Stew’s Strange New Act

The offbeat composer follows his hit musical, “Passing Strange,” with a very personal show.

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Jeff Fasano

Stew chuckled last week when I started our interview with the old war horse question, “What motivated the new work?”

It’s not an original question. Every journalist from a cub reporter at a high school paper to a Pulitzer Prize winner has it in their arsenal, but for Stew it seems entirely appropriate, maybe too appropriate. Consider the background.

Five years ago, Stew (née Mark Stewart) was one of those famous-to-a-few “cult” artists. He had built a loyal following for his cantankerous songs with his rock group, The Negro Problem, and for his more melodic (one critic called it Blackarach) pop songs under the name Stew.

Then he and his songwriting and relationship partner, Heidi Rodewald, created a semi-autobiographical musical called Passing Strange about Stew’s adolescent and early adult life as a black outcast in Los Angeles and Amsterdam and Berlin. In content and tone, the musical wasn’t radically different from his previous music, but its success was overwhelming.

The musical was a hit at the Public Theater in New York. Then it was a hit on Broadway. It won a Tony Award. Spike Lee directed a concert film from one of the performances. Passing Strange is widely recognized as one of the most innovative examples of post-millennial theater (not post-millennial African-American theater, just post millennial theater, period). He was no longer famous to a few.

However, things were more complicated by then. Stew and Heidi broke up as a couple as Passing Strange headed toward Broadway. Being successful on Broadway isn’t in the dreams of many indie rockers, and it took some getting used to. And even though Stew was a seasoned performer, doing eight shows a week was more than a little exhausting. Stew had entered that aging hipster phase, well past 40, which brought another set of anxieties.