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Vol. LXII, No. 32
 
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
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Record Review

Stew’s “Passing Strange”: The Need to Feel More Than Real

Stuart Mitchner

Passing Strange, “the Stew Musical,” closed ten days ago after 185 performances on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre. Chances are you don’t know Stew’s music, but if you do, you probably know his story, which is the subject of the show. Born in 1961, Mark Stewart, a middle-class black kid from L.A. who doesn’t fit any kind of racial, social, or cultural stereotype (neither the “home boy” nor the good boy), goes to Europe and discovers his voice, his spirit, his everything, while immersing himself in drugs, sex, and rock and roll, only to find “paradise is a bore.”

Passing Strange moved from rave reviews off-Broadway to rave reviews on Broadway, along with both the Drama Desk and Drama Critics Circle awards for Best Musical, and a Tony for Stew for Best Book. The superlatives in Charles Isherwood’s New York Times notice describe not only the show but the qualities that make Stew’s songs memorable: “Fresh, exuberant, bracingly inventive, bitingly funny, and full of heart.”

Strange Inspiration

After eight years of Bush and Cheney, you might do a double take when you read Stew’s explanation for the genesis of his musical. In a statement on the show’s web-site, he says that Passing Strange was inspired by — would you believe? — George W. Bush: “When I found out that he had never been to Europe in his youth (or in his adulthood until he became prez!!!) I immediately knew I wanted to write a play about a kid who wanted to go to Europe.” Being someone “whose experience abroad informed and shaped” his “very being and consciousness about everything from sexuality, politics, culture, language, and human nature,” Stew was amazed by the idea that “an uber-privileged billionaire’s son … would not have been curious enough to travel to a foreign country.” Stew’s reading of this “factoid” suggests the seriously playful intuitive craft and craftiness that shape his best lyrics: “I decided this incuriosity was at the heart of the war,” he concludes. “I realized that we are actually suffering the results of Bush’s and his cronies’ incuriousness.” In other words: “Their dimwitted foreign policy time and again shows that they … don’t even care about trying to understand the world they wish to dominate.”

Spike Lee Joins In

Since I didn’t have a chance to see Passing Strange, what follows is based solely on the original Broadway cast recording on Ghostlight, which is available on iTunes and amazon and at various record stores. A movie is in the offing thanks to Spike Lee, a passionate admirer who filmed the production as is, with the original cast. Lee promises to give his film a “twist” that will involve “things you’ve never seen before, things I’ve never done before.”

The problem with writing about Stew’s musical is that you can’t help comparing it with his three incomparable solo albums, not to mention the ones by his group, the Negro Problem. Three of the musical’s most moving numbers (“Arlington Hill,” “Must Have Been High,” and “Love Like That”) come out of his solo work and are sung by him. The problem is compounded by the fact that you’re missing all the visual excitement accompanying the music; it’s also true that nobody else, no matter how accomplished, can discover the essence of the songs as powerfully as Stew himself. Other singers — for instance, Daniel Breaker, who plays the Youth — may do them sufficient justice but Stew lives and has lived them, and it’s his voice and presence as the narrator that holds everything together in Passing Strange.

“Amsterdam” is a joyous, rollicking ensemble number that puts Stew’s stoned-out European revelation beautifully into play, even though it may sound a bit gaudy and glossy next to the version of a related story offered by the more intimate, funny-sad title song from The Naked Dutch Painter. “Keys,” the song that follows “Amsterdam,” is where the show opens its heart much as all Europe seems to open to a new life for the Youth, who’s awed by being trusted with the keys to a stranger’s flat (“the sweetest dump in which he’d sat”) after life back home (where “those L.A. ladies “locked the door if he’d just sneeze”).

The Broadway sound creeps in again in the song featured on the musical’s website, “We Just Had Sex,” which is cute and sprightly but comes off like a mainstream show tune when sung by the the Youth and two girls. Let Stew sing lines like “What’s a little bedroom traffic?/Evening News is pornographic” and the musical comedy veneer vanishes. Enough quibbling. The truth is, the more I hear of Passing Strange, the more exciting it sounds.

So Who’s Stew?

Back in August 2002 when I called the box office at the Bowery Ballroom for tickets to see Arthur Lee and Love, I asked about the act opening for him. “Who’s this Stew anyway?” I was referred to a piece in the previous Sunday’s New York Times. How could I have missed it? There was a huge three-column close-up picture of the performer in question, half his face in the shadows, giving him the look of a bald, stocky black guy with attitude. My first time through the paper I’d hurried past a headline that should have stopped me in my tracks (“Wry, Tuneful Stories, All in 4-Minute Songs”). In the era of Rap, since when did bald, stocky black guys with attitude write “wry, tuneful stories”? The article also claimed that Stew’s solo album, The Naked Dutch Painter, was “perhaps the finest collection of songs an American songwriter has come up with this year” and compared him to Cole Porter, Randy Newman, Ray Davies, and Warren Zevon. Not a bad club to belong to.

Heidi

That night at the Bowery Ballroom when Stew came to the stirring chorus of “North Bronx French Marie” (“Look what the New York summer’s done”), the music soared into a realm of melody that had only been hinted at before, bliss arriving in the form of a female voice that sent a chill up my spine. I’d noticed that a woman was playing bass. Now she was singing back-up. The way her voice flowed over his, with that reference to the New York summer night we were living in, made the moment “more than real.” The singer was Heidi Rodewald, who also sings and plays in Passing Strange, as well as sharing composing credits and life with Stew. She casts the same spell the way she comes in during the show’s lovely closing number, “Love Like That,” whose message is “the need to feel” because “love is more than real” and “love like that can’t be measured any way.”

Searching

I hope Spike Lee’s film will send people to record stores (or online sources) searching for Stew’s music, especially The Naked Dutch Painter (Entertainment Weekly’s Album of the Year in 2002) and Guest Host (EW’s Album of the Year in 2000). It’s all but impossible to communicate in words the special qualities of stories-in-song like “Rehab” and “Bijou” on Guest Host, and even better, on Naked Dutch Painter, “Single Woman Sitting” (in a flat “reeking of good taste”); or “Giselle,” the girl “with the switchblade mind” (“Giselle is the cross and the nails and the crown and the thieves/she howls at the streetlights and dances whenever she pleases”); or the Heidi-haunted title track where the singer is expected to sleep chastely in the same bed with the naked Dutch painter (“She says Gandhi used to sleep between two naked women/but you’re not the Mahatma/that’s a whole other religion”).

Then there’s the sinister creation called “The Cold Parade,” which is like a Raymond Carver story out of Raymond Chandler in a dream of Dostoevsky narrated by a man who fears he’s losing his soul. At first you think you’re hearing a tale told by a stalker of women out of some film noir with a creepy score; but then the stalker becomes as vulnerable as his victim (“She sees me and assumes I’m up to no good and it’s true,/but the only ‘no good’ I’m up to is not knowing what to do”). After clarifying the nature of “the night’s cold parade” (“Don’t expect a float or a band/A broken majorette may bum a cigarette and offer you her hand”), the song builds and builds until by the end something like a passion of compassion seizes the singer, the words becoming desperately bitter and bleak (“I only walk these streets because I cannot be left alone”): “The crossword puzzles and playoff games and porno sites galore cannot contain or ease the pain, they don’t work any more.” It’s a wildly ambitious song that has to be heard to be unbelieved. It’s cabaret, folk, rock and roll, jazz, and great acting, all in one.

Stew loves to stick unlisted “hidden tracks” on the end of his records, so that when you think you’ve heard it all, you haven’t; his version of a twist. Maybe the twist Spike Lee hints at for his film adaptation will help introduce some of the essential Stew songs to a still larger audience. You can sample Passing Strange on various YouTube videos.

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