Book and lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew / Heidi Rodewald
Created in collaboration with and directed by Annie Dorsen
Choreography by Karole Armitage
In association with The Public Theater
Main Season · Thrust Stage
October 19–December 3, 2006
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
The world premiere of Passing Strange takes musical theatre on a whole new trip. It’s the heartfelt and hilarious story of a young bohemian who charts a course for “the real” through sex, drugs and rock and roll. Loaded with soulful lyrics and overflowing with passion, the show takes us from black, middle-class America to Amsterdam, Berlin and beyond on a journey towards personal and artistic authenticity.
Stew · Playwright / Lyricist / Composer
Heidi Rodewald · Composer / Co-Musical Director
Annie Dorsen · Director
Karole Armitage · Choreographer
David Korins · Scenic Design
Annie Smart · Costume Design
Kevin Adams · Lighting Design
Jake Rodriguez · Sound Design
Jon Spurney · Co-Musical Director
Dawn-Elin Fraser · Dialect Coach
Audrey Howitt · Vocal Coach
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Jordan Thaler / Heidi Griffiths · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
de’Adre Aziza · Edwina / Mariana / Ensemble
Daniel Breaker · Youth
Eisa Davis · Mother
Colman Domingo · Franklin / Venus / Ensemble
Chad Goodridge · Hugo / Terry / Ensemble
Rebecca Naomi Jones · Sherry / Desi / Ensemble
Stew · Narrator
Heidi Rodewald · Bass / Vocalist
Jon Spurney · Guitar / Keyboard
Marc Doten · Keyboard
Russ Kleiner · Percussion
“An engaging coming-of-age story told with the energy of an art-rock concert…A portrait of the artist as a young bohemian…Tuneful songs keep its pulse racing…Cooking on every form from gospel and blues to punk, cabaret, soul, minstrel, calypso and performance art.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A terrific show…a musical in the guise of a concert…pulsates with the sounds of pop, rock, funk, punk, gospel, folk and New Wave…Music that feels authentic—a rarity in this world of shiny, corporate musical theater.”—Oakland Tribune
“Stop reading right now and buy tickets to Passing Strange before it heads to New York…If more new musicals looked like this, we might yet see a revitalization of Broadway.”—SFist
“Stew rocks, yo! Musically, the singer/songwriter serves up one hot dish with Passing Strange…It’s the archetypal hipster-coming-of-age tale…the score is smokin’. Full of funkadelic feel-good anthems, it slides from punk to rock to blues like a good party mix.”—San Jose Mercury News
“A piece of musical theater…that paints an alternately uproarious and heartbreaking picture of the black experience from suburbia to bohemia…If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get your butt to Berkeley, plant it in a seat, and be wowed.”—San Francisco Bay Guardian
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Making the real a reality
What makes a work of art original? What gives us the feeling that we are in the presence of a fresh voice, a new talent, a singular mind? Ironically, it is not just the ability of a particular artist to “invent” a new form or express ideas and emotions that have been hitherto unspoken. A new voice first gathers its inspiration from a variety of inherited techniques and ideas, from the legacies and mythologies of the past, from the accumulation of history. What seems original is, upon closer examination, a creative summation of everything leading up to a particular moment in time, integrated into a vision of what is occurring in the here and now and dynamically catapulted into the future.
Stew is an artist who dares to be original. A lifelong musician with a thriving international following, he brings to this, his first theatrical endeavor, the full measure of his musical experience, his love of all knowledge and his desire to respond spontaneously to whatever he is currently thinking and feeling. He is possessed of an overriding need to get down to “the really real,” be it utterly sublime or terrifically painful. Passing Strange is his chronicle of one man’s artistic journey, a search for authenticity, for both historical truth and self-knowledge seen through the hazy prism of a single life.
And, in the immortal words of the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it is: from the suburban isolation of Southern California to the fertile drug dens of Amsterdam to the intellectual pyrotechnics of Berlin…it’s a wild ride cloaked in humor, intelligence and a kick-ass score. It’s a story of passion, stamina and idealism, mixed with a full dose of delusion, narcissism and weakness. A coming-of-age story in the throes of middle-age, a coming-home story when one has no home, a treatise on race while defying its limitations, Passing Strange ends up taking everyone—its characters, its players and its audience—to the psychic cleaners.
Collaborating with Stew in this rollicking adventure is his co-conspirator and co-composer, Heidi Rodewald, bassist extraordinaire. Director Annie Dorsen has nurtured this project from its inception and has played a seminal role in all aspects of its realization. Her team of designers, musicians and actors have all demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the project. Last but not least, we share our excitement and our resources with our good friends and co-producers at The Public Theater in New York (where this show is headed after it closes here). The Public was the first theatre to recognize the full potential of these original voices, and we are grateful that they invited us to participate as equal partners in this play’s development.
Let the music begin,
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Co-pro: A way to grow a show
Creating new work by building relationships nationwide
When Passing Strange closes here in Berkeley, all the sets, costumes and equipment—along with reams of notes about the show—will be carefully packed for shipping. And when that shipping container is opened a few days later at The Public Theater in New York City, the production will begin the next leg of its journey.
As you’ll notice when you turn to the title page for tonight’s show, Berkeley Rep and The Public are partnering to co-produce this production. In fact, this is one of three co-productions Berkeley Rep is participating in this fall. Before coming to Berkeley, Mother Courage had an initial run this summer at La Jolla Playhouse, and Tony is in La Jolla right now directing rehearsals of Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell, which premiered here in April and which opens this month in La Jolla.
Tony and I are often asked what constitutes a co-production. The what is easy; the how is more complicated. A co-production is a production shared, in whole or in part, with another theatre. Often that means that both theatres participate in selecting the artistic team and the cast. While staff members of both theatres share the responsibility for bringing a production to fruition, one theatre usually takes on the lion’s share of the work. Although the heavy lifting falls to the originating theatre, the production invariably arrives at its next stop in need of alterations and repairs, and often with an artistic team eager to improve upon their original choices. By sharing the financial burden for at least one production each season, as well as the construction and rehearsal time for that show, we bring you the best possible art—while wisely managing our expenses and maximizing the time of our hard-working staff.
These collaborations are not exclusive to Berkeley Rep. It has become common throughout the country to share costs on some shows, with the savings allowing theatres to produce other, large-scale work. New plays are probably the best beneficiaries of this practice. A co-production guarantees a new show a second run, ensuring that the writer and director have an opportunity to make improvements in a piece that may give it “legs” in the future. The opportunity to perfect a production may be the greatest value of co-producing, for both artists and for audiences.
There is one more benefit, and it serves theatre-lovers on both sides of the curtain. When we share productions, we work with our colleagues at different theatres and observe other approaches to our art form. Our staff is inspired and challenged by the teams at other theatres; they share ideas and information; they become familiar with the culture of different companies. These co-productions contribute to the vitality of a national theatre community that is remarkably, and I think uniquely, collaborative.
So when you discover that Berkeley Rep is co-producing a play, it may mean you are seeing a piece that originated here and that will travel elsewhere— as with Passing Strange and Zorro in Hell. Conversely, you may be seeing a new run of a play that we’ve helped to originate in another community—as with Mother Courage. Regardless of where each show began, Berkeley Rep takes full responsibility for—and great pride in—all the work that appears on our stage. Our goal is always to bring you work of the highest quality.
All the best,
A song big enough to run around in
Stew talks with Berkeley Rep Dramaturg Madeleine Oldham about playwriting, songwriting and finding music everywhere
Why did you want to write a play?
I didn’t. Or, at least, I had no interest in writing a play where people would come and go and speak of Michelangelo, with entrances and exits and plot twists and such. I couldn’t have written that play even if I’d wanted to, because I don’t know how to write plays. What I wanted was to make something that took the electricity of a rock show and merged it with the rock and roll potential that exists within theatre. And by “rock show,” I don’t mean it in the “rockin’ Broadway musical” sense wherein unseen, uninspired pit musicians plow through “upbeat numbers” that someone with no genuine relationship to rock music wrote.
Annie [Dorsen] said it best: “When you hit a note on a guitar, it’s really the note…it’s not a metaphor.” I’m probably paraphrasing her badly, but that’s the best definition of rock and roll I’ve ever heard. We want to take the honesty of a club show, where the drummer is hung over and the bass player is pissed off and the singer has letters from the collection agency in his pocket, but there they are…serving you in a naked, honest and slightly dangerous way. Because, no matter how many tech rehearsals we do, this band is gonna be live and dangerous every night.
Having never been interested in theatre and having only seen a small handful of plays in my 45 years, before I got started I read some stuff about the old Greek play competitions. I also read a little bit about the vibe at [Shakespeare’s] Old Globe and—although I’m well out of my league here in commenting—it seems like those worlds were far more rock-and-roll than the stuffed-shirt vibe that scares most people away from theatre. Think about it: people standing around consuming alcohol, watching (and sometimes yelling at) men onstage dressed up as women. And the joint was in a sketchy neighborhood? Wait a minute, I recognize that dive! I’ve been playing there my entire life!
How’d you settle on the title Passing Strange?
Here’s my version of events: I opened a comic book version of Othello that Maria Goyanes at The Public Theater handed me, and I opened it to the passage where Othello talks about how he wooed Desdemona. It moved me as close to tears as anything I’d ever read in my life. In that scene, Othello reminded me of a guy in a rock band who got the girl by spinning his rock-and-roll war stories. I thought “that’s what the Youth in Passing Strange would do when he meets all these European girls.” He’d tell them a stack of tales from a land they’d never been to, and—like all storytellers—he’d, uh, embellish just a bit.
Obviously, the term “passing” has deep historical meaning for any African American my age or older. My grandmother was light enough to pass. But the kid in this play discovers there’s more to passing than just black folks passing for white. The term “passing” also has to do with time passing, of course.
How is writing a play like making an album or writing a song? What’s the biggest difference?
The best rock bands, in my view, tend to be very democratic. While each member may have a “role,” those roles tend to happily overlap and end up merging into an organic whole. Bands are essentially families that create. And so the creative family behind this play has operated more like a rock band than a team with rigidly defined duties.
For instance, Annie’s role in the creation of this piece was far beyond “directorial” or “dramaturgical.” She often reminded me of a good old-fashioned record producer who combines fundamental aesthetic input with a deep knowledge of the artist’s strengths. Also, she was wise enough to know that creating a fresh working model around the piece, our personalities and our respective sleeping habits would be better than trying to turn Heidi and me into “show folk” overnight.
Throughout this play’s development, the feeling has never left me that Heidi and I were still just writing one big song. For us, this play is a song big enough for people to run around in.
Every page of the script was subjected to the creative team’s input and nothing was considered precious or sacred—unless we all loved it! Some of the most important scenes, in fact, grew out of discussions Annie and I’d had about what needed to happen. And when there’s a major disagreement that Annie, Heidi and myself can’t get our heads around, [Jon] Spurney is called to weigh in.
Writing for actors’ voices is a bigger joy than writing for inanimate instruments because actors are instruments with minds. Writing for actors is turning into a terrible addiction.
Would you talk a little bit about your relationship with language—have you always had such a way with it?
Most of my approach to language probably comes from me, as a kid, mocking the crazy friends of my father. These were house painters, fry cooks and carpenters who seemed as low-brow as chitlins. And then suddenly, after the third beer, they’d recite Poe or Eliot word for word. That’s cuz they grew up in the age where you had to memorize poetry in elementary school. The first time I heard Eliot’s words was out of the mouth of a man in paint-splattered overalls. I was hooked. Eliot became my man. He was making music. I could bathe in the Four Quartets as a youth without having the foggiest notion what he was on about cuz it was just like Bach or Coltrane—it was music. The “meaning” behind Coltrane and Bach will hit you later, after much listening, but the sound hits you immediately. Besides, sound is meaning.
What are you reading now?
I’m really a nonfiction person. Newspapers. New Yorker profiles of the living and dead (the dead seem more interesting somehow). Re-reading a Baldwin biography (the patron saint of this play). But embarrassingly enough, I’ve started reading plays for the first time in my life. Albee is really rather punk rock in my view—acidic, smart-ass. The treble is turned way up in his work.
Whom do you admire and why?
Dylan, cuz he’s older than rope and still serving musical subpoenas. I think, on principle, I like anyone over forty still doing their artistic thing. Of course, I’m biased, but I think Art begins at 40. Americans are so terrified of being old that they don’t wanna claim that reality. The young, exciting upstart with no scars reminds us of a time when we never had to think about our donut intake or death. She reminds us of a time when we didn’t have to think about consequences. As a country, we crave Art which infantilizes us because we’ve never been equipped psychologically to deal with the darkness. Dylan has never once asked us to look away from the darkness of consequences.
I also like Gore Vidal cuz he’s like “Fuck you—I haven’t mellowed. I’m still pissed and I’m more articulate than you and I’m 200 years old and did I say ‘fuck you’ yet?”
You’ve worked with Heidi Rodewald for a long time. Can you say a little bit about the nature of that collaboration?
Heidi wrote half of the music in Passing Strange. We are so close that we’re working even when we don’t look like we are. Our lives are a collaborative art project. We share the same approach to many things. Some years ago, when she had already been playing in the band and arranging and producing our records with me, I said “Hey, I need you to write some music for the next record,” and she quietly went and wrote two utterly standout tracks. I like that. I‘ve been in tons of bands where members beg to have a song on the album just for the sake of having one. Like they feel they deserve it. She waits till she‘s asked and then calmly serves you the subpoena and you‘re like, “Whoa!” I also have to say (and I think its cuz I grew up around strong women) that I like collaborating with women. I knew when we started this play that I would want Heidi to write half of the music. I think the play needed another strong musical voice and, sexist-new-age-goofy as this may sound, I think we do a yin-yang thing musically.
How do you write songs? Do you have a usual process, like writing music first, then the lyrics, or vice versa? Do you like to write in a particular space or at a particular time?
I write in my head, music and lyrics together—mostly when I’m on the bus. The first time I hear the new song is when I’m teaching it to the band. Heidi only writes when I’m out of the house—i.e., out of her hair. So, while I’m writing on the bus, she’s writing at home.
If you could only listen to five albums for the rest of your life, what would they be?
One recording of Bach’s fugues, a late-period Coltrane session, a complete recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, all Charlie Patton’s stuff and either Hex Induction Hour or Grotesque by The Fall.
Was your family supportive of your desire to be a musician?
Yes, because they thought I’d eventually get over it and become a lawyer.
Would you call yourself a grown-up, still a kid or somewhere in between?
I’m trying to grow up. It’s hard. Being an artist or an athlete is the easiest way to remain infantilized. The same things adults were yelling at you for doing at 15, they end up applauding you for at 45. Art is really a playground. It’s so easy to forget that art isn’t life when you’re dedicating your life to it.
You seem to write a lot about place in your work. How does the experience of your surroundings play into your creative mind?
For me, some chords actually mean Los Angeles. Just as some mean Berlin. Music and place are indistinguishable. I’d like to say I turn places into songs in order to understand them better. But sometimes I think I turn places into songs in order to mis-understand them better.
Have you experienced any communication gaps between music people and theatre people in this process?
I think theatre people may have experienced communication gaps with me far more than I’ve experienced gaps with them. They can’t use terms like “rising drama” and “second act climax” or whatever because I don’t know what those terms mean. Annie is cool enough to be conversant in the language of both theatre and rock and roll, so with us it’s never been a problem.
What’s next for you, after the run at The Public?
I wanna take everything we’ve learned here back to the nightclubs and cabarets we work in. I have this insane idea of forming a company of musicians and actors who’d put on crazy shows that could work in rock clubs and small theatres. Also, I’ll be shooting a small film from a script Heidi and I wrote.
Performing in the same space for a month, do you think you’re going to miss the variety of being on tour?
You mean the chaos of being on tour? Where every night is a different sound, lighting and load-in nightmare? Heidi and I won’t be missing that any time soon. This consistency / stability that the theatre environment provides will allow us to concentrate on more important things: like keeping the show fresh and wild.