“You know how musicians tell little white lies?”
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Less cheesy: Stew, pictured with Heidi Rodewald, won't look homeward.
Mark Stewart, a songwriter, bandleader and musician who goes by the name of Stew, takes a bite out of his rainbow roll and turns to his friend and collaborator, Heidi Rodewald, as if to secure her approval to continue the story. We are sitting, the three of us, in a tiny East Village Japanese kitchen, the kind where they serve lunch specials well through dinner. It is a Saturday afternoon in early June, between the matinee and evening performances of Stew and Rodewald’s new rock musical, Passing Strange, playing nearby at New York’s Public Theater.
Rodewald raises no objections as Stew continues the story of his “little white lie,” which was simply this: “We’re working on a musical.” That’s what he told some “hyperactive New Yorkers” at Joe’s Pub, the bar and music venue next to the Public Theater. “And they said, ‘Really? Let’s see some pages!’ ” He had none, so he went home and wrote some. Fast. That’s how Passing Strange began.
Joe’s had “sort of become our home base,” Stew says, even though he and Rodewald, who plays bass and sings backup, were technically Los Angeles–based musicians. The title song on his last record, 2002’s Naked Dutch Painter, played on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic for a year, and Stew’s band the Negro Problem had been a regular headliner at Spaceland in Silver Lake. But no one at Spaceland ever wondered whether Stew was working on a play. Or asked to see it when he said he was.
Now Stew, 45, and Rodewald, 48, have moved on from Joe’s and even from the Public. Passing Strange opened on Broadway February 8 to adoring, delighted reviews in TheNew York Times and New York magazine. Stew, currently doing eight shows a week with Rodewald at the Belasco Theater on 44th Street, admits he’s still shocked.
“People refer to me now with a straight face as ‘a Broadway star,’ and I just laugh every time I hear it,” says the singer-songwriter, a big man who appears onstage in a baggy suit and sneakers. “It’s like calling me a Mexican wrestler. Actually, I feel and look more like a Mexican wrestler.”
Stew should be used to the acclaim by now. Back in June, before producers Elizabeth McCann and the Shubert Organization snatched up Passing Strange for Broadway, Hilton Als, in The New Yorker, put Stew in a category with the greats of American theater. Not since Sondheim and Kushner, Als wrote, has anyone written “such a finely crafted, ethnic-minded American musical as Passing Strange.”
You get the sense, reading the press on Passing Strange, that for New York theater writers, the show is something of a relief: a bigtime Broadway show without tap-dancing nostalgia or preternaturally gifted teenagers; a libretto about enduring psychological issues — love, self-acceptance, humility — understood through the story of a thoroughly modern man, one who grew up in the 1970s, black and middle-class, in South Los Angeles. “A Less Cheesy Musical” was the headline on New York magazine’s review by Jeremy McCarter, who praised it as having “the funniest libretto I can remember.” All this comes three years after Stew’s bluff was called in that bar and he began furiously working on Passing Strange: a musical for people who don’t like musicals. And for Stew in particular, a story about growing up black in America that hadn’t yet been told.
A cast of eight revolves around Stew, who holds forth stage center in Passing Strange. The wonderful Daniel Breaker is Stew’s alter ego, “The Youth.” Eisa Davis is the Youth’s graceful, standard-bearing mother, whose heart breaks when she realizes her son, born too late for the segregated fountains, fails to uphold the churchgoing decency she found so necessary to middle-class assimilation. The Youth himself draws few real battle lines between blacks and whites, or even between middle-class and poor. He just wants to listen to punk rock without getting beat up.
“The only race pressure I felt growing up was from inside my community,” recalls Stew, who attended Crenshaw High. “The things that you could or could not do because you were black. The things you could not listen to. The music you would get teased — or beat up — for liking.
“Race is a weird theme park,” he says, “in every sense of the word. It’s entertaining how people get caught up in it. But it’s also really dangerous.”
Passing Strange is a specifically black story, one its author had in his head to tell for a long time. “I don’t think we’ve heard enough about the pressure to conform among blacks,” Stew says. “I’m interested in that — the story of how we get oppressed by our own culture. How we — black people — stereotype each other, and limit each other and judge each other in ways that I find can be even more harsh.”