All the songs in Sufjan Stevens's 'Illinoise' on Broadway

The Grammy and Academy Award-nominated folk-rock musician's moody songs set the scenes in this dance musical, nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

The songs in the Illinoise Broadway musical are all over the map. Pulitzer Prize winner Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) and Tony Award winner Justin Peck (Carousel) adapted the show from Sufjan Stevens’s acclaimed 2005 concept album of (almost) the same title, Illinois. The mix of heart-quickening, haunting, and hymnlike songs have a starring role in this four-time Tony-nominated show about love, loss, and learning to start again.

Unlike most jukebox musicals – ones that use an artist’s existing songs instead of original music – Illinoise doesn’t try to shoehorn Stevens's songs into a traditional plot. The songs serve as sonic backdrops for dance vignettes choreographed by Peck, who also directs.

Many songs have ties to Illinois places and people. As they emerge, the singers, musicians, and dancers all get to shine. We meet characters who abstractly share their stories, feelings, and fates — also linked to the state and its history — through the language of Peck’s choreography.

So be sure to hoof it to the St. James Theatre to see Illinoise before August 10. Before you go, learn more about the songs in the show and how they tell its unique story.

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“Prologue (or, A Conjunction of Drones...)”

Buzzy, wordless, almost otherworldly chords that drop us into the universe of Illinoise. In this brief we meet two young men – Henry, the main character, and Douglas, we eventually learn – who part ways. Why? Stay tuned.

“Three Stars (or, Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois)”

Stevens seized inspiration for this moody song that speaks of “an alien thing” and “three stars” from actual UFO sightings witnessed in St. Clair County, Illinois, on January 5, 2000. The mysterious nature of the song fits as Henry reckons with the memories of two men and a woman: Carl, Douglas, and Shelby.

“The Long Hike”

The musical section situates Henry in a forest. He’s joined by a group of people around his age. As they sit around a campfire, they share stories about themselves. Henry is nudged to tell his tale, but he’s reluctant at this point.

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“Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”

Stevens found inspiration for this exuberant song by rummaging through the history of Illinois. The 1893 World’s Fair, which took place in Chicago, and Carl Sandburg, a poet best known for his Chicago Poems collection, are referenced.

Henry and his peers are writing, too, preparing to share with the group. The recurring lyric “Are you writing from the heart?” speaks eloquently to Henry, who’s struggling to tell his tale.

“a story about Jacksonville”

“I’m not afraid of the Black man running. He's got it right, he's got a better life coming.” State history once again informs Stevens’s songwriting. This vibrant number’s opening lyric nods to Jacksonville, Illinois’s role on the Underground Railroad. On stage, the music sets a backdrop for past and present and the intersection of two dynamic dance styles.

“a story about Zombies”

Set in motion with a driving, almost intoxicating insistence, the song finds creative juice, once again, in Illinois’s past. Mighty men linked to the state – Ulysses S. Grant and Ronald Reagan, among them – get name-dropped. On stage, presidents like these are represented with zombie masks, and a featured dancer struggles with the effect of their past on her present.

“a story about John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

Yes, as in the serial killer from Illinois who murdered dozens of boys and young men in the 1970s before being executed in 1994. Creepy stuff, for sure. Yet, by its end, this delicate and disturbing murder ballad becomes a meditation on how we all harbor dark truths.

“I am really just like him,” it concludes. “Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”

“a story about The Man of Metropolis”

How do you follow up music about a mass murderer? Pull a 180 and sing the praises of Superman – “man of steel, man of heart,” as Stevens writes – in an upbeat number. Turns out that Metropolis, Illinois was named “Hometown of Superman” in 1972. On stage, an everyman Superman strikes a familiar pose in delightfully theatrical fashion.

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“Our step mom, we did everything to hate her.” So begins this plainspoken song about family dynamics and their complexities. At this point, Henry steps up and begins to recall his relationship with his childhood best friend, Carl.


“I made a lot of mistakes… all things go.” Stevens is at his most autobiographical in this catchy standout (titled "Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!" on the original album) recalling his experiences in the Windy City.

It appears that Henry grapples with his own past mistakes in this number sung during a road trip. This breakout song stays in your head for days after seeing the show – and that's a good thing.

“To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament”

In the late 20th century, Rockford, Illinois experienced significant industrial decline that led to economic struggles. On stage, a woman in Henry’s life finds herself at a crossroad.

“Casimir Pulaski Day”

“Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body. But nothing ever happens.” A young woman’s death and the aftershocks for people in her life is the focus on this haunting song about mortality and faith. The danced vignette mirrors the song’s story.

The song is named after Casimir Pulaski, a Polish soldier who died while fighting for America in the Revolutionary War. Illinois cities with large Polish populations celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day on the first Monday in March.

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“Prairie Fire That Wanders About”

This song name-drops various Illinois references including Peoria – synonymous with middle America – as well as that city’s annual Santa Claus Parade. There’s a cheery quality to the music that underscores deeper, starker feelings. That reverberates in the story Henry relates.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”

Stevens taps his own experience for this sweetly wistful song about a romantic relationship he had when he was around 16. The singer-songwriter described it as being “an awakening” that occurred in high school. Awakenings often leave lasting impressions.

“In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth”

The title of this moody instrumental song reflects words carved above Illinois native Abraham Lincoln’s head at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“The Seer's Tower”

Stevens reportedly looked to — and up at — the Sears Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, for inspiration for this sobering song. “In the tower above the earth, there is a view that reaches far; where we see the universe, I see the fire, I see the end.” The sense of finality evoked fits this scene centered on Carl.

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“A Conjunction of Drones, again”

Stories have a way of coming full circle. This song is a reminder of that, retracing music heard earlier.

“Chicago” (Reprise)

The show’s best song is reprised for dramatic impact. The second time around, the mood seems lighter on stage.

“The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders”

Once again, the lyrics of this song refer to moments in the state’s history, as well as Sandburg, to convey an upbeat mood that Henry shares. “I stand in awe of gratefulness,” goes the song. “I can and call forgetfulness.”

“Epilogue (or, Riffs and Variations... Out of Egypt...)”

Instrumental songs draw Illinoise to a close as the company — including an unexpected visitor — rallies around Henry. On stage, it appears that a new story has begun for him.

Get Illinoise tickets now.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Illinoise. (Photos by Liz Lauren and Matthew Murphy)

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