A rock ’n’ roll tale of self-discovery
Playwright’s story hits close to home
Ask Stew about the craft behind his acting in “Passing Strange,’’ and he laughs long and loud.
“That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,’’ he says. “You’re my best friend after saying that.’’
The singer-guitarist-songwriter-playwright, who goes by one name, is best known for creating “Passing Strange,’’ which follows a young black rocker’s journey of self-discovery, from disaffected 1970s Los Angeles teen singing in a church choir to bohemian trying to follow his bliss in Amsterdam and Berlin. With Stew leading the onstage rock band and playing the older and wiser Narrator, the musical became a sensation as it moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway, then was showcased in a Spike Lee film of the production.
When they began rehearsing “Passing Strange,’’ he explains, the musical’s director told him to just be himself.
“She didn’t want me to try to be an actor, she wanted me to be me as a performer,’’ says Stew. “But the thing is, rock ’n’ roll is acting, too. When you put on a guitar and you get in front of a crowd of people, you are acting also. Because you are not behaving naturally. Nobody does what they do on a rock ’n’ roll stage at home in the kitchen. You are acting every time you sing and acting every time you play an instrument.’’
Selves real and artificial are still at the heart of “Passing Strange’’ as New Repertory Theatre gives the show its New England premiere, tomorrow through May 22 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. The play’s title references “Othello’’ but also the idea of “passing’’ for something other than what you are, an idea that has resonance for many African-Americans.
“Our theme this year has been transformation, and it’s absolutely what this play is about,’’ says New Rep artistic director Kate Warner, who directs the production. “Not only is it the Narrator’s story of his journey, his transformation, his life, but it’s also the transformation of what happens to you when you expose yourself to other cultures.’’
Stew wrote the book and lyrics, winning a 2008 Tony Award, and wrote the music with his longtime creative partner and former girlfriend Heidi Rodewald. In broad outline, it parallels his life. But those who presume that this sometimes wrenching, sometimes joyous story is simple autobiography are very wrong, he says.
“It’s not really that personal at all. It’s a play, you know? The guy singing in the play isn’t called Stew, he’s the Narrator. There’s not a single thing that happens in this play that happened in real life. It’s all based on impressions and memories and other peoples’ lives. It’s as much James Baldwin’s story or Josephine Baker’s story as it is mine, really,’’ he says. “All the sort of dramatic things that happen, like the mother dying while the kid was in Europe, that didn’t happen. My mother didn’t die while I was in Europe. But we had to have her die in the play because it was more dramatic.’’
With productions in Washington, D.C., in Buenos Aires, and now in Watertown, Stew says he’s happy if theaters want to tinker with his creation, just like musicians covering one another’s songs.
“It makes perfect sense when they do it their own way,’’ Stew says. “I love to see productions as far from ours as possible. I think there should be a version where the Narrator is female, for instance, and I think that’s going to happen someday soon.’’
New Rep isn’t taking any great liberties, although there’s one difference with New Rep newcomer Cliff Odle playing the Narrator. “I’m growing my hair out,’’ Odle says, to differentiate himself from the chrome-domed Stew.
The Narrator could be a tricky part to cast: an imposing, not-young, African-American rock ’n’ roll singer who can command the stage with his personality while belting out songs about race, identity, and personal freedom. Finding Odle was a coup, Warner says.
“There are things in this story that sort of parallel my own personal life in a great way,’’ Odle says. “I really didn’t have so much prep work to do, except to think about things that happened in my own personal life, growing up as a young black man with personal cultural tastes that didn’t correspond to what a stereotypical black man is supposed to like.’’
For example, the first concert he attended as a teenager growing up in New Jersey was by the heavy metal pioneers Iron Maiden. “I stood out a little,’’ he says with a chuckle.
Odle’s mother wasn’t just active in the church like the Narrator’s mother, she was actually a minister. Odle also took a youthful trip to Europe, following a girl to Finland and Sweden. After moving to the Boston area, he spent years playing bass and singing backup in a punk band called Federal Twist at venues like the Middle East and Bill’s Bar. (He lives in Providence now.)
He’s acted in several productions with Company One, garnering praise for his recent performance in “The Good Negro.’’ He understudied a key role in “King Hedley II’’ at the Huntington, in 2000, and ended up going onstage for a week. A fringe benefit was the chance to sit and talk with playwright August Wilson. Does “Passing Strange’’ have anything in common with Wilson’s work?
“It definitely does. That search for ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I all about?’ ’’ Odle says. “Trying to find your place, to secure your place, in a world that can be patently hostile to you or to anybody who steps out of their neighborhood, so to speak.’’
Stew’s place in the world has definitely been secured by “Passing Strange.’’
Although he calls Berlin home, he and the New York-based Rodewald still play with their band, the Negro Problem, and have more work than they know what to do with, he says. Among many other things, they’re working on another musical, called “The Total Bent.’’
“The hoopla from being on Broadway, we didn’t want that exact vibe to continue, because that would have driven us crazy. We’re really happy where we are now,’’ Stew says.
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.