The Musical ‘Illinoise’ Breathes New Life Into Sufjan Stevens’ Seminal Album

Another major song on the album, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” holds particular weight in Illinoise’s overarching treatment of queerness. The track tells the story of the infamous serial killer, who raped and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men in the 1970s. Stevens closes the song by shifting to the audience’s own capacity for sinful secrets with the admission, “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”

While Stevens’ song largely opts for a straightforward narrative structure rather than sensationalizing the Gacy story, the Illinoise team faced the task of bringing it to the stage in a way that both pertained to Henry’s character and avoided conflating the serial killer with the larger queer community in dangerous ways. Together, the team decided the best way to approach the song was to have the characters confront the cultural ramifications of Gacy’s legacy head-on.

“There’s this idea of gay men being accused of being pedophiles all the time by evangelical, right-wing people,” Pearce says. “It’s a very real fear and a very real threat that would have triggered something for Henry, because he came from this small town where that fear was ingrained into him.”

Ultimately, Illinoise chooses to end “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” with the song’s storyteller in “an intimate moment of support with other gay men,” as Peck describes it, showing that “he’s not alone in this experience, and he’s not on his own to grapple with this.”

“With the staging of that song, we wanted to be very careful and conscientious, to set it in a way that maintains the point of the view of the storyteller,” he says. “But also [to show] how the queer community has grappled with this real-life character and how he’s been weaponized.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge for the Illinoise team was putting together a show that could co-exist alongside the myriad narratives and personal anecdotes that listeners have brought to Stevens’ work over the years. After almost 20 years, the already polysemous Illinois has accrued a mountain of intensely personal meanings as generations of new listeners discover the record. Instead of trying to please everyone, the creators of Illinoise hopes the show can help people deepen their connections to the work, expanding its cultural relevance in a way that only communal storytelling can.

“This album means so much to so many people, especially queer people, and the show can’t hold everything for everyone,” Pearce says. “But I do think that if we really lean into the beauty and the queerness and the challenges of that, it can be very healing.”

Illinoise is playing at New York’s Park Avenue Armory through March 23.

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