He has been commissioned by The Public Theater and Berkeley Rep — which both presented the autobiographical Passing Strange — to write another musical; the world premiere of Making It, a multi-media theatrical concert, will be part of the 2009-10 season at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn; and the Spike Lee film of Passing Strange is due for release in 2010. One of his more low-key ventures is now on view in a Shakespeare on the Sound production in Connecticut, where he scored A Midsummer Night's Dream. Stew, recently in town from his home base of Berlin, talked to Playbill.com of his various far-flung projects.
Playbill.com: How did this job at Shakespeare on the Sound come about?
Stew: [Director] Joanna Settle and myself, we have been fans of each other's work, and I knew she'd be fun to work with. When she started working for Shakespeare in the Sound, she asked "How do you feel about doing this Shakespeare thing?" I was completely fine with it. I'm always looking for something new and challenging. Basically, the last five years of my life have been nothing but new challenges. I figured "Why not?"
Playbill.com: How much music have you written for A Midsummer Night's Dream?
Stew: More than enough. (Laughs)
Playbill.com: In your usual Shakespeare production that has a new score, you'll get one of two musical themes.
Stew: Right. I didn't know anything about the usual Shakespeare production! I was in my element; I hadn't been in my hometown of Los Angeles for quite some time. I went there to record the music. I was with all my old friends, my former bandmates. We spent a very intense week. I was just directing the band and writing stuff and taking themes that I had stored away in my head. I like certain things about the way the West Coast works. I don't like everything about the way the West Coast works. But I do like the way we created over there. We tend to take our time. The average New York band rehearses about two hours. In L.A., you kind of hang out in your garage, and you go have lunch, and you come back. It's an all-day thing. I have such a great time doing it. We're going to make a CD, as you might have heard. There's actually enough music where we can do the outtakes.
Playbill.com: So a good chunk of the show has music behind it.
Stew: Yes. I don't know, ultimately. I'm going to be in a privileged position, because I've actually not seen any of the tech or rehearsals. I'm going to be in the same position of the audience members, where I'm going to be seeing it for the first time. Playbill.com: So is it just a recording of the music, or is there a live band?
Stew: There's no live band. There are some actors on stage playing little instruments, I believe. There are at least five or six songs being sung. And the CD release will feature the demos that I made to teach the actors how to sing the songs, which were not initially recorded with the idea of being released.
Playbill.com: Is this your first piece of theatre music since Passing Strange?
Stew: Yes. I'm currently writing a lot of different theatre music, but in terms of being presented, yes.
Playbill.com: Can you tell me about some of the other things you're working on?
Stew: Yeah. I'm working on a new play for the Public Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Playbill.com: A co-production between those two theatres?
Stew: Yeah. Like Passing Strange, we call it a musical. So far, I don't see it as that, but basically that's what it is.
Playbill.com: Will this be another show where you will be in it as a performer?
Stew: I am not in it. I want to take a little break from being in theatre pieces. I want to continue to write them for as long as I can. But in terms of appearing in them, I think my strength, or at least what I enjoy as a performer, I enjoy the looseness of the rock 'n' roll stage. What theatre offers me as a creative person is much more than what I can do in a rock show. But in terms of what it offers me as a performer — we tried to make Passing Strange as spontaneous as we could, but at the end of the day, you gotta hit your mark. But who knows? Maybe I'll see the process and say, "Hey, I want to get back in there."
Playbill.com: Can you say anything concerning what the show is about?
Stew: (Laughs) I can say that that its main themes are politics and music and how those two rub up against each other. I'm going to try to keep this as vague as possible.
Playbill.com: Probably a good idea. Gives you as much leeway as possible. Now, the film of Passing Strange has been picked up by PBS for 2010, but it might has a theatrical release before then.
Stew: Yes, there might be. We're very close to finding out if that's the case. I would think it would have to be very select theatres. But we're thrilled with this PBS opportunity. It's overused to say "It's a dream come true." I can't say being on Broadway was a dream come true, or winning a Tony was a dream come true. They are amazing accomplishments. But I literally never dreamed I'd be doing that. But I can tell you as an artist sitting around watching PBS all my life, the idea that something I did would be on television and be watched by the same kind that I was when I was 15 years old — that is really a dream come true.