The New York Times | 2007.may.21
In Passing Strange, an idiosyncratic and vibrant new musical that opened last week at the Public Theater, an ensemble of stunning young actors is almost overshadowed by the mesmerizing stage presence of a chubby, bald, moon-faced, middle-aged performer named Stew.
Guitar in hand, porkpie hat on head, Stew presides as narrator over a loosely autobiographical tale of artistic awakening, a rollicking odyssey that takes a character named Youth from black middle-class Los Angeles "all hair gel and Jesus" through the sex, drugs and art squats of 1980s Amsterdam and Berlin and back.
It is a coming out of sorts for Stew, who long ago made himself at home "under the radar," as he put it, living the life of a club- and wedding-playing rocker. Now, suddenly, things are coalescing creatively for Stew. His play opened to very enthusiastic reviews, he plans to start shooting a Sundance Institute-supported movie in the fall, and a filmmaker, Jeffrey Winograd, will release a documentary about his work later this year.
Ever since Stew's jestingly named band, the Negro Problem, issued its first album, Post Minstrel Syndrome, a decade ago, his genre-defying rock-pop-funk-punk-cabaret music has earned him critical acclaim and a fervent cult following. Counting Crows' lead singer, Adam Duritz, calls Stew "the best songwriter there is working now."
Yet Stew, at 45, remains largely unknown, his broadest exposure having come through "Gary's Song," which he wrote for a popular episode of SpongeBob SquarePants in which SpongeBob's pet snail goes missing.
Relative obscurity, Stew said in a recent interview, has been fine with him and with Heidi Rodewald, 48, the lanky bassist, singer and songwriter who is his personal and professional partner. "We have these fans who think it's wrong that we're not more famous," said Stew, whose full name is Mark Stewart. "But we know that fame just isn't the judge of quality, except in America. Only in America do they go: 'You've made six records? You're making a play? But I've never heard of you.' "
That has made for a financially lean and peripatetic life, said Mr. Winograd, who has chronicled "the personal and professional sacrifices" that Stew and Ms. Rodewald have made to stay "true to their calling." The two share a deep distrust of "the kind of artistic product that has mass appeal," Stew said, and an aversion to "ambition in general" and "like, passing out fliers, which looks particularly desperate after 40."
Despite a natural pop sensibility, Stew has long subverted his commercial instincts to make what he calls "Afro-baroque" music, which is witty, erudite and uniquely his. He pairs winsome melodies and catchy hooks with lyrics about drug rehabilitation or workplace violence, for instance. Playfully barbed songs like "Black Men Ski," in which African-Americans enjoy a "winter wonderland in the belly of the beast," and tender ones like "The Sun I Always Wanted," a birthday song to his daughter, now a teenager, have no clear place on the radio dial. Stew knows that.
Still, there comes a point for midcareer artists like Stew at which living gig to gig is trying, and admirers like Bill Bragin, the director of Joe's Pub, have been sensitive to that and eager to see him spread his wings.
Mr. Bragin said he wanted to find creative options at the Public Theater itself for Pub regulars like Stew "who are unlikely to have breakthrough pop hits." For Stew, Mr. Bragin saw theater as a natural outgrowth of the concerts in which he glues together his narrative songs with storytelling and banter. ("I'm thinking, don't you wish there was, like, another picture of Che Guevara?" Stew said at one show, beginning a riff.)
The Public Theater commissioned the piece that became Passing Strange, which is a co-production with the Berkeley Repertory Theater, where it had its premiere last fall. As the Public saw it, Stew had the capability to create something that could extend its tradition of experimental musical theater, which began in 1967 with Hair, its first production.
"There has been this constant drumbeat here of reinventing how musicals are done, especially in order to talk about social subject matter," said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater. "Stew's whole story is about crossing cultural and aesthetic boundaries, mixing genres and identities in a way that is really complicated and contemporary."
At first Stew and Ms. Rodewald wanted to develop a cabaret show in order to stay in what they called their comfort zone. "Theater: There's no art form I know less about," Stew said. "I honestly can hold in one hand the number of live theater pieces that I've seen: one Richard Foreman, 'The Producers,' and that's pretty much it."
The Public Theater paired Stew and Ms. Rodewald with Annie Dorsen, 33, a director who, Mr. Eustis said, "brought a downtown theater aesthetic to the endeavor." Gradually Ms. Dorsen coaxed the two musicians out of cabaret, and in workshops at Sundance and Stanford University they created a hybrid form, a kind of rock concert out of which a play, or song cycle, emerged.
"Stew and Heidi wanted to stay true to the essence of a rock performance, which is very present tense," Ms. Dorsen said. "And that was our big area of contact because that's how I feel theater should be."
Stew wanted to examine the "weirdly fascinating fact" that "I'm living my life based on a decision a 17-year-old made" to devote himself to art. Ms. Dorsen helped him set up a classic "leave-taking, adventure, homecoming" structure, but gradually liberated him from a too faithful rendering of his coming-of-age story.
Nonetheless the book's essential trajectory tracks Stew's own.
Like the character Youth, Stew grew up singing in a Baptist church choir and fled a black middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, "a promised land that wasn't delivering the goods/even in this best of all possible 'hoods." He too spent years in Europe, especially in Berlin, where his daughter lives. He too, consciously following in the footsteps of James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, fled the limitations of being an American black artist only to tangle with the European fascination with "the American Negro."
"So do you play jazz? Do you play blues?" the Dutch characters ask Youth.
Youth answers: "Do you live in a windmill? Do you wear clog shoes?"
During an audience question-and-answer session in Berlin, where Youth has experimented with "passing for ghetto," he is asked in German-accented English whether "bleckness" is the central subject of his work. He answers, with studied silliness: "Yes and no. In other words, yo."
Initially the cast was mixed race, but for practical and aesthetic reasons, it ended up as an all-black ensemble, with African-American actors assuming the roles of white Europeans in the Amsterdam and Berlin scenes. It's a race reversal that "you just never see," Ms. Dorsen said, that deepens the play's exploration of racial identity and "passing."
At Sundance a European "theater person" questioned whether Stew was stereotyping artsy Germans. "I was like, 'There's a million and one European plays where a black guy walks out in a gorilla suit,'" Stew said. "So sorry."
Throughout the show's development its creators enjoyed a running joke whenever they stumbled across moments they felt were like Broadway. Ms. Rodewald described it as: "Oh, my God, people will love that. Let's not do it."
Before Passing Strange opened for a limited run through