If you haven’t yet seen the phenomenal new Broadway show Passing Strange, you’re really missing out. There are plenty reasons why you don’t dare pass on this electrifying, decidedly un-Broadway triumph, but it’s Stew, the single-named writer, co-composer and onstage narrator of Passing Strange, who’s best equipped to sell you on it: “You wanna know the most terrifying combination of words in the English language to me? Rock Musical. Because the music featured in such so-called productions is stuff that no self-respecting rock fan would ever be caught dead listening to. Therefore, Passing Strange is the musical you can take your friend to who hates musicals.”
The exhilarating score swerves madly from punk to Gospel to soul to funk without losing coherence or a drop of brio. Fans of the show will be excited to learn that a soundtrack is forthcoming; in fact, they’ll be recording it live at the Belasco Theatre Monday afternoon and you’re invited – get on the list by subscribing to the Passing Strange newsletter. And while ticket prices for Passing Strange vary, $25 rush tickets are sold at the box office on the day of each performance.
I saw Passing Strange for the second time on Broadway just last week, and I’m already itching to see it again. Oh good, I hope you were there with a good crowd. Sometimes the crowd can be a little bit stiff.
I was wondering about that; is the audience response on Broadway different from when you presented Passing Strange at the Public Theater? I’ve got to be honest with you. The stereotype was that Broadway crowds would be stiff and downtown crowds would be wild and crazy. That hasn’t really been the case. I think audiences are kind of the same all over. It’s just that uptown people might not get some jokes that downtown people do. But in terms of the response, we would like it to be more like a black church situation, with call and response and people feeling like they’re part of the moment, not observing the moment, you know? A lot of people downtown were very observational, as well.
But, see, you know, with rock ‘n’ roll you know how you’re doing every minute. Rock ‘n’ roll is like fucking: you know if it ain’t working for the other person. Or at least hopefully you’re fucking someone who’s not faking it. With rock ‘n’ roll you know how well you’re doing because you can see if they’re looking up at you or if they’re trying to pick up some girl at the bar. But in theater, fuck. They’re just staring at you and you don’t know what’s going on sometimes because they’re not allowed to say, ‘Yeah!’
So why do it on Broadway – were you surprised the producers wanted to present this to a Broadway audience? Surprised is putting it mildly. I was shocked and I’m still shocked every day I wake up and realize I’m actually going to work on Broadway. I still can’t believe it. Everyone keeps saying, ‘Oh, isn’t it interesting these conservative Broadway producers brought Passing Strange to Broadway.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, if they were conservative they’re sure not conservative now.’ This show’s crazy. I wouldn’t have brought this shit to Broadway. I wouldn’t have rolled those dice. This shit costs money! You know what I mean? People are putting serious money into this thing. I don’t know; if that’s conservative that’s the kind I like.
But it’s still shocking. I know it has something to do with the fact that every once in a while you get a show like Hair and then years go by and you get RENT and then years go by and you get Hedwig. And so we’re coming right after Spring Awakening and I know obviously all those things have played into this but I still think our play is pretty fucking weird for Broadway.
For those who haven’t seen it, what’s the title about? We got it from Othello. A dramaturg at the Public Theater gave me a graphic novel version of Othello. I was just checking out this one section and the phrase ‘passing strange’ was used; it meant ‘very strange’ or ‘beyond strange.’ And I just thought it was a perfect phrase, because for me it meant the passing of time, it meant passing through cities, it meant the kind of passing that Americans do to pretend they’re something else. When I say Americans it’s because I think white people pass just as much as black people do. I don’t mean like racially pass but in terms of the masks people use in whatever subcultures they might dip into. Slumming is like passing for me. There are heiresses on the Lower East Side; there always have been. When I was living on the Lower East Side in 1983 sometimes I’d get in a taxi with some girl and she’d say, ‘We’re going to my place.’ And I’d think we’d be going to somewhere like 14th Street or 23rd Street or 34th Street, and we would end up somewhere on Park Avenue. So people have always been slumming, they’ve always been passing. Even in their own community, you know.
Passing Strange has to do with a character named Youth from black middle-class Los Angeles who leaves home and dives into the sex, drugs and art squats of 1980s Amsterdam and Berlin. A lot of that is based on experiences from your own life, right? Yeah, exactly, they are based on. The play is not an accurate illustration of exactly what happened in my life but it’s based on and inspired by things that happened in my life. Everything on stage that happens I can point to some corresponding moment in my life. But it’s not like a documentary by any means.
You’ve gone from being an underground musician to starring in a Broadway show in which night after night you’re onstage interacting with sort-of a younger version of yourself. How much of a mindfuck is this? It’s actually not much of a mindfuck because I look at that kid on stage not so much as a younger version of me as… We call him Youth, and that’s because he represents everything youth is; not just my youth, everybody’s youth. To me, youth just means a life ruled completely by desire. His life is ruled by his desires and nothing else. His desire is to be an artist, even though he wants to fuck women and take a lot of drugs, at the end of the day he doesn’t want any of these things getting in between him and making art. He just uses these things that happen to him as fodder to make art. It would have been a mindfuck if it had been purely autobiographical.
The bigger mindfuck in this play is the fact that I’m onstage with someone I broke up with after a ten year relationship. My collaborator Heidi Rodewald and I broke up when the play was running in Berkeley in 2006. And a lot of the issues in the play, like the difficulty of mixing life and love and art – that’s the mindfuck. Because I deal with scenes every single night that refer to the very thing that kind of broke us up, basically. So that part is far more difficult because she’s actually a real person who’s right there who I’m actually looking at on the stage every goddamn night. That is weird, I have to tell you.
But you two have a good working relationship now? Yeah, we try to put it all in perspective but we have difficulties big time. It’s weird also because we’re out at the bar afterwards and I’m sitting there with my girlfriend and she’s looking at me across the room and I’m looking at her. It’s like divorcing and staying in the same fucking house. The house we live in is this play. I have to see her all the time. So I have a girlfriend now and she has to deal with that; I have to deal with whatever she’s going to be getting into. You would love to have some space but it’s just not possible because we’re in this play.
Did you really have a band called the Scareotypes as a teenager? No, no, I did not. But I always wondered why no one had ever thought of that name. I hope some punk band one day uses that name as a result of the play.
Was Arlington Hill a real place where you smoked up with the church choir? Yes, that is actually truth. The character in Arlington Hill scene, Mr. Franklin, is a composite character. I think every Baptist church in the world has a gay youth choir director. I think there’s some rule in the Bible that every youth choir director has to be gay. So he’s a composite of a few youth choir directors that I knew.
Colman Domingo, who plays Mr. Franklin and other characters is so terrific, as is the rest of the cast. Was there ever any discussion about recasting bigger names for Broadway? I think the producers knew that we weren’t having that. When we had the first meeting with the producers we sat at one of those really long conference tables like in a movie and I think the first words out of their mouths were, “So! Are we happy with the current cast?” And we said yes. And you could tell from the pregnant pause that followed that, as commercial producers, if we had hesitated for one second they would have jumped right in that hole with a list of names. They might deny it if you ask them but, yeah, we just nipped that shit in the bud first thing and just said everyone’s staying. There was a little pause and then they just moved on.
I think they knew they couldn’t fight that battle. The team had become a family at that point; we had already done the play in Berkeley and then at the Public Theater. Most shows people kind of go their separate ways after the performance; we actually like each other; we drink together and we’re close. So I think the producers knew they better not fight that battle and maybe they were also smart enough to know that we were an ensemble and it wouldn’t be a good idea to replace anyone.
So Lenny Kravitz was never considered? No, no, no. And the funny part is that they keep saying the one person who would be the most difficult to replace is me. And I am completely happy to let go of this shit any fucking time! Because I have other things I would love to do. I’m not saying I’m not having fun doing this but I absolutely think there are people out there who could do this really well. I’m happy doing it but at the same time I’m not making this egotistical rule that I’m the only one who can do it. I don’t have any acting experience. If some rock star wants to do it, and he’s not smoking so much pot that he can’t remember his lines… Hell, I’m reading half the time I’m up there! I’m not reading, but I have my cheat sheets when I need them.
So what happens if you’re sick? I do have an understudy. But it hasn’t happened yet.
You’re been performing this off and on for how many years? I did a two month run at Berkeley in 2006 and for several months at the Public Theater in 2007. Now on Broadway. But I’ve got to tell you, in one way it’s harder than a rock gig because it’s repetitive. But physically… In a 45-50 minute club show I’m expending constant energy every minute. There’s no break in a club show. Whereas in this play I can sit down and other people are doing things. But what’s harder is the whole mindfuck that surrounds it. Repetitive stress bullshit that comes from playing the same part every night, even though I like to mix it up. I never had shit like that before, like a wrist pain. Because in my rock show I’m always doing different shit every night. Even if we’re on tour. But yeah, theater’s hard, man. Not onstage but all the other shit surrounding it.
Especially on Broadway. I would think this show would present challenges in terms of reaching out beyond the typical Broadway audience. Hell yeah. That’s really the hardest thing. I feel like sometimes when I’m up there I’m like a preacher from this Baptist church who’s kind of stumbled into this Catholic church. And I’ve got to figure out what to do. Do me and the choir have our own party onstage and hope the congregation joins us or do I go out there and try to rile the congregation up? But that’s kind of what makes it fresh because every single night I have to make that decision. I have a period every night where I get deeply depressed for about two minutes, because I think, 'How the fuck am I going to make this shit fresh for me and the actors tonight?' Because it’s never the same show. And then after that, I say fuck it, it’s not coal mining, it’s just theater, it’s just entertainment. And we go out there. You never know. If I can get three teenagers up front nodding their heads, if I can get a couple people who look like they’re digging it, I’ll be fine.
I read that you were planning on making a movie last fall. When Passing Strange got commissioned by the Public Theater in 2004, we got accepted by the Sundance theater lab. At the same time, the Sundance film lab had gotten word of Passing Strange and asked us to write a screenplay – a completely different story. So Heidi and I wrote a screenplay for a period piece that takes place in the early ‘70s and we were going to shoot that film because we didn’t think we were going to Broadway. We were going to shoot it after Passing Strange ended at the Public. It’s nothing fancy; it’s an indie, HD thing. But then this Broadway thing happened so that’s on hold now. But whenever we get done with the Broadway thing that’s what we want to do.
What’s it called? Well, the working title right now is We Can See Today. It’s about this teenage rock band in the early ‘70s that… You know, I shouldn’t actually give it away. But it’s kind of a love letter to the days when people formed rock bands because they thought they could change the world. Let’s just say that I wanted to write a screenplay about a time when you didn’t form a rock band just to get MySpace friends, where the goal of your band was not necessarily to be famous. The first scene in the movie is the protagonist in his room and the posters on his wall are John Lennon and Angela Davis. To me, that’s what music meant back then. It was pop music, it was good songs, but it was also optimistic and ought to change the world.
And I read there was a documentary being made about you and Heidi? There’s a documentary that is sort of… we don’t know when it’s going to come out. It was on hold for a while because me and Heidi’s careers just kind of went crazy. So we’re thinking about what to do with it now because we want it to come out but we’re rethinking it…
What’s the title? I think it’s called What’s the Problem? Or Behind the Problem? I never liked the title. We had some problems with it and we kind of have a different perspective on it now. I know I’m sound very vague but it’s going to come out.