“Hey, Mr. L.A., I know a place that you can stay.” Thus begins the hypnotic number “Keys” from “Passing Strange,” the critically acclaimed 2008 Broadway musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen) about the coming-of-age of an L.A. musician who refuses to be imprisoned by limiting racial and artistic expectations.
The narrator, portrayed originally by Stew, the founder and leader of the cult pop-rock combo Stew & the Negro Problem, picks up the song about the warm welcome he received as an arty yet still unformed American wanderer in Amsterdam with the following stanza: “Now in Beverly Hills, they gave him chills. / And South Central put his soul in the deep freeze. / But she gave him her keys.”
Who would have thought that these lyrics would have proved prophetic for the show, which unbelievably has yet to have its L.A. premiere?
The question of this musical's conspicuous absence from L.A. was taken up by James Taylor in The Times shortly after the Spike Lee film version of "Passing Strange" opened the Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles in August 2009.
Stew told Taylor, "We have gotten offers to do 'Passing Strange' from all over the country. I mean, I can name the places: Seattle, Atlanta, D.C., Philly, Boston -- but not any calls from L.A. that I know of. ... I don't know where the love is."
As I’m about to head up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to review “Family Album,” Stew and Rodewald’s new show (created with and directed by Joanna Settle), as well as "The Great Society," Robert Schenkkan's follow-up to his Tony-winning drama "All the Way,” I couldn’t help wondering why “Passing Strange” still hasn’t found any love in Stew’s hometown.
There are of course complicating circumstances. Stew told Taylor that he didn’t want to perform the musical himself again, though he didn’t close the door entirely to the possibility. A “cover” version of “Passing Strange” in L.A. would admittedly be a little bit icky, reviving the hard-to-kill stereotype that this isn’t a theater town and solidifying the sense that Stew has little affection or loyalty to where he was raised.
What's more, the film, coming so soon after the Broadway run, may have taken some of the wind out of the show’s touring sails. Musicals are expensive, and producers don’t need additional reasons (such as a percentage of the potential audience already having been tapped by the movie) to avoid taking risks.
Also, “Passing Strange” doesn’t exactly take a flattering view of the City of Angels. (Representative wisecrack: “I’m a resident of Los Angeles! I know what it’s like to be dead!!!") But then, artists regardless of where they grew up, often have to turn their backs on their backyards to become who they were meant to be.
The Mark Taper Forum would seem to be the natural place for “Passing Strange” to land in L.A. I asked a Center Theatre Group press representative whether the show had ever been under consideration there and what followed was a response from Artistic Director Michael Ritchie that was refreshing in its admirable candor:
"We did consider it. I had seen it on Broadway and loved it, but had assumed that once they announced that it was being filmed by Spike Lee that the door was being closed on them doing it again live, anywhere.
"About a year after the show closed Stew and Heidi came to my office and we discussed it. They were great, and admittedly somewhat confused as to why we hadn't pursued it vigorously. I was honest with them and said that I had obviously made the wrong assumption in believing that the material in it (being somewhat autobiographical and talking about "escaping LA") meant that they didn't want to play LA. My bad.
"And I also assumed that with Spike Lee filming it that they were putting the production to bed. My bad, again.
"However, at that point we were already scheduled out too far into the future for either one of us to commit to it. I missed the boat.
"Both Stew and Heidi were incredibly gracious and thoughtful.
"Lesson learned by me:
"Don't make assumptions. Ask early. Ask earnestly."
Of course the Los Angeles fate of a new musical shouldn’t depend on one theater or one artistic leader. What’s challenging about the theatrical landscape here, however, is that the theaters with the most vitality -- the Fountain Theatre, Rogue Machine Theatre, the Theatre @ Boston Court, to name just a few -- are those operating under the special arrangement with Actors’ Equity known as the 99-Seat Theater Plan, which isn’t especially remunerative to artists.
Agents of hot (or even toasty) properties are reluctant to give away “the Los Angeles premiere” designation for what is essentially pocket change. So if Center Theatre Group or Pasadena Playhouse or the Geffen Playhouse isn't interested, a touted new work like “Passing Strange” can play Berkeley, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Seattle before reaching L.A.
All hope, however, isn’t lost. I asked artistic director Sheldon Epps of Pasadena Playhouse about what he makes of the peculiar absence of “Passing Strange” in L.A., and here’s what he wrote:
"I'm a very big supporter of work by L.A. artists and try to think of The Playhouse as a home for theatre artists who make their home base in our community. It is curious and indeed surprising that 'Passing Strange' has not been produced here and perhaps my theatre or another will rectify that in the near future. It's not too late! Sometimes because of schedules, timing, and a number of other issues even a very worthy project will not land at one of the theatres in our community. Certainly, as in this case, it has to do with those factors rather than the value of the show itself."
Let’s hope that when the show does eventually get done here Stew is on stage to take in the hometown love.
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