You could call it A Portrait of the Artist as a Young, Black Expatriate, but Stew, out of whose head comes the whole thing, calls it Passing Strange, a multiple-entendre that takes in color, travel, experience, growth, sex, drugs, politics, rock 'n' roll and the learning process of life itself, all wrapped up in a musical that did so smashingly well this past spring down at The Public Theater that it now bursts forth on Feb. 28 at the Belasco Theatre (after previews from Feb. 8).
And who put the idea for such a show into Stew's head? Why, George W. Bush did, of all people.
"It was when I found out that Bush, before his first trip to Europe, said he had never been to Europe. When so much of my own life experience has come through travel" — the peregrinations of a young black Candide from central Los Angeles through the bars and hash houses of Amsterdam, the cabarets and anarchist communes of Berlin. "I thought, if a lower-middle-class kid like me can do that, while a billionaire like him . . ."
He lets it trail off. That kid — a kid no longer, but a solid, hefty 46-year-old who prefers to be billed merely as Stew — is the narrator, book writer, lyricist, co-composer and lead guitarist of the Passing Strange in which his younger self is played by Daniel Breaker. The director of the show is co-creator Annie Dorsen. On the bass guitar is Heidi Rodewald, with whom Stew has been writing music, including this music, for some ten years. She's a nice girl from Orange County, CA, who says, "I forced my way onto Stew's band, The Negro Problem, back in 1997." Rodewald is not black. "She's the problem," says Stew, dryly. They used to be what he calls "a couple" but are now, he declares, full-time collaborators playing the field. "If he can find anybody as good as me," she throws in. Passing Strange is largely performed, or narrated, in a sort of Brecht/Weill Sprech-gesang (spoken song). "I like to call it autobiographical fiction," says Stew. "Partly based on my life, but also on those of James Baldwin and Josephine Baker — the expatriate's story. I get tired of the word journey, but it is an artist's journey."
He was born Aug. 16, 1961, in "what we call midtown Los Angeles, the unsung Los Angeles, where a lot of people who thought they were middle-class, weren't." His father worked in a bank, his strong-willed mother "worked at home." After a spell at Los Angeles City College, "where I hung around making films and playing music," he lit out for the crucibles of Europe in the 1980s.
If you ask him for his full actual name, he makes a face and says: "How about putting it at the very end? The last word." So okay, Stew, here goes: Mark Stewart. There, that didn't hurt, did it?