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Passing Strange: The L.A. Problem

Less cheesy: Stew, pictured with Heidi Rodewald, won't look homeward.

Rainer HoschLess cheesy: Stew, pictured with Heidi Rodewald, won't look homeward.

“You know how musicians tell little white lies?”

Rainer Hosch

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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.”

But the show is also a knowing celebration of difference, one in which people who aren’t black find bits of themselves. (I, too, remember that holiday season I spent stubbornly far away from family, not knowing how few of those seasons there’d be left.) It invokes high school choir teachers and neglected mothers and European art students like archetypes in a new mythology, one known by anyone who’s ever fled a hometown with an eye on a life in the arts.

“We do get comments from people who feel it’s their story outside of the black thing,” Stew says. “Anyone who wanted to do something that their community said they were crazy for doing, this is their story. I really like that people find something personal in it, whoever they are.”

Our conversation in the sushi bar is going well, but things started out rough between Stew and me. First, I’d referred to the play as Stew when I wrote to ask for an interview; next, he’d shot back a sharp rebuke saying that if I couldn’t even get the title right, I should just skip it and write another “predictably detached/bad/cynical review to counter all the raves we’ve been receiving locally.” We both apologized in e-mails the next day, blaming exhaustion, oversensitivity and alcohol. A few polite e-mails later, we agreed to meet up for sushi, and I’ve come to understand Stew’s initial response in a better context. It wasn’t me Stew was writing back to, or even the Los Angeles media, which, he admits, “gave us a ton of acclaim when we were a rock band doing our thing.” It was Los Angeles itself.

“I’ve hated it since I was 9 years old,” Stew says of his hometown. “I’ve hated it since I used to watch the Rice-A-Roni commercials and see people riding on cable cars and think, Why don’t we have those? I would see people in New York on television riding subways and say, Why don’t we have those?”

“Stew doesn’t drive, by the way,” adds Rodewald, a sylph-slender redhead who was born in Pomona and grew up in Orange County.

“When I was growing up,” Stew says, “in high school, we were into punk — we were into London and New York, and we wanted our city to feel like a city. Like when you walk around, you’d see people on the street. We used to go to downtown L.A. on weekends in our new-wave suits, because it wasn’t enough to dress new wave — we wanted to be in a city. We wanted to be someplace urban.”

It’s not that Los Angeles didn’t like Stew: He got good press and radio play. And although the Negro Problem never got signed to a major label, he had enough of a following that people in the music scene generally knew who he was and respected him. But it also seems, looking back, that Los Angeles didn’t know what to do with Stew or his band beyond the club scene, which Stew and Rodewald had both begun to outgrow.

Rodewald recalls a time when they were approached to play a certain local festival — she won’t say which one — but the organizer who invited them called back to apologize: “The producers don’t know who you are,” she said. In New York, they had already played Lincoln Center. “It was so perfect,” Rodewald remembers. “We thought, okay, so this is why we’re not living there. People say, ‘Why don’t you bring the play to Los Angeles?’ And we say, ‘How about if we don’t?’ ”

It’s possible that this city ignores its own until they prove themselves somewhere else, although the number of homegrown bands that make it big here would seem to contradict that notion. It’s more possible that outside of the club scene and KCRW, Los Angeles and its hit-seeking record industry couldn’t find a natural place for Stew’s brooding and thinky cabaret rock — a melodious hybrid of new wave and the French chanson tradition as defined by Jacques Brel with a Kurt Weill–type license for lyrical excess. Stew grew up watching French movies at the NuArt and New Beverly; by the time he was 21, he was living in Berlin. When he returned to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, he was married and had a daughter, Bibi (now 15), who lived “very happily” in Silver Lake until the whole crew returned to Berlin (the city Stew still calls home). The sounds that fed his formative years as a songwriter were just not L.A. sounds. And though Los Angeles liked him fine, other places liked him better.

At this point in the conversation at the Japanese restaurant, a woman gets up from the sushi bar and comes over to our table to introduce herself. “I just have to tell you,” she gushes, “I’ve been listening to your stuff for years. I live in Seattle, and your music sounds so good up there, in the climate ...”

“KEXP?” Stew says, referring to the local Seattle independent-rock radio station.

“KEXP! That’s where I first heard you. Your songs sound really good in the rain. I couldn’t believe those songs came out of a sunny climate.”

“Central Casting!” Stew exclaims as she walks away. “The timing was perfect.”

Stew classifies Passing Strange as “autobiographical fiction,” meaning “everything in it is true,” even if it didn’t really happen that way. Like Stew, the Youth in the play grows up, leaves for New York, then Europe, where he confronts a new set of stereotypes and plays conveniently to his audience. One of the show’s funniest moments intercuts Davis, as the Mother, reporting news from home (“I ran into Sherry at the arts-and-crafts fair!”) with Breaker, as the Youth, trying to prove himself worthy of the company of a group of radical artists with his life story of oppression “under police occupation in the ghetto.” He “sits in a café/like Baldwin in the day,” a sufficiently romanticized vision of the black expatriate that you know Stew doesn’t take it seriously. At least, not anymore: The way the play tells it, the ideal is powerful enough to the Youth that he rejects home, ignores family, disappoints women. Then he looks back and wonders what he’s done. Was it right, he wonders, to put art above love? Above family?

“That’s probably the most true thing in it,” Stew reflects. “I had big regrets about some things. Confusing art for love, putting art first, and really having to deal with the consequences of that. I mean, in every single case, in my relationships to every single person I’ve ever been with, being able to make the art trumped everything.”

Both Stew and Rodewald credit their director, Annie Dorsen, with keeping them true to their sound and story. Dorsen joined them during their first workshop at the Public, and stayed for the journey — two seasons at Sundance, a residency at Stanford, a premiere at Berkeley Rep. As many a playwright has discovered, collaboratively workshopping your play sometimes turns out an Angels in America; more often, it swallows imaginations whole, and plays disappear. Stew and Rodewald were lucky. They read early on for legendary director George C. Wolfe, who encouraged them to stick to the vision they’d created. Robert Redford took them aside to talk to them about their work.

“At first we were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Robert Redford,’ ” Stew admits. “But after a second, he was just this guy giving us advice.” And they had Dorsen.

“Annie kept urging us to be more of ourselves, to be the rock band that we actually are. At some point, I’d be writing a scene that would be some third-rate bad realist American Arthur Miller imitation, and she’d say, ‘You know, that’s not you.’ ”

“We had to step back a lot,” Rodewald says, “and remember who we are.”

At Sundance, they wrote from sundown to sunup (they are rock musicians, after all), and showed up at 11 a.m. to hear professional actors reading their words.

“It was like an addiction,” Stew says. “It was like somebody giving you a drug you’d never had. They spoiled us and humbled us by being so warm and supportive; it was something I’d really never known in the music biz.”

“The theater world was so different from what we were used to,” Rodewald adds. “Bands are always competing, always engaging in this phony, schmoozy, catty stuff.”

And theater people are not?

“No,” Stew says firmly. “The cool thing about theater is that nobody goes into it purely to make money. In rock & roll, even people who don’t think they’re going into it for money go into it to be famous.”

“In the theater,” Rodewald adds, “you get the feeling that everyone is working together, that they’re all in it because they love it.”

Once in a while, someone involved in the process would suggest something “that was a little straight for our taste,” Stew admits. “But the beauty of it was that we could just say we didn’t want to do that. It was so funny for us, because when the record company pays the producer, the record company pays the producer to make the record the record company wants you to make. So the producer often battles with the band and tries to clean up the sound and make a hit.”

“This show” — the one I had seen the night before at Joe’s — “rocks more than the Berkeley show ever did, because Annie kept pushing for more of the band, more guitar, more cowbell, more of that rock & roll thing. Which was funny, because she’s the Yalie expert theater director.”

Says Rodewald: “She’s in the theater, but she hates everything in the theater world, so it was a really nice match. She didn’t want to do anything dorky.”

Stew and Rodewald never liked the theater much either, which is why they never found themselves doing it in L.A. “Rock people hate musicals, traditionally,” he says. “And rightfully so, for the most part. But we all secretly want a big rock show with some big lights and a big cool light show on that back wall. We do. We want that in real life.”

More sushi arrives. A spicy tuna roll, a spider roll. “Here,” Stew says, holding them up over the table. “This is for everyone to share.”

Stew and Rodewald used to be a couple. They aren’t anymore, and don’t care to elaborate on it, except to acknowledge that everybody thinks they are together. “The press is saying that more than ever,” Rodewald says. But they still treat each other with the kind of gentle reserve common to people who have more than just friendship going on. He tends to talk more than she does — way more — so he checks in at intervals to make sure she’s getting both her say and her proper credit. When she does talk, it’s mostly about the work she does with him, and her genuinely egoless devotion to it.

“When I joined the Negro Problem years ago, I was so happy to be in the band because I loved what he was doing so much,” she says. “I’m not a pushy person. I write songs, and I’ve been in bands where I write all the songs. But I was so happy to be playing his songs that I’m never going, ‘Here’s a song, here’s a song, can we play it?’ ”

“That’s the funny part,” Stew says. “In most bands, the first thing that breaks them up is that somebody’s got a song and says, ‘I’ve been in this band for years, I deserve to have a song played by us.’ With Heidi, she never asked, but when I’ve asked her to write something, it’s always been really great. I know a million musicians, but she’s the only one I’m so aesthetically in tune with that I can go, we need something here, and it’s always what I want.

“So we’re committed collaborators forever, because it’s really hard to find somebody that you really click with.”

And who could say it’s not working? Last spring, Rodewald and Stew were both happy just to be living in New York, having their apartments — in the Village and Soho, respectively — paid for by the Public. When they were daydreaming about their next step, they considered the possibility that London would have them next.

“I might have to arrange that myself,” Stew says, “because I don’t know what’s going to happen with this show — I don’t think it’s going to be successful enough to bust out of whatever we’re doing here.”

“Why not?” I wanted to know.

“I’m just not sure it’s the musical that the lady who gets off the bus from Wisconsin is going to want to see,” he says. “It’s just not that feel-good or funny.”

Funny thing about those ladies from Wisconsin: They always surprise you.

“It’s like living a dream,” Stew says several months later, after Passing Strange’s Broadway debut. “Only the dream is someone else’s. And that’s kind of cool — it can’t go to our heads, because it’s not our dream.”

 

Click here to read Continental Divisiveness: New York and L.A. Theater.

Click here to read An L.A. Playwright's Struggle to Go East.