10 things to know about 'Illinoise' on Broadway

The dance musical, with choreography by Justin Peck and music by Sufjan Stevens, is nominated for four Tony Awards and tells its story in a unique way.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The Broadway musical Illinoise is a mosaic of many existing art forms that make up an entirely unique piece of theatre — and a Tony Award-winning one to boot, earning Best Choreography.

The critically acclaimed show is based on musician Sufjan Stevens's celebrated 2005 album Illinois. But unlike your average jukebox musical, Illinoise is a dance piece. Twenty songs' worth of Stevens's lyrics, all inspired by the title state, are the only words you'll hear.

The songs underscore an original story about a community of people journaling and swapping stories in an Illinois cornfield. With their help, one young man gets the courage to share his own history of coming out as he came of age, losing childhood friends, and finding a path to healing.

Justin Peck, the show's director, co-writer, and choreographer, describes Illinoise as "a journey down the rabbit hole" of Stevens's rich music, with this narrative adding new dimensions. He also described Illinoise as a memoir, a silent film on stage, the offspring of previous hit musicals, and a celebration of creativity.

For audiences daunted by the prospect of a wordless musical or curious about what to expect from Illinoise, Peck spoke with New York Theatre Guide about the show's history, structure, and qualities he hopes will resonate with anyone.

Get Illinoise tickets now.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

You might be familiar with the creators' previous work.

Three lead creators of Illinoise have worked in music, dance, theatre, and film. Sufjan Stevens fans, of course, will be familiar with his indie folk-rock discography, including the album that gives the show its name. (Almost — the album is called Illinois, no E.) Lush, orchestral instrumentals and poetic storytelling define Stevens's distinct sound.

Jackie Sibblies Drury, who co-wrote the show's book, is best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview. And Justin Peck is the resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet, the Tony Award-winning choreographer of 2018's Carousel, and the choreographer of the films Maestro (starring Bradley Cooper) and Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.

5 illinoise-1200x600-NYTG

Sufjan Stevens inspired Justin Peck from a young age.

The Illinois album came out when Peck was 18, the same year he first joined the NYCB as an apprentice and started on the path to his now-flourishing dance career. When he heard the record, Peck remembered thinking the music "could really inspire a dance language in me,'" he said.

Little did he know he would go on to work with Stevens. "Even though the show lately has been on this incredible bullet-train path, it feels like it's been ruminating for almost 20 years."

Stevens and Peck are now longtime collaborators and friends.

The pair have since co-created multiple ballets for NYCB and other dance companies. The deep friendship they formed over the years as a result, Peck said, gave rise to Illinoise.

"Getting to a place where Illinoise felt like a possibility had to come from a deep sense of trust," Peck said. "Sufjan is a very private person, and he's someone who usually works alone. It was only through a lot of conversations with him [between 2014-18] that we were able to even get to a point where we could explore it."

"He's been intentionally hands-off with this project because the music comes from so long ago," Peck added. "He wanted to give me and my team the space to [...] build this into its own unique thing."

4 illinoise-1200x600-NYTG

There is no spoken dialogue — but don't be scared by that.

Peck's choreography is clear, expressive, and easy to follow. Dancers mold their bodies into the shape of a car to depict a road trip; strike Superman-like poses in an ode to Metropolis, Illinois; and skip around like schoolboys in a dance about a childhood friendship, to name a few examples.

To further ease people's fears about not knowing what's going on, Peck has a go-to analogy for Illinoise.

"It's like a silent film," Peck said. "Expect to see a story unfold before your eyes that includes a lot of gesture and body language and also really extraordinary moments of dance. And it's all underscored by this album that's really resonated with an entire generation of people.

"The style of the choreography is designed so the audience feels like they can almost do it themselves," he continued, "but then it lifts off into something a bit further."

Words are still important to Illinoise.

To give audiences context for the story, a small "handwritten" journal from Henry, the main character, is included with each program. A major theme of the show is journaling to express oneself. And of course, there are Stevens's lyrics, which convey feeling alongside the dance. (Read our guide to the songs in Illinoise to learn more.)

"If you looked at the book of this, it would be the action written out and described," Peck said. "It's written almost as a memoir. Even though it's not an autobiography — it's still a made-up story — a lot of it comes from coming-of-age experiences that I've gone through and that Jackie has gone through."

1 illinoise-1200x600-NYTG

The dancers match the mood of the songs.

How do you act out a lyric like "Cannot conversations cull united nations? If you got the patience, celebrate the ancients" (as heard in "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!")? The short answer: You don't.

If Peck and his collaborators tried to shoehorn Stevens's experimental music into a traditional plot, they'd have created the "bad version" of Illinoise, he said. The songs set the mood for each scene instead of literally describing what's going on.

"Even though there's a lot of storytelling in [the lyrics], they're not literal or specific. They're kind of impressionistic," Peck said. "It's not meant to encapsulate every single lyric, every single fact that Sufjan includes in that music. Rather, it's a way to distill it and focus it into a narrative that [...] is digestible for an audience over the course of 90 minutes."

Illinoise is inspired by another famous musical.

"Hopefully, [Illinoise] it can help to add more variety to the prospect of what a musical can be," Peck said. In 1975, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical about aspiring dancers set out to do the same thing.

"[In Illinoise,] a collection of characters gather around the campfire, and they step forward one by one and share their stories," Peck said. "Structurally, it's very similar to A Chorus Line. Instead of the roundness of the campfire, it has the characters lining up, and each character comes forward and provides a little more background to who they are and where they came from and what they want."

A perk of this structure? The numbers flow into each other, but each one also stands on its own as a bite-sized individual story.

3 illinoise-1200x600-NYTG

The show has widely relatable themes.

There's an old adage in the theatre that goes: If it's too big to speak, sing it; if it's too big to sing, dance it. So why is Illinoise a dance piece? Because the show explores coming of age, loss, grief, insecurity, and love. As Peck attested, these experiences can be hard to put in words.

"There's something visceral about those things being expressed through dance that people can really connect to," Peck said. "I don't think any of us had the intention of trying to create something that would stand for some big-picture thing. It comes from smaller ideas, and it feels like it's resonating with a bigger audience than any of us ever expected it to, which is a miracle."

Peck sees Illinoise as a platform for talented young dancers.

"[Dance] shows don't come around every season, and there's some incredibly talented artists who don't always have a vehicle to express what they can do," Peck said. "It comes from a love of those artists and wanting to make something where people can see them thrive."

Multiple Illinoise cast members are alums of the competition TV show So You Think You Can Dance and other dance-heavy Broadway musicals like Newsies and Cats.

He also wants to inspire audiences as he was once inspired.

Whether someone comes into Illinoise a Sufjan Stevens fan, a Broadway fan, a ballet fan, or a complete newcomer, Peck hopes they come away with a new appreciation for all the art forms on display.

"I love dance, and I love theatre, and it's done so much to [...] further my understanding of myself and the world around me," Peck said. "I hope to be able to have a similar impact on someone else, who might be a young person seeing this for the first time. You can actually be affected by the expression of dance and theatre and storytelling."

Get Illinoise tickets now.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Interview excerpts have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive New York theatre updates!

  • Get early access to Broadway's newest shows
  • Access to exclusive deals and promotions
  • Stay in the know about top shows and news on Broadway
  • Get updates on shows that are important to you

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy