Thirty years ago this summer, I made my escape from deep in the heart of Texas, where far too many people seemed to think my name was “Uncle Tom” because of my musical tastes. My freedom train left Dallas and stopped at an Ivy League college in New York City; I figured this would be the start of a new international me. Then I met my freshman-year roommate, a young white guy from Tyler, a town in Texas about 90 minutes east of Dallas. My fears that he was an agent sent to drag me back home evaporated quickly when I discovered that he was as big a fan of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Parliament Funkadelic, as I was, and that he, too, was a fugitive from conformist thought.
Our musical tastes didn’t entirely overlap; he was into Broadway soundtracks and our boom box often blared cast recordings. I went along with the playlist to get along. Most of them sounded one dimensional without their stage component; some of them, Chicago and Evita in particular were compelling on their own. By the end of freshman year, my roommate had all but abandoned Broadway for the darker sounds of the Velvet Underground and other Lou Reed records; he had become a New Yorker.
I hadn’t thought about those Broadway recordings in years until I heard the Original Cast Recording of Passing Strange,the groundbreaking Broadway musical by Stew that ended its run on Sunday. If you missed a chance to see it, not to worry. It will soon be a concert film directed by Spike Lee. But you can also simply throw yourself into the cast recording, which documents a performance from April with great clarity of sound that stands as well on its own. The eclectic music sizzles with vitality, inspiration and wit that is equal parts Stephen Sondheim and Katt Williams. Even if you haven’t seen it on stage, the music will convey most of the story.
Passing Strange lends itself unusually well to documentation as it’s something of a rock concert with a narrative. It tells the story of Stew (née Mark Stewart) and his maturity from a teenaged misfit in South Central Los Angeles, via his travels to Amsterdam and Berlin in the mid ’80s and his remorseful return to L.A. He rebels against the conventions of blackness that he’s supposed to fit into, chafes against accusations of being a race traitor and starts his own punk band before hightailing it to Europe where he finds a Mecca in Amsterdam. Growing a little too comfortable in Holland to pursue his music, he embarks to Berlin where he falls in with an anarchist performance art crowd, then returns home only after a tragic death.
Don’t think I’ve given it all away, part of the ingenuity in Passing Strange isn’t the story per se, but how it is told, and that is what makes the Original Cast Recording so powerful on its own. The hooks and humor that are appealing from the standpoint of the audience become nuanced and pithy when heard via headphones. Stew writes densely with oodles of melodic flourishes and funny couplets packed into each song.
Individuality is always the fly in the ointment of those who seek comfort rather than strength in group dynamics, but Stew’s work—either here on Passing Strange or with his group, The Negro Problem—isn’t polemic. “Let my pain entertain,” he sings in several songs with varying degrees of ambivalence. His success is that he’s made his anger theatrical; it’s a coming-of-age piece that factors in race in an unexpected way.
His discography, both as leader of the eclectic band The Negro Problem (which made three excellent turn-of-millennium recordings, Post Minstrel Syndrome, Joys and Concerns and Welcome Back, all on Smile Records), and on his own, especially his 2003 release, Something Deeper Than These Changes (Smile), tell the rest of the story. In the play, Stew is searching for “the Real,” when, in fact, he’s found the real; he wants acknowledgement and acceptance for his discovery. In Stew’s real life, from the point where the play leaves off, he is liberated from a crippling lebel of self-doubt and embarks on a successful music career.
Passing Strange is that rare production that works beautifully as a period piece and as a prescient comment on contemporary society. The music offers savage spoofs of punk rock, cabaret and Berlin performance art. Yet the issues it tackles are urgent today, as any black person whose authenticity has been doubted because they favor Björk over Beyoncé or Jazzanova over Jay-Z can readily attest.
The only major failing of the recording is that the final section feels about three songs too long. Without staging the last songs, which detail Stew’s road to self-acceptance and discovery, they feel tacked on, like bonus tracks to a special-edition re-issue of the music. Passing Strange tackles a lot of ground and covers it well; a little excess is excusable.