Gaby Diaz on the Many Layers of the Sufjan Stevens Musical ‘Illinoise’

“We did not set out to make this show for Broadway,” says Gaby Diaz, who is two days post-opening night and getting a slow start to her day at home before heading to the theater. The show, “Illinoise,” is Diaz’s Broadway debut, and is one of the most talked-about new shows to arrive there this spring. But as Diaz says, neither she nor the show’s creators ever expected to find themselves here. 

“Illinoise” is a dance-narrative musical choreographed by Tony winner Justin Peck, with a book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury around Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album of the same name. The show made its transfer to Broadway just 29 days after wrapping a sold-out run at the Park Avenue Armory; it previously was at Chicago Shakespeare Theater earlier this year and at Bard College’s Fisher Center last year.

“We just made a show that felt authentic and true to our strengths as dancers,” Diaz continues. “Justin created something that really uplifts a lot of departments and encourages every department to show up in their strengths with their creativity and their hearts. And we did that and we found ourselves here.”

Diaz first worked with Peck on “West Side Story” and they maintained a friendship, so when he called three summers ago and asked to go on a walk to discuss a new project that he didn’t know how to describe, she was immediately intrigued. 

She’d never heard Stevens’ album before in its entirety, only knowing the hit “Chicago” from its placement in movies like “Little Miss Sunshine,” one of her favorites. 

“I’m still discovering so many layers in this music,” she says of performing it now. 

Gaby Diaz of

Gaby Diaz

Diaz, who is Cuban American, was raised in Miami with a father who played percussion and a mother who grew up dancing, and was therefore encouraged in the arts from a young age.

“I would’ve lost my mind had I seen this show when I was younger,” she says of “Illinoise.” “It’s hard to articulate, but you just get a sense of every dancer, every actor, every person’s individuality within [Peck’s] movement. And I really appreciate that about his choreography and the approach to this show. He’s not a stickler for everyone looking exactly the same. We are all trying to achieve the essence of what he’s going for, but everybody is able to show up with their training and their background and their culture and their ideas and their feelings that day. We’re able to physicalize emotion through the choreography and explore that every time we do the show in a different way because the movement is not as strict as it may be in other dance pieces.”

Since audiences have come to see the production at the St. James Theater, Diaz has been moved to hear how many people comment on how they can feel what the performers are feeling onstage.

“Ultimately, that is my dream and what I believe is my strength, and I try to push myself to be vulnerable in sharing what I’m feeling on stage,” she says. “Because we have no spoken dialogue in the show, the specificity of details of plot are not necessarily the thing that people need to come in and pinpoint. I think they’re able to see themselves in someone on stage and empathize with how that person is feeling.”

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