For a debut only a few days after Valentine’s Day, Mark “Stew” Stewart and Heidi Rodewald, members of the band Negro Problem and the creators of the Obie- and Tony-winning musical Passing Strange, have crafted a song cycle sweeter, tarter, and more eloquent than any box of conversation hearts. In 2006, the two ended their long romance in a green room at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, during rehearsals for Passing Strange. Their new show, Making It, which opens at St. Ann’s Warehouse on February 17, explores the conclusion of that love affair and the sudden commencement of a new one: between music and theater. “We experienced this whole traumatic, weird breakup while this theater thing was going on,” says Stew, “so it’s about both things: us splitting and us getting into a relationship with the theater.”
As their continued collaboration suggests, Stew and Rodewald’s breakup must not have been too traumatic. Last week found them lounging in Rodewald’s Park Slope apartment, trading good-natured jibes and editing songs. Then they stopped in at a nearby bar to share an order of French fries. This would not seem so exceptional except that somewhere in a midtown hospital on that same evening, Stew’s new girlfriend, a woman he admiringly describes as a hard-headed Jewish–Puerto Rican doctor, was about to give birth to his son. After labor had been induced, she’d sent him back to Brooklyn to work with his ex on the new show.
Physically and temperamentally, Stew and Rodewald are an odd couple: She’s thin and pale, authoritative on stage, reticent in person; Stew is larger, darker, and infinitely more voluble, emphasizing his words with unreserved gestures. He speaks at length, while Rodewald offers only occasional comments. “Stew is so articulate and so entertaining,” she says. “I’m just trying to get a word in.” It’s no surprise, then, that Making It was Stew’s idea, to which Rodewald eventually acceded. “It’s a conversation that she and I needed to have,” says Stew, “that is more fun to have through a piece of work.” He tells Rodewald, “This shit was way too much to deal with to not make a show about what happened. I don’t think I could have worked with you again without having done this show, with or without you—preferably with.”
Revealing their relationship onstage would not have been Rodewald’s choice, and not necessarily her idea of “fun,” but she appears to enjoy the process of sorting out conflicted emotions in song. “What it all comes down to is Stew and I making this music together,” she says. “It’s all we’ve ever done. Making this stuff is making sense to me, to us. We’re creating something.” Typically, Stew supplies the lyrics, and they write the music together. Both sing, often the same words. Some seem to refer directly to their breakup, as when first Stew and then Rodewald sings, “It’s a love-and-pain thing/A no-one-can-explain thing/She left you when you needed her most.” At other times, personal content takes cover behind a host of metaphors: “Trapped in a homegrown masquerade/The costume’s wrong, but so well-made.” If some lyrics suggest a dissatisfaction with theater, Stew and Rodewald haven’t abandoned plays. In addition to Making It, they’re at work on a new commission about the interrelation of gospel and rock ‘n’ roll, as well as scoring a Broadway show.
Making It is a nicely variable title, rich with possible interpretations: making money, making art, making love, making it to the big-time. Perhaps it even refers to making babies, like Stew’s son, born a couple of hours after the Voice interview. When he’s old enough, who knows what he’ll make of the intimate, tender, complicated colloquy, of a “love and pain thing” made into theater.