STEPPING outside the studio where the new rock musical "Passing Strange" is being rehearsed -- and "rock musical" seems inadequate for a play that has dispensed with conventional notions of who gets to make musicals, how and for whom -- you quickly get a sense that this is not show business as usual.
Here's the lithe blond choreographer -- knighted in France for her innovations in modern dance -- sticking her hands in her armpits and flapping her elbows at the Juilliard-trained Shakespearean actor.
"That was great, that was inspired -- your chicken," a smiling Karole Armitage exclaims to Daniel Breaker. Minutes before, during the show's first full practice run-through, he'd improvised a flutter from the Funky Chicken to go with the spins and dips in a James Brown-like dance eruption. Maybe it will be a keeper when the show opens Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and moves in January to the Public Theater in New York.
"Passing Strange," a co-production of the theaters, is primarily the creation of Stew (born Mark Stewart), a beefy, middle-age L.A. rock musician known only to a smattering of the cognoscenti who have picked up on his decade-long recording and touring career in pop's deep underground, where he fronts a band called the Negro Problem. The band's name toys wryly with Stew's position as a black man hailing from central Los Angeles who performs catchy story-songs that are strong on characterization, owing more to the Beatles or Randy Newman than to the groove-oriented, funky-beat norm generally expected of black musicians. At 45, Stew is a personable fellow with a flinty streak. Don't even get him started on the music industry, which he holds responsible for, among other sins, creating a fallacious racial divide between black music and white.
"Passing Strange" is a fictionalized take on Stew's own coming of age from the mid-1970s to the early '80s. We meet his alter-ego -- known simply as Youth and played by Breaker -- as a reluctant choirboy in a black Baptist church, see him evolve into a howling punk rocker, then cringe at choices he makes as an expatriate tyro artiste, neglecting his ties with home while diving into a new life as the dark-skinned golden boy of an abrasive, anarchistic performance art collective in West Berlin. Heidi Rodewald, the Pomona-raised rocker who is Stew's longtime bandmate and romantic partner, wrote about half the music. Annie Dorsen, a young director who specializes in the offbeat, is their co-creator and guide to the theater realm.
Stew plays the Narrator, ensconced at center stage and strapped to his Epiphone electric guitar. He speaks or sings much of the story, including passages peppered with his customary wordplay, cultural allusions high and low, and an energized verbal attack akin to that of a Beat poet.
The show's six actors are African Americans; four of them double as black Angelenos and white Europeans. The four-member rock band, including Rodewald on bass, will be tucked like musical prairie dogs into separate burrows in the stage. Eschewing conventional musical "numbers," the show is structured as an undulating, nonstop ride, with music flowing under many of the spoken parts. The score hopscotches through an assortment of styles, including hammering industrial beats for the performance art, a cheeky cha-cha called "We Just Had Sex" and a concluding oom-pah-pah German beer hall drinking song that celebrates life in the moment while confronting the specter of death.
'A different musical voice'
THE driving impulse behind "Passing Strange" is to create a story told through rock music on a rocker's own terms, without trying to pass for something more pre-digestibly familiar to fans of musical theater. "It's an extension of Stew's art, his personality, his way of doing things," Dorsen says. "It's not so much that we're in rebellion against those traditional ways musicals get built, but we pay them no mind." Choreographer Armitage, far from trying to emboss the show with her personal stamp, hopes the movement on stage will disappear into the storytelling. "There's nothing that should look like dance," she says.
"It's certainly not a show that can be filed under any normal kind of definition," says Rebecca Jones, a young veteran of touring productions of "Rent" and "Caroline, or Change" who plays an assortment of characters, including Youth's German girlfriend.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public, says he's lost for comparisons. "I have thought and thought and thought about this and have failed to come up with one."
Tony Taccone, the Berkeley Rep artistic director, who collaborated with Eustis during the early 1990s as they midwifed another show that offered something different and hard to describe -- Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" -- is leery of making broad claims of innovation: " "We are trying to say gently to people, 'There's a different musical voice here, and he's found his own form.' "
"Passing Strange" emerged from Joe's Pub, a cozy, 180-seat music venue attached to the Public Theater. The Public's brass was searching for ways to turn the music crowd into theatergoers, and pub director Bill Bragin suggested Stew -- whose shows are full of between-songs humor and storytelling -- as someone who might bridge the divide, perhaps with a cabaret version of his act. The Public's then dramaturge, Rebecca Rugg, challenged Stew and Rodewald to be more daring.
"I said, 'Becca, I don't want to do theater, because I don't know anything about doing theater,' " Stew recalled the morning after the first Berkeley run-through. "She said, 'You're already doing your own take on cabaret. We're offering you a chance to do a full-blown theater piece.' "
Rugg introduced them to Dorsen, her former Yale School of Drama classmate. The director quickly hit it off with Stew and Rodewald, launching an intermittent, three-year quest to write, shape and hone "Passing Strange." Though far from complete, the piece began to generate a buzz during a workshop in 2004 at the Sundance Institute's Theatre Lab. (Stew and Rodewald also have written a screenplay with support from Sundance's better-known film division. Titled "We Can See Today," it concerns black and Jewish families who are neighbors in L.A.'s Fairfax district during the early 1970s.)
"He was funny and sharp and satirical but warmhearted and generous underneath, and the story he was telling was a story I'd never heard before," recalls Eustis, who was still leading Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., when he caught a presentation of the first part of "Passing Strange" while serving as a Sundance Lab advisor.
Nobody thought of trying to create another "jukebox musical," like "The Who's Tommy" or "Jersey Boys," stage hits built on familiar, readily marketable bodies of rock music. Stew's six albums with the Negro Problem and as a solo artist have earned glowing notices: Reviewing a 1998 show by the Negro Problem at the Troubadour, The Times' Robert Hilburn -- whom Stew had lampooned on the leadoff track of the band's 1997 debut album as a clueless critic for a "trivial birdcage Sunday newspaper" -- praised him for "songs that combined striking images with provocative ideas, injecting elements of wit and warmth." Plaudits notwithstanding, average sales of Stew's albums stand at just 3,350 copies, according to the SoundScan monitoring service. Originality, not familiarity, would be the reason for his theatrical existence.
"He's got it, whatever that incredible quality of watchability is," says Rugg, the first theater pro to catch Stew's rock act and see the kernel of a play.
The decision to go with an all-black cast didn't come until late last year, well into the play's development. For Stew, having the same actors play Youth's L.A. friends and neighbors in the first half and his European lovers and artistic allies in the second sets up a "Wizard of Oz" effect. He hopes it will amplify the show's theme of crossing artistic and social boundaries and help the audience see that "this kid carries home in his psyche, and with every person he knows and runs into, he's still making the same mistakes."
If the show succeeds, employing an all-black cast might force theater leaders and audiences to reckon with a Negro Problem of their own: Why is it OK to use race-blind casting for Shakespeare and other pieces removed from our own time and place but not in realistic contemporary drama?
"I'm treasuring this so much," says actress Jones, a New Yorker who loved playing accents during her conservatory days at North Carolina School of the Arts but never thought she would get to do them as a professional. "If you can sing and you're black, a lot of the time people just want you to sing and dance and be funky and fun and have attitude. But that's not what I'm really about."
A visitor in the theater
STEW, a prodigious reader who says he makes a beeline for the bookshelf in any house he enters and often leaves with a borrowed bagful, worried at first that he wouldn't be able to craft a story in theatrical form. A chat with Doug Wright, author of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play "I Am My Own Wife," reassured him. "I told him I was having a tough time with this whole Aristotelian thing. He said, 'You don't really have to worry about learning these things; it's something you have inside you, the way we tell stories.' "
Now Stew is open to further assignments in the theater world but only on his own rock 'n' roll terms. "What we do is make records and play shows. I don't want to be a playwright, and I'd never want anyone to call me a playwright. I'm a songwriter making theater, and it's a charmed situation because the two theaters we're at right now are encouraging us to do crazy [stuff]."
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To the promised land
This excerpt from "Passing Strange" is spoken by the Narrator as the audience sees author Stew's alter-ego, Youth, listen to a mentor rhapsodize about the promised land awaiting American artists -- blacks especially -- if they're lucky enough to escape to Europe:
"Franklin's words washed over him like a Bach fugue creeping out of a cheap car stereo, on the brother side of midnight, when the music goes right over your head, and straight into the part of you which is most beautiful, I mean, when your mind can't grasp the music's math and your heartbeat has no clue, your pilgrim soul follows the melody's path and finds shelter in this fugue. And it just is and is and is and is so much that whether you get it or not, you're home, and it's got."