Spike Lee to make Sundance debut with musical “Passing Strange”

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More than 20 years after making his first splash with ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ Spike Lee is finally going to make it to Sundance. His belated debut -- in the 25th year of the Sundance Film Festival -- comes as director and co-producer of the film version of ‘Passing Strange,’ the stage musical by L.A. indy-rockers Stew (Mark Stewart) and Heidi Rodewald that took an unlikely passage from New York’s nonprofit Public Theater to Broadway in February. It ran for 165 performances at the Belasco Theatre, with Stew nabbing a Tony Award for best book of a musical before it closed July 20.

Among those captivated was Lee, who said Friday that he saw the show several times at the Public, then came back for repeat viewings at the Belasco -- even before producers approached him about capturing it on film before it closed. The film will premiere in the Jan. 15-25 festival’s noncompetitive Spectrum Documentary Spotlight program, where Lee is hoping it will attract a distributor. The filmmaker said he’s been invited to the Sundance festival before, but wasn’t able to make it. Stew and Rodewald, who is co-composer of the songs, are well-connected at Sundance, having developed ‘Passing Strange’ at its annual Sundance Theatre Lab in 2004 and 2005.


‘Passing Strange’ is semi-autobiographical, tracing Stew’s roots in L.A.'s black middle-class, his teenage predilection for punk rock and French New Wave cinema, his youthful adventures in 1980s Amsterdam and West Berlin as an expatriate artiste, and his sadder-but-maybe-wiser return.

The show, which premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2006, featured Stew rocking out on guitar and vocals as the narrator and kept the onstage backing band -- including co-composer Rodewald on bass -- in full view among the actors. Classical actor Daniel Breaker played Stew’s youthful alter-ego, and Eisa Davis, who was a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist as a playwright (‘Bulrusher’), played his long-suffering mom.

Lee said he filmed the last three performances in front of audiences, then did one more day of shooting on the empty stage where he could re-run scenes and go for setup shots. ‘It’s very true to what people saw in Berkeley and the Public and on Broadway,’ he said. ‘But I still made it a Spike Lee Joint at the same time.’

Lee isn’t new to stage-to-screen work, having directed television versions of two one-man stage shows, John Leguizamo’s ‘Freak’ (1998) and Roger Guenveur Smith’s ‘A Huey P. Newton Story’ (2001). Last year, it was announced that Lee would direct a Broadway revival of ‘Stalag 17,’ the World War II prison-camp drama that originated as a 1951 play by former POWs Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, before being made into a 1953 film by Billy Wilder. But what happened?

‘The producer died, and I lost interest,’ Lee said. ‘I made a decision that if I would do Brodway, I don’t want it to be a revival, I want it to be something new.’

-- Mike Boehm

Photo credits: Spike Lee by Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times. Stew winning a Tony award for ‘Passing Strange’ by Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images