Last spring, a new musical called Passing Strange opened at New York's Public Theater, off-Broadway, to rave reviews. The show, a hybrid of a rock concert and a traditional musical, has now traveled a couple miles uptown to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway.
Passing Strange was written and performed by indie-rock musician Stew, whose real name is Mark Stewart. With his band, The Negro Problem, the self-proclaimed "rock 'n' roll lifer" has toured around the world, putting out albums of what he calls "Afro-Baroque cabaret" music.
The Public Theater was so intrigued by his songs that it commissioned him four years ago to write a musical. Stew didn't know what the subject matter was going to be, and he didn't know how the story would be told. But he knew how he wanted it to sound.
"We knew we were going to invent something," Stew says, " 'cause we kind of knew this hadn't been done before, the goal being to bring the actual music that one hears in a club to the stage — not through some kind of theatrical musical-theater filter. You know, 'rock' musical — that term 'rock' should really be in quotations, right? Because it's not really rock music that anyone who likes rock music would actually listen to."
Portrait of the Artist
Stew wrote the show with Heidi Rodewald, his bass-playing producer and ex-girlfriend. She says the two of them, along with director Annie Dorsen, began working on Passing Strange by sitting in a room talking.
"It was as if we'd just played a show and we're hanging around, and Stew's just telling stories," Rodewald says. "It was pretty nice getting paid to do that."
What emerged from the process, Stew says, is a semi-autobiographical musical. It charts the journey of a character — known only as Youth — from his middle-class adolescence in Los Angeles, to sex and drugs in Amsterdam, to the tumultuous days in the Berlin arts world before the wall fell.
"It's what I like to call autobiographical fiction, in that every single thing that's happening on the stage, I can point to something in my life, some kind of corollary, you know, that corresponds in some way," Stew says. "But, was I in Europe when my mom died? No. Did the things that happened in Amsterdam in our play happen to me? Some of them, but not all.
"It's really just about the costs of being a young artist," he says. "It's a 46-year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you're making that decision to really be an artist, you know?"
Stew is on stage the whole time, with his band and with six actors, who play multiple roles. If the piece is about a young artist trying to find himself — to find his "real" self — the same is true of the staging.
"I'm not a fictional person onstage," Stew says. "I am myself. I am Stew. I call myself Narrator because it's boring to hear Stew all the time, you know, to read it. ... But I am my real self, and the band is real as well, you know? And I think we even try to let you know, from all the mask changing — I mean the real, human mask changing, not costumes — that even the actors are real."
Dorsen, the director, suggested the title, Passing Strange, from a line in Shakespeare's Othello — a play in which a black man navigates a white world. Othello, speaking of wooing his wife Desdemona, says, "She gave me for my pains a world of sighs / She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange."
"The resonances of it, obviously, go far beyond the original source, and there's a lot of discussion in the piece about passing and what that means — time passing, passing for black, passing for white," Dorsen says. "Passing for black is actually — I say that like it's a common idea, but of course it's not a common idea. Passing for white is the common idea. And on this piece, it's turned on its head."
In Passing Strange, the character of the Youth adopts a streetwise persona to impress his fellow artists in Berlin.
"He sees that he can play on being black," Stew says. "He can play on the same stereotypes that he was trying to avoid back home. He can actually play on those and manipulate them and use those stereotypes to his advantage in Europe."
Along the way, the Youth tries on a lot of different masks while looking for his true self. Dorsen says the Youth would rather write a song about loving the girl than actually love the girl.
"In every one of those crossroads, he chooses art," Dorsen says. "And he chooses art thinking that he's choosing life, you know? Because, as Stew later says, some of us feel like art is more real than life."
Actor Daniel Breaker, who plays the Youth, says he thinks Stew's coming-of-age story has universal audience appeal.
"Which is a big surprise — to see a mix of not just race, but also age and economic background, which is very exciting — to see a big mix of people coming to see the show," Breaker says. "And I think we want to put 'em all together, put this Benetton ad of audience members together and have a rock show, you know?"