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Ask Stew's fans to describe his music and you'll likely get a more complete account of his repertoire: cabaret, the blues, soul, punk, funk, r&b, jazz, even gospel.
Recently, the eclectic performer added another genre to his résumé: musical theater. His new autobiographical show, Passing Strange, starts previews this week at the Public Theater and features an original score with close to 20 songs.
"Passing Strange is more like a rock concert than a musical," Stew explains. "When people hear the album for this, I don't want them to think, 'Wow, that's a great show-tunes album.' I want them to think that it's a great rock album, period."
Sitting in a cavernous rehearsal space at the Public, Stew (born Mark Stewart) projects the relaxed confidence of an artist who knows exactly who he is and who he isn't. Fans who fear he might abandon his nightclub roots for the glamour of the theater can rest assured that no such career change is in the works.
"I'm not a playwright, and I'm comfortable with that," confesses Stew, 45, with characteristic frankness. "It's hard performing for a theater audience. They don't react in the same way. Some people give back, and if I find one, I'll almost perform the song to that person. It's mentally exhausting."
Across from him sits Heidi Rodewald, his creative and romantic partner of the past 10 years. The two make up the lead musicians of the Negro Problem, a Los Angeles indie band that performs regularly at Joe's Pub and has achieved cult status in the U.S. and Europe. Critics have compared the band to everyone from Burt Bacharach to Randy Newman to Kurt Weill. Stew wrote the book and lyrics for Passing Strange, with Rodewald co-writing the music.
"My biggest concern is sounding too Broadway," says Rodewald. "I want us to stay who we are."
Passing Strange tells the story of a black teenager (Stew doesn't like the term African-American) from L.A. who rebels against his family's cultural conservatism by embracing rock music, drugs, and sex. His spring awakening takes him to Amsterdam and then to Berlin, where he's indoctrinated into hardcore bohemian life.
Stew narrates the show from a chair in the middle of the set, while a band led by Rodewald on bass guitar plays on the edges of the stage. Annie Dorsen, who directed and co-created the project, describes Passing Strange as "a Stew concert out of which a play emerges."
The show closely mirrors Stew's own life. Growing up in L.A.'s Fairfax District, which he describes as "a black-Jewish-Mexican-Asian bubble of liberalism," Stew felt constricted by middle-class life. At 21, he left the U.S. and traveled throughout Europe, eventually settling in Berlin. His exposure to German cabaret and the music of Jacques Brel proved life-changing. Today, Stew's music reflects those influences through its playful rhythms, articulate lyrics, and clever cultural references. Just the names of his songs evoke his transatlantic style: "Heidegger in Harlem," "Ghetto Godot," and "North Bronx French Marie."
"Europeans aren't afraid to sing about reality," Stew explains. "Their songs are about adult things, and they're direct. Like Jacques Brelhe wrote a song called 'My Death.' "
Stew still spends a few months each year in Berlin, where his 14-year-old daughter from a previous relationship lives. "Berlin is a lot like New York," he says. "You get addicted to it even if you don't like it. The next thing you know, it's two years later."
Stew and Rodewald workshopped Passing Strange at the Sundance Institute. (They also have a separate screenplay project in the works.) The show premiered at Berkeley Repertory in October to mostly positive reviews, though critics complained about the two-hour-and-40-minute running time. For the New York engagement, which was pushed back three months to allow for rewrites, Stew and his team have condensed the play to closer to two hours.
"I like the length of club shows," Stew says. "If I could, I would just play an hour. I've never been famous enough to play in front of a lot of people for two-and-a-half hours. That feels like a long fucking time! I'm not the kind of guy who has to be up there expressing myself to the bitter end."
Stew recently added a prologue to the show in which he introduces himself just like he would in a concert. "It's saying, 'Here's who I am and here's the story,' " he explains. The idea came after Dorsen gave him a copy of the opening prologue to Romeo & Juliet.
"I'm fascinated with the overlaps between theater and live music," Stew says. "I think they had much more in common in the old days than they do now. People used to get drunk and yell along with Shakespeare's plays back in the 17th century. It's all specialized now."
Negotiating those overlaps has proven more difficult than expected. "We have 10-hour rehearsals-rock bands aren't used to that shit!" Stew says. "Theater is very precise, while rock is really the opposite. In rock, we want you to think we're about to fall apart. It's a studied imprecision. The theater has Hamlet and we have Keith Richards."
As a couple, Stew and Rodewald speak freely about their arguments, which they say have grown more frequent since Passing Strange came along. "I'm the one closest to him, and so he's really tough on me," says Rodewald. "I get a lot of his shit. When people tell him how charming he is, I'm off to the side thinking what an asshole he can be."
Stew takes the criticism in stride: "I've been more explosive during rehearsals and Heidi bears the brunt of that. I wish we could be more like Brecht and Weill. They always addressed each other formally."
The couple say they're eager to get back to their real gigplaying nightclubs. "If Passing Strange works, that's great," says Stew. "But if it doesn't, we have a place to go. We don't think theater is some sort of pinnacle. We've been invited to this big party, and the truth is that we're really here to take the sandwiches."