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A "Strange" Trip Stew and Heidi Rodewald's "Passing Strange" may be the first Broadway musical to find its feet at Joe's Pub.
"We're at this point because we didn't think of Broadway," says Heidi Rodewald, co-composer with single-named pop/rock songsmith Stew of the score for Passing Strange, a new rock musical which starts previews at the Belasco on Feb. 8 and opens there on Feb. 28. "If we had thought we were doing this for Broadway, we wouldn't have tried the things we did."

Indeed, Passing Strange has wended a circuitous route to the Main Stem. It started with shows that Stew and Rodewald's band The Negro Problem, fronted by the obstreperous, witty and often unpredictable Stew, played at Joe's Pub, in the Public Theatre complex, in recent years.

"Stew has a tendency to talk a lot during shows, depending on how much he has to drink or how pissed off he is about something," says Rodewald, who is Stew's longtime musical partner (though no longer his romantic one). "Occasionally he'd tell a story and we'd start playing music under him. It was starting to turn into a cabaret. So Bill Bragin, who was booking Joe's Pub, said, 'This would make a really good musical.' And Stew just said, 'Oh, yeah, we're writing one.' "

This off-the-cuff bravado later paid off with a workshop at the Sundance Theatre Institute, and a co-production by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Public Theatre, which received rave reviews last year and pointed the show to Broadway. The Public brought in Annie Dorsen, a young writer/director with avant-garde and Off-Off-Broadway credits, to help shape a work that tells the autobiographical story of Stew, a middle-class African-American from L.A. who becomes a sort of a punk-rock Candide, traveling through the art scenes of Amsterdam and Berlin and finally, the U.S. again.

Stew and his band, which includes Rodewald on bass guitar, remain onstage throughout the show, while a troupe of performers enacts the story. But if the theatricality of the Joe's Pub shows had to do with the frontman's spontaneity ("Part of the reason I like Stew," Rodewald says, "is that he'll look at an audience and then decide what he's going to play"), how would that translate to a scripted theatre piece?

"It's true, in theatre you kind of have to lock it in," Rodewald concedes. "But there are moments here where Stew can go a little crazy. We're not robots. I remember last year, it was the night of the Tonys, and at Passing Strange Stew went a little nuts and said a bunch of stuff, and later people were talking about it, like, 'Were you there the night when…?' It's like people were talking about a rock show, not a play." The bottom line, says Rodewald, is that "it would be impossible for Stew to do the same thing every night."

Even with its rock 'n' roll attitude and aesthetic firmly in place, the show has been able to connect to a wide-ranging audience far beyond the rock cult that follows Stew and The Negro Problem's recordings and club performances.

"It doesn't matter how old they are or what color they are, everybody seems to relate to the story," Rodewald says of the play's wry but ultimately moving coming-of-age tale. "I could probably cry every time we do this--certain moments are just done so beautifully, I lose myself watching them. And when we first did this in Berkeley, there were 80-year-old women crying in the audience. They were loving the story. Watching older people and kids really getting into this has been surprising and gratifying."

She says that she and Stew are fans of old musicals, and even used to slip a song from Pippin into their old rock sets (with a tinge of irony, one suspects). But director Dorsen wouldn't let them get away with anything but music that was authentic to their experience and taste.

"Anything we would do that was too musical theatre, she would point it out and say, 'That's disgusting, don't do that,' " Rodewald says. "We even used to joke, 'If we were doing this show on Broadway, we'd do it this way…' "

Now that show is actually on Broadway, Rodewald is relishing the experience.

"It blows me away to watch these amazing actors singing stuff I wrote," Rodewald says. "That never gets old. I would be really sad to ever take that for granted; it's a really exciting thing."

She says she recently saw Spring Awakening, to which people had compared Passing Strange, and it only made her realize "how small the theatre world is, because the only thing the shows have in common is the rock score. Otherwise it's totally different."

It's a difference come by honestly, though.

"People keep saying, 'Wow, this is really different,' " Rodewald says. "We didn't set out to be different. I grew up seeing a lot of theatre and tons of musicals. But I'm not interested in seeing what's been done before.

"I'm really proud that we didn't calculate that it was going to be different. That's really the best feeling about it. We just did what we thought was cool."

Passing Strange starts previews on Feb. 8 at the Belasco. For more information go here. Photos above by Steve Halin.