A Rich Stew
Cabaret-style band turns its songs into a Tony-winning play about the singer’s life
It wasn’t supposed to be.
When musician Mark Stewart and his writing partner Heidi Rodewald were commissioned by New York’s Public Theater in 2004 to write a musical, Stewart — or Stew, as he is known — didn’t really have anything prepared. But that wasn’t going to stop him.
“They saw us performing at a place called Joe’s Pub, which is sort of like the live music annex of the Public Theater,” Stew said. “Depending on whose story you believe … as I remember it, I met them and lied and said I am working on a musical — because every rock ’n’ roll songwriter says he’s working on a musical, you know. Their version is, they went to me and said, ‘You should write a musical.’ But I think I have proof that my version is the truth.”
Stew, Rodewald and their band, the Negro Problem, had songs — good ones — but no coherent story or foundation on which to build a narrative. So, with the help of the Public Theater and the Sundance Institute, Stew workshopped a blossoming autobiographical fiction that follows a young, black artist out of his domestic middle-class existence through a series of troubling, hilarious and revealing encounters on his way to adulthood and artistic self-discovery.
Thus, “Passing Strange” was born.
Colorful, soulful and hard-rocking, “Passing Strange” caught the attention of Spike Lee, who filmed the final performance of the musical’s first full off-Broadway run. The film was shown at Sundance in 2009 and aired as part of PBS’ “Great Performances” series in early 2010. Three years later, Stew’s story has been staged by many theaters across the country and has won numerous awards, including a Tony for Best Book. As part of its local run at Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach, “Passing Strange” will be accompanied by a live performance by Stew & the Negro Problem. Though Stew will not be a part of the production of his musical this time around, he will be in the theater — watching.
“I have nothing to do with it except just being an audience member, which is great,” Stew said. “About five minutes into the play, I forget that I wrote it, and I just look at it as an event. I’m lucky in that way. I’m a person that you could tell the end of a movie, and if I go to the movie, I pretty much forget, ’cause I go with the film moment by moment. I enjoy the productions [of ‘Passing Strange’] that might not even be good, because it’s a learning experience.
“That’s the cool thing about theater. It’s like covering a song. You want [it] to be interesting. I don’t care about a faithful cover. I want it to be interesting.”
Coupling a band performance with the play is a little different for Jacksonville, but it might enlighten audiences about the process of songwriting in a theatrical context. Jimmy Saal, head of Atypical Arts Presents, which brings New York artists to Jacksonville, helped make it happen.
“I met Stew in 2005 at the wedding of a close mutual friend,” Saal said. “Through our mutual friend, Stew and I remained in touch through ‘Passing Strange’s’ development, and its run on Broadway. I started mentioning to Stew that I wanted to bring him to Jacksonville once the play ended and he started performing concerts again with his band. We never worked out any specifics until I heard that my friend Barbara Colaciello was going to direct a production of ‘Passing Strange’ at Players. I knew that this would be the perfect opportunity to bring him to Jacksonville to perform in concert.”
Stew, being a natural storyteller, will talk about the songs related to “Passing Strange” as the band performs them. He will also bring in new original material for the concert.
“Before I knew what cabaret was, somebody told me after seeing my rock show, ‘Yeah, you’re basically a cabaret artist, you’re just doing it in a rock context.’ I always introduce the songs, I always tell stories. I’m not one of these guys who goes boom, boom, boom from song to song. I like to set stuff up.”
Stew has achieved success as an artist, so “Passing Strange” has special resonance, because the main character — a version of Stew — struggles both personally and creatively during his journey around the world.
“This is the play I wanted to see when I was 15,” Stew said. “All these rock ’n’ roll records, the music that I grew up listening to, they were basically telling me, ‘You can do this.’ But I didn’t know anything about theater, so when I got a chance to make a play, I said, ‘Hey, I wanna make a play that kind of does what those records did for me.’ ”