15 Things to Know About Sufjan Stevens and the Album That Inspired ‘Illinoise,’ the New Show at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Perhaps the most anticipated show in Chicago this winter, “Illinoise” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater promises “a new kind of musical.”

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It features dance from Tony Award-winning choreographer and director Justin Peck (“Carousel” and Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) and a narrative written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”).

Dance and stories are woven into songs written by Sufjan Stevens from his beloved 2005 album “Illinois” — which also has a longer title, “Sufjan Stevens Invites You to: Come on Feel the Illinoise.” (The “e” at the end of Illinoise comes and goes.)

Here’s what you need to know about the composer, the album and the show.

1. Sufjan Stevens was born in Detroit in 1975 and grew up in Alanson, Michigan, a small logging town 20 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge.

2. Stevens is a multi-instrumentalist who studied oboe as a child at Interlochen Arts Academy. “It was just awful,” he said in an early interview. “We were all so maladjusted. I cried every day.”

3. His first name is pronounced SOOF-yon. Sufjan is a Persian name given to him by the leader of a spiritual group his parents belonged to when he was born. The name means “one who comes with a sword.”

4. Stevens identifies as Christian. He attended Hope College, a private Christian college in Holland, Michigan. The final song on his 2004 album “Seven Swans” describes the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. In a Tumblr post from 2017, Stevens wrote “Christ would be ashamed of us all” in reference to former President Donald Trump’s executive order banning people from Muslim-majority countries.

5. Steven recorded 100 Christmas songs over two box sets: “Songs for Christmas” and “Silver & Gold.” He initially recorded them as gifts for family and friends. He later told New York magazine: “Christmas music is such a madcap genre because you get the high art, the low art, the deeply sublime and the sacrilege.”

6. He released “Illinois” on July 4, 2005, two years after “Michigan,” a collection of songs about his home state. He stated that his plan was to release 50 albums for 50 states, but he later said he was joking and that it was a promotional gimmick.

Sufjan Steven’s beloved 2005 album “Illinois” also has a longer title, “Sufjan Stevens Invites You to: Come on Feel the Illinoise.” (The “e” at the end of Illinoise comes and goes.)Sufjan Steven’s beloved 2005 album “Illinois” also has a longer title, “Sufjan Stevens Invites You to: Come on Feel the Illinoise.” (The “e” at the end of Illinoise comes and goes.)

7. The songs on “Illinois” explore everything from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 to serial killer John Wayne Gacy, from downstate UFO sightings to the ghost of poet Carl Sandburg. Throughout the album, state history and geography intersect with the narrator’s personal stories.

8. The most familiar song on “Illinois” is “Chicago,” which contains the repeated phrase “All things go.” The song was featured in the films “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and “Veronica Mars” (2014). It was also in an episode of “The Bear,” where it was introduced on the radio by the late Lin Brehmer of WXRT.

9. Many of the songs on “Illinois” have playful, literary titles, including the instrumental “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons” and “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.” Stevens earned an MFA in creative writing from the New School in New York.

10. Stevens’ music defies genres. His recordings might contain accessible folk songs, droning synthesizers or chamber music. Big moments mesh with minimalism. There is a diversity of instrumentation and a collaborative spirit to much of the work. Since 2000, he has released 10 studio albums and five collaborations with other composers. His record label, Asthmatic Kitty, describes him as “preoccupied with epic topics.”

11. The narrative of the stage adaptation, “Illinoise,” is framed around a campfire, where impressionistic stories and songs emerge to explore themes of self-discovery in the Land of Lincoln. The songs have new arrangements from composer and pianist Timo Andres, who collaborated with Stevens on the soundtrack to “The Decalogue,” a ballet choreographed by Peck in 2019.

“Illinoise” runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier though Feb. 18. (Matt Murphy)“Illinoise” runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier though Feb. 18. (Matt Murphy)

12. Stevens previously collaborated with Peck on three works for the New York City Ballet, where Peck is resident choreographer. Peck’s ballet “Year of the Rabbit” (2012) featured music from Stevens’ album “Enjoy Your Rabbit,” inspired by the Chinese zodiac.

13. “Illinoise” was workshopped at Bard College last summer. The show is currently in previews, gets its world premiere in Chicago on Saturday, Feb. 3, and features 12 dancers, an onstage band of 14, including vocalists, but no Stevens. He is not in the show.

14. On the off chance you see Stevens in attendance, give the man some space. Seriously, he had a rough year. In April 2023, his partner, Evans Richardson, died. Stevens dedicated his most recent record, “Javelin,” to him. And Stevens was stricken with an autoimmune disorder that landed him in a wheelchair. As of late last year, he was in physical therapy and learning how to walk again.

15. Lastly, the composer was Oscar-nominated for his song “Mystery of Love” from the film “Call Me by Your Name” (2017). Stevens performed the song at the Oscars with St. Vincent. He later told the Guardian how much he hated the experience: “I didn’t want to have anything to do with that world and that culture.”

“Illinoise” is currently in previews, and opening night is Saturday, Feb. 3. The show runs through Feb. 18 in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

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