PLAYBILL VIP SPOTLIGHT: New York City High School Is First to Stage Rock Musical Passing Strange

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08 May 2014

Cover art
Cover art

Passing Strange, the Tony Award-nominated 2008 musical about a young black bohemian who leaves home in search of himself, is being staged in a U.S. high school for the first time since its Broadway run. Performances begin May 8.

The Beacon School, which in recent years presented the NYC high school premieres of Rent and Spring Awakening, as well as an ambitious mounting of The Light in the Piazza, is taking on the musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald that incorporates autobiographical elements of Stew's life. The musical also delves into subjects not typically addressed in standard spring musical fare, among them: religion, drugs and sexual discovery. 

Passing Strange has been available for licensing from Dramatists Play Service, Inc. for the past several years, mainly finding life at smaller, more adventurous regional theatres and independent theatres across the U.S.

While it is not unlike Spring Awakening, a contemporary rock musical that delves into psychological and sexual issues that resonate with young people today, Passing Strange has not generated the kind of zeitgeist that keeps it on the lips and in the iPods of young theatre lovers.

By nature of its abstract construction – the original cast was an amalgam of rock musicians and actors led by writer Stew, who rarely put his guitar down for the duration of the musical – Passing Strange is in some ways, an artistic head-scratcher.

"I took students to see it when it debuted at the Public Theater and again when it moved to Broadway," said teacher Jo Ann Cimato, who runs the Beacon Drama Art Theatre program and is in charge of selecting and directing the productions at the school each year. "I hate the idea that theatre is for a specific group of people," she said, reflecting on the appeal of non-traditional works like Passing Strange. "I fiercely believe that theatre is for everyone, and I choose material that brings people together, asks hard questions, and offers puzzles for my students and I to solve."

Those elements made Passing Strange an ideal project to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the B'DAT program at the school. Cimato and musical director Lilli Wosk describe the material as something that feels "historically and culturally relevant," as well as "absolutely accessible" for the student body.

Read the Beacon School's Passing Strange Playbill VIP here.

The productions B'DAT produces span a dauntingly wide array of subjects and styles - the students went from rocking out in Spring Awakening to learning near operatic legit vocal styles for Piazza in less than a year – but Cimato insisted, "My job is to honor the play and my students. I don't pick productions because they're challenging, I pick them because they resonate with our community at Beacon. I could produce more 'traditional' material, but I also would then struggle to recruit actors, never mind an audience."


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