Take it from a man who’s worked both sides of the aisle. “The beauty of a touring rock band,’' says the musician known as Stew, “is that the show that night reflects the emotions of your day, or what you talked about in the van.
“That’s why I think rock ‘n’ roll is more theatrical than theater,” he continues. “What’s coming off the stage with a rock band is an authentic, living response to the human condition — in real time.”
Stew, born Mark Stewart in Los Angeles in 1961, has certainly logged enough time in both settings: Since the mid-'90s he had led the band the Negro Problem, made albums under the name Stew, and written and performed the acclaimed Broadway musical “Passing Strange,” made into a 2009 film by Spike Lee.
Longtime fans will get to put his words to the test with his first L.A. shows in five years: He and the Negro Problem perform Saturday at the Getty Center’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium and the Echoplex on Tuesday.
There may be some lingering wariness on the part of Stew’s original fanbase — the Silver Lake indie rockers who once made the Negro Problem local heroes. The musician and his longtime collaborator (and now ex-girlfriend) Heidi Rodewald took off for New York in 2005, and after climbing onto stages, became better known than all the Eastside bands they left behind. The recognition, however, came from the Broadway musical world, not from hipster Brooklyn.
But anyone who’s seen “Passing Strange” — the comic and fictionalized portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man, which made its debut at the Berkeley Repertory Company in 2006 — knows Stew hadn’t changed much.
“The music was not a departure,” he says. “I wanted to make the story fit the music, not the music fit the story. Some friends from L.A. who came up to Berkeley Rep said, ‘It’s like a Negro Problem show at Spaceland, with a bunch of actors onstage!’ ”
One of the great ironies of Stew’s career is that square, commercial Broadway was able to fully exploit his talents in a way L.A.'s groovy indie scene wasn’t able to. For years in the late 1990s and early ‘00s, the Negro Problem was one of the most-likely-to bands in a subculture based around Silver Lake and Echo Park clubs. The music reflected its creator’s attempt to find the common ground between XTC, Jimmy Webb and Arthur Lee’s Love amid a general light-psychedelic swirl. Stew’s persona — a very funny, fiercely intellectual black guy with incongruous white heroes and some lost years in Berlin — made him fascinating and, perhaps, hard to market in the day’s pop world.
Despite a devoted cult and strong critical following — two of Stew’s solo recordings were named album of the year by Entertainment Weekly — things didn’t seem to be moving forward for him and Rodewald. “In L.A.,” he says, “it seemed like once it was clear that we weren’t gonna be signed, our worth as artists was zero.”
Around 2002, the group began to play regularly at Joe’s Pub, the eclectic performance space at New York’s Public Theater, and began to find a new audience. “I’m not someone who listens to lyrics a lot,” says the pub’s then-director Bill Bragin. “I listen to a lot of music in languages I don’t know. So when a lyricist gets me to listen to stories and songs — that says a lot.”
Bragin quickly picked up on Stew’s naturally theatricality. “I started appreciating the raconteurship,” he says. “The spiels between the songs were as good as the songs.”
Stew and Rodewald had long harbored hopes of developing some kind of larger project about America and the plight of the artist, and bits and pieces began taking shape at Joe’s Pub and elsewhere. They expected what they called “Travelogue” to remain in clubs.
But the Public Theater commissioned the two to work up a musical, and the result was then developed at the Sundance Institute. This tale of a young innocent in middle-class black L.A., throwing off church and family to discover girls, drugs, avant-garde Europe and his own artistry — which Stew emphasizes is not strictly autobiographical — became “Passing Strange.”
After the 2006 run at Berkeley Rep, the show moved to the Public Theater the following year, and Broadway’s Belasco Theater in 2008. (Among a slew of awards, Stew won the Tony for best book.)
Stew’s barbed lyrics hit harder with audiences in New York than they ever had while he was onstage in L.A. “New Yorkers love getting the jokes,” he says. “And love letting you know they get the jokes.”
From the beginning, Stew has had a complicated relationship with Los Angeles. Despite the long pull the city has exerted on creative people, “Passing Strange” portrays a torpid, anti-intellectual backwater Stew needed to escape to become an artist. (“I’m a resident of Los Angeles,” one young character says. “I know what it’s like to be dead.”)
But Stew is quite clear on his origins. “I don’t feel like a New York artist,” he says. “I feel like an L.A. artist,” whose music extends a tradition of sunny, harmony-rich pop — “kitchen-sink psychedelia,” born from a city with garages to practice in and lots of space.
Rodewald, 51, who shapes much of the group’s music, says her sensibility comes from listening to AM radio as a kid in Pomona and Brea, with the mix of bubblegum, psychedelia, disco and punk. “L.A.,” she says, “is my heritage.”
For L.A. audiences, it will be the first chance to see the songs from “Passing Strange” performed live. A version without Stew was staged this summer in Washington, D.C., and he’s gotten interest from producers in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere on the West Coast. But so far, he’s had no serious bites from his native city.
“It boggles the mind,” he says. “It’s just kind of funny, because L.A. is such a central character.”
As for Stew revisiting his role as lead, he’s pretty unambiguous.
“I’ll never be in a theatrical production again,” he says flatly. “It hijacks the rest of your life. This show is the beginning of us getting back to our real jobs.”