. It’s sort of taking what a musical is and shattering it and finding all the pieces and then putting it back together in a new way. But it comes from a genuine love of musical theater that inspired me so much as a young person and was really my entry point into art and culture and storytelling and dance. It set me up on this path to devote my life to all those things.

Would you also consider Illinoise a ballet? Or is there a line where they really feel like two separate things?

I think there's a line, personally. The fun thing about the show is how people categorize what it is: what a musical is, and what any other form is. You could call it many things, and people have. I've heard it called “a play through the language of dance.” I've heard it called a kind of opera hybrid. Personally, I wouldn't call it a ballet because if it were, I would have just done it at New York City Ballet or for a ballet company, which would have been an easier route; because of the institutional support, the process is a little more straightforward. But I really felt like this falls into the category of musical theater and that it should exist in that realm. I had no idea where this was going to go, but my dream was always for it to have the potential of a Broadway run. And I've always been really inspired by outlier musicals—not the conventional ones, but shows like Bring in ’da Noise or Hedwig and the Angry Inch or even Rent.

There are aspects of Illinoise that reminded me of some of your ballet work, like The Times Are Racing. It made me wonder whether an excerpted version of it could find its way onto a ballet stage, like Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story Suite.

You never know. At this point, we're really focused on this production. The great thing about doing it for theater is that we can get very specific and precise with the casting and the musicians. That was important to me. One of the downsides of doing a show in an institution like a ballet company is that it's just like, “Here are your 50 dancers, and here's the orchestra.” And they're all good, don't get me wrong, they’re all super talented. But there's so much in this story where the characters are very specific, and the music has to be performed in a very specific way. It's not impossible to do it for a dance company one day, and you're right, they do it well with West Side Story Suite. I've been asked to take my work for Carousel and turn that into a dance suite version. So who knows? But what excites me is getting to dig into this process in the theater context.

Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

You've spoken about how much you learned from Spielberg while working on West Side Story. I'm curious if there were any directorial lessons or advice from that experience that you applied to Illinoise. 

Yeah, that was a massive influence for me, and the greatest masterclass I could ever hope for: this extraordinary opportunity to just go through the process of making an entire musical film with maybe the greatest filmmaker alive. I learned and absorbed so much from him about how to lead a huge company and crew with grace and patience and support. I was also able to pick up on certain techniques of directing actors, and a lot of lessons about storytelling in general because he's such a great storyteller. I think that's what really sets him apart from a lot of other directors: Every shot has storytelling motivation behind it. The story always comes first. And that was a guiding principle for me as I was working on Illinoise. And just seeing who Steven was, his authenticity—witnessing that gave me the confidence to trust myself and feel like whatever I make is going to be unique because it's coming from my own voice and no one else has that voice. He was always very generous with me, which I'm very grateful for. He's still someone I consider to be a good friend, who I can pick up the phone and call and ask a question—and I do, and that's been invaluable. Also, almost half of the cast of Illinoise was in the West Side Story film. There’s something really beautiful about all of us sharing that experience then getting to carry it forward and apply it in a new way. A lot of the approach to how I directed the acting was inspired by screen acting. There's a lot of the show that feels almost like you're watching a silent film, which is stylistically a little different for a live stage musical. That was fun to experiment with—to see how we could present an acting style that was unique to this show.

Does Illinoise feel like a stepping stone to more directing? What kind of projects are you attracted to right now? 

I'm very excited about continuing to work as a director, both for theater and for film in the near future. Most of the work I do uses dance as a language, so there is that consistent thread for me as I move forward. I'd love to do more musicals—potentially a book musical next. We'll see. I mean, it always has to be a project that hits the heart in a very personal way. It's usually, like, one in a hundred in terms of finding that right project. I'm really excited for what the future holds, but I'm also just trying to savor every moment right now with Illinoise, because it's been such a long, thorough, focused journey. And now we're finally getting to share these performances in a consistent way with audiences. On Broadway. And that's a gift in its own right.

Illinoise is playing at the St. James Theatre through August 10. You can buy tickets here.

Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

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