With the aid of director and collaborator Annie Dorsen, Passing Strange incorporates autobiographical elements of Stew's life to tell the story of a young black bohemian who leaves behind his middle-class, church-ruled upbringing in Los Angeles to travel the world in search of his artistic and personal identity. The new musical began rehearsals Jan. 7 in anticipation of a Feb. 28 opening night at the Belasco Theatre.
Rodewald, who has collaborated with Stew since joining his band The Negro Problem over ten years ago, says that the idea for Passing Strange came about during their theatrical concert sets. "Stew would do a lot of talking, depending on his mood and how much he's had to drink and how the audience was acting — and we would underscore and then go into a song," Rodewald told Playbill.com at a Jan. 16 press preview.
Former Joe's Pub director Bill Bragin noticed the inherent theatricality in their sets and approached Stew and Rodewald about the prospect of creating a musical. "We were a little bit hesitant because we weren't sure what that meant," Stew remarked. "Did that mean there would be show girls kicking in unison to our rock songs?"
However, Stew and Rodewald were willing to take the plunge and soon began collaborating with director Annie Dorsen. Dorsen, known for creating theatrical works from scratch, was taken by the magnetic personality Stew presented during his concerts, as well as the theatrical nature of his material.
In 2004 Dorsen, Stew and Rodewald began creating the framework for Passing Strange. Dorsen recalls: "Stew was sharing his lyrics and his stories from his life, and we talked about how to go about making this crazy thing we all had in our minds. It was a process of discovering the form rather than applying a form to given material. The material and the form developed at the same time." During a workshop at the Sundance Institute, Passing Strange would find one of its central characters in Daniel Breaker, who portrays Youth. "I was there for another show and they needed a guy and I didn't know what the show was or who this guy Stew was," Breaker says. "And as soon as the first read, I fell in love."
Breaker, who also spent his formative years in Europe, immediately identified with the role, explaining, "The part he's written for Youth is to a certain extent from Stew's life. But what is compelling about the part is that everyone can relate to this idea of youth. That's why I think he didn't want to give the character a specific name: it's the essence of youth."
Passing Strange was developed throughout its rehearsal process and various productions, including the Sundance Institute, Berkeley Rep and the Public Theater run. Dorsen states, "We worked with actors without really knowing who the characters were yet. So we developed characters through the process of rehearsal, [and] we developed songs, too."
Breaker adds, "In an ideal world – on any project – you want the feeling that you can add to it and that everybody's input is very important. And on this show, it means the world to this process. Everybody comes in with a unique idea about what this show is, and [with] their own take. And what's great is that Stew, Heidi and Annie really encourage that kind of family."
"What I love about theatre, that doesn't happen in rock anymore, is that they give you time," Stew remarked. "If the theatre likes what you're doing, they give you time to figure out what it is you're doing – and that was the most beautiful thing about this process. They believed in the core of our artistry and allowed it to grow and see what came from that. And for that alone, I just feel that within the theatre world we've been blessed."
Embracing the theatrical art from within a rock setting – Passing Strange has found legions of fans – among them some of New York's toughest critics. And, Stew has been humbled by the reception Passing Strange received.
"At the core, I think the theatre community is interested in words, in unique stories and language. And we have found that with our weird little rock songs, that they actually get them and appreciate them," Stew said.
"We're very keen on bringing the audience with us," Dorsen adds. "This is a show that gets created by the audience and the performers together – that could be one of the biggest boundaries we're crossing. We don't present ourselves as the kind of show that's 'over here' for the audience to contemplate. We want the audience to be as creative as we are in making the night fantastic."
In addition to discovering a new audience with Passing Strange, Stew has also found inspiration from the actors among his cast. "You know rock guys," he says, "we're cynical about theatre. We rockers like to think we're the thick-skinned, tough people. No way a rock and roller could last five seconds during an audition the way actors do. When I started seeing these auditions and seeing what these people do and how hard these people work, I was humbled by the amount of work they do and in awe of how tough they were. It's cool to be both elegant and tough."
The creators of Passing Strange have also had to maintain an air of being "elegant and tough" as they venture from the non-profit sector to the commercial world of Broadway.
"I wake up in the morning and remind myself, 'How often do you get to do this?'" said Rodewald. "It's completely mind-blowing, and I think if we were a lot younger we'd really be sucked in by all this. But we've been through a lot in the music business to deal with it and say, 'Nope, we want it to be like this' and really stay true to what we want to see."
Commenting on his Broadway debut, Stew finds parallels with rock and theatre, stating, "When I read about Shakespeare with people standing up and yelling at the stage, that reminds me more of a rock club than what I see in some of these stiff air-conditioned theatres. And maybe we are in some way connecting back to an energy that theatre must have had. Theatre must have been way more rock-n-roll at some point.
"Maybe we're not bringing in a rock energy — maybe we're bringing back theatre energy. We're trying to bring that spontaneity we thrive off in the rock-n-roll world and hope that people get that and say, 'Oh yeah, that was like this tonight, and it's not gonna be like this tomorrow.' I hope they can feel that."
Passing Strange begins previews Feb. 8 at the Belasco Theatre. The new musical, produced for Broadway by the Shubert Organization, Inc., Elizabeth Ireland McCann and the Public Theater, will officially open Feb. 28.
The complete cast includes de'Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones and the musical's co-creator, Stew. Passing Strange co-author Heidi Rodewald heads an onstage band that features Stew as well as Jon Spurney, Christian Cassan and Christian Gibbs.
Tickets, now on sale, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.TeleCharge.com. The box office at the Belasco is also now open for business.
For further information visit www.PassingStrangeOnBroadway.com.