'Passing Strange' a Real Rock Musical He calls himself a rock 'n' roll "lifer." With his band The Negro Problem, he's toured around the world, putting out albums of what he calls "Afro-Baroque cabaret" music. And now the musician known as Stew has written himself into a Broadway musical.

'Passing Strange' a Real Rock Musical

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Last spring, a musical called "Passing Strange" opened off Broadway to rave reviews. It's written and performed by an indie-rock musician who goes by one name, Stew. The show is a hybrid of a rock concert and a traditional musical. Now, it has traveled a couple of miles uptown from the Public Theater to the Belasco for its Broadway debut.

Jeff Lunden has the story of "Passing Strange."

JEFF LUNDEN: Stew, whose real name is Mark Stewart, calls himself a rock 'n' roll lifer. With his band The Negro Problem, he has toured around the world putting out albums of what he calls Afro-Baroque cabaret music. And the Public Theater was so intrigued by his songs that they commissioned him four years ago to write a musical. Stew didn't know what the subject matter was going to be, he didn't know how the story would be told. But he knew how he wanted it to sound.

(Soundbite of song "The Drug Suite")

STEW (Cowriter, "Passing Strange"; Vocalist, The Negro Problem): (Singing) Everything's all right. Everything's all right, is it all right now.

We knew we were going to invent something because 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.

(Soundbite of song "The Drug Suite")

Unidentified Backup Singers: (Singing) Everything's all right.

LUNDEN: 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.

Ms. HEIDI RODEWALD (Cowriter, "Passing Strange"; Bass Player): It was as if we just played a show and we're hanging around, and Stew is just telling stories. It was pretty nice getting paid to do that.

LUNDEN: 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 L.A., to sex and drugs in Amsterdam, to the tumultuous days in the Berlin arts world before the wall fell.

STEW: 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. 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 it, but not all.

(Soundbite of musical "Passing Strange")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) It's your first time.

Mr. DANIEL BREAKER (Actor): (As "The Youth") (Singing) Does it show, I'm like an ice cube gone to melt.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I hope you find yourself at home.

Mr. BREAKER: (As "The Youth") (Singing) I like the cards that I've been dealt.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) And how's your mind?

Mr. BREAKER: (As "The Youth") (Singing) Oh, it's blown. It's a vibe I've never felt.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Welcome to Amsterdam, Amersterdam...

STEW: It's really just about the costs of being a young artist. 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?

(Soundbite of musical "Passing Strange")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Now if you think you're dreaming, pinch yourself and look around. Miracles are commonplace when you're on holy ground.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Some worship our ho's, some kneel before our hash.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Some pray to our Van Goghs. All yours for a little cash. Only in Amsterdam, Amsterdam...

LUNDEN: 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 — find his real self — the same is true of the staging.

STEW: I'm not a fictional person onstage. I am myself. I am Stew. I call myself Narrator because it's boring to hear Stew all the time, you know, and to read it. So - and Narrator is fun because I'm narrating, I am. You know, it's a fun thing. 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.

(Soundbite of musical "Passing Strange")

STEW: (Singing) Now, in Beverly Hills they gave him chills and South Central put his soul in the deep freeze, but she gave him her keys.

LUNDEN: Director Annie Dorsen suggested the title, "Passing Strange," from a line in Shakespeare's Othello — a play in which a black man navigates in 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.

Ms. ANNIE DORSEN (Director, "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. Passing for black is actually — I say that like it's a common idea, but of course it is not a common idea. Passing for white is the common idea. And in this piece, it's turned on its head.

LUNDEN: In "Passing Strange," the character of the Youth adopts a streetwise persona to impress his fellow artists in Berlin.

STEW: He sees that he can play on being black. 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.

(Soundbite of musical "Passing Strange")

Mr. BREAKER: (As "The Youth"): Do you know what it's like to be the object of oppression living under police occupation in the ghetto?

STEW (As "the Narrator"): He did not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEW (As "the Narrator"): His police-occupied ghetto looked more like...

Unidentified Woman #2: Your friend Terry stopped by again in that brand-new Datsun 240Z.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: Now, he's making good money and he's not even in a game.

Mr. BREAKER: (As "The Youth"): Well, let me ask you this, Mr. know-it-all. Do you know what it's like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central?

STEW (As "the Narrator"): Nobody in this play knows what it's like to hustle for dimes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEW (As "the Narrator"): ...on the mean streets...

Unidentified Woman #2: That's right.

STEW (As "the Narrator"): ...of South Central.

LUNDEN: Along the way, the Youth tries on a lot of different masks while looking for his true self. Director Annie Dorsen says the Youth would rather write a song about loving the girl than actually love the girl.

Ms. DORSEN: In every one of those crossroads, he chooses art. 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.

(Soundbite of musical "Passing Strange")

STEW (As "the Narrator"): (Singing) Too bad it takes so long to see what you've been missing. Too bad it takes so long. 'Cause the real is a construct. It's the raw nerve's private zone. It's a personal sunset you drive off into alone.

LUNDEN: Actor Daniel Breaker, who plays the Youth, thinks Stew's coming-of-age story has universal audience appeal.

Mr. BREAKER: 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. And I think we want to put them all together. Put this Benetton ad of audience members together and have a rock show, you know?

LUNDEN: "Passing Strange" opens tonight.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

BLOCK: You can hear some of Stew's songs from "Passing Strange" at npr.org/music.

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