"Theater is an extreme sport."
So says Stew, the former Los Angeles indie rocker turned New York theater darling. For years, Stew and his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald lived in the City of Angels, recording albums and playing with their band, the Negro Problem. But their breakout success came 2,450 miles away in New York City.
"Passing Strange," their first stage effort, tells the autobiographical tale of a young, middle-class, black singer-songwriter growing up south of the 10 Freeway who heads to Europe to find himself as an artist. The musical opened on Broadway in February 2008 to rave reviews and earned a Tony Award for Stew.
Last summer, Spike Lee filmed the final performances at the Belasco Theatre, with the movie premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It opened the Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles on Aug. 12. And starting this week, it can be seen on cable TV as part of Sundance Selects Video on Demand, and next year on a PBS broadcast.
But don't expect to catch a live version of "Passing Strange" in L.A. any time soon.
"The thing about L.A. for me now -- it's kind of like when you have a friend who you wanna-kinda-sorta get some distance from," Stew, born Mark Stewart, says in the loose, anecdotal style that he uses as "The Narrator" in his musical. "And then after a year you go 'maybe we should hook up,' but then you kind of both sort of mis-schedule things, and then it becomes two years, and after three years you're like: 'Do I even know that person anymore? . . . I just don't know, man."
At this point, he interrupts himself -- as if stopping the show to make an aside to the audience: "You want to get down and dirty? Let's get down and dirty."
He clears his throat.
"When were we going through the classic L.A. club grind," he begins, speaking of his days this decade with the Negro Problem, "at a certain point, we were selling out Spaceland like you're supposed to do. But when we didn't get handed the brass ring of the major label deal and we didn't get handed the brass ring of the hip, indie label deal, it was like a lot of the powers that be were sort of looking at us like . . . 'what good are you guys?' "
He pauses. "You know, my solo record -- which was just me and Heidi without a band -- 'Guest Host,' it didn't even get reviewed in LA Weekly. . . . Then, we go to New York and next thing you know people are offering us musicals. We can't get an L.A. gig, and we're playing Lincoln Center?"
At one point, they came close. Stew mentions playwright and TV writer Jon Robin Baitz: "I didn't even know him, but he knew our music, and he called someone at the Taper, Robert Egan, and said, 'Have lunch with Stew and just pick his brain.' So me and Heidi had lunch with Robert Egan and shortly after that he left the Taper and so our one little slight connection to the Taper sort of disappeared."
And, it seems, the snub has continued. "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."
Not that it doesn't go both ways: Stew has made some flippant remarks about L.A. in the press -- and to be fair, the show is about a young boy escaping what he sees as the stifling influences of La La Land. But after a recent stay in Los Angeles to record some music, the singer seems to have rediscovered affection for his former hometown: "I credit N.Y. with my career, but my artistry, Heidi's artistry, it's completely Los Angeles based."
Stew still considers himself a rock 'n' roll guy first, but he seems to have embraced theater. Last week at Lincoln Center, he, Rodewald and some of the "Passing Strange" cast performed remixed Broadway standards: a ska mash-up of "Ol' Man River" and a riff on "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from "Gypsy" that sounded like Isaac Hayes and Deborah Harry fighting for the baton in the orchestra pit.
But none of that appears to be happening in L.A.
"I have noooooo idea why theater people in L.A. aren't giving us any love," he says. "I don't know if now, like maybe we've gone to far and it looks embarrassing if they call us."
Here, Rodewald steps in: "Well I do feel like, if they want 'Passing Strange,' it's like 'well, that already happened.' I would like it if somebody would say 'do something here,' instead of saying 'do this thing that we didn't have you start.' "
"But I don't agree with that," Stew snaps, "I mean, we don't say that to London or Seattle -- we don't say 'that already happened.' Why would we say it to L.A.?"
Not that he's interested in performing in the show. "Oh, without question. The only mistake -- well, not mistake -- but the only thing I'll never do again is be in a play."
After a nod from Rodewald, he adds: "Yeah, we want to write for the stage, but I don't want the rigor, the grinding schedule, the sometimes soul-challenging -- I won't say soul-crushing -- but sometimes the soul-challenging gig of doing theater is pretty tough. It's an extreme sport. Musical theater is an extreme sport. I'd rather watch other people suffer."
Stew and Rodewald continue to debate, eventually ending with Stew decidedly less adamant about not performing "Passing Strange" in L.A. "I think we'd explore any possibility," he says. "When I think about what I've said about L.A., you know, I don't want to be petty, but this whole hometown thing, you do feel it -- you especially feel it when you go someplace else and people are like rolling out the red carpet."