It’s been a gratifying few weeks for those of us with little patience for Broadway’s panting love affair with itself. First, The Chicago Tribune Magazine reported that when August: Osage County transferred here last fall, some cast members weren’t enthusiastic about the move, in part because Chicago theater folk increasingly dismiss Broadway—erstwhile pinnacle of their trade—as “just another Times Square tourist trap” and “the domain of overblown musicals.”
Now the same impudence can be heard nightly on Broadway itself, compliments of Passing Strange. Stew, the show’s single-named lyricist, librettist, co-composer, and narrator, recently told The New York Times Magazine that he’s seen “very few” musicals and that his producers don’t want him to talk about them: “Apparently, it’s not the thing to do when you’re on Broadway, to dis other shows,” he said. But the man can’t help himself—there’s a rebuke to the corny, fusty excesses of most musicals in every noisy second of what he’s created.
To call Passing Strange a rock musical doesn’t entirely capture its novelty. Stew and four other musicians fill the stage with guitars, keyboards, drums. Around them, six actors tell Stew’s sorta-autobiographical story of a black kid who flees middle-class Los Angeles to seek “the real” in Amsterdam and Berlin. Even more than Spring Awakening, the previous high-water mark for recent Broadway adventurousness, this looks like a rock concert that happens to tell a story.
As Stew ambles around the stage with his guitar, narrating his alter ego’s rejection of home, church, and libertinism and bantering with the crowd, he reaps the benefits of a cozy club gig while playing songs that pack the energy of a stadium show. An arresting moment comes when Stew’s co-composer, Heidi Rodewald, shreds on her bass guitar as a curtain draws back to reveal the show’s signature effect: the light wall, a majestic fluorescent contraption that’s like a multihued fun house at Death Star dimensions. (Set designer David Korins shares credit for it with Spring Awakening’s Kevin Adams, confirming Adams’s role as a leading innovator of the 21st-century musical.)
Still, the worlds of the club and the playhouse diverge in ways that Stew and director Annie Dorsen can’t always rectify. The show attains true pop transcendence when Youth (the hilarious Daniel Breaker) finds acceptance among some bohemians, leading Stew to finish a song by repeating the refrain “Well it’s all right” over and over as he ad-libs, passing the mike around until the music rises to a pupil-dilating crescendo. After such a moment in a concert, you’d toss your drumsticks to the crowd and head home, because how do you top that? But here Stew still needs to wrap up Act One, with several minutes that dent the story’s momentum. An overlong assault on Berlin art snobs bogs Act Two down even more.
But I’ll gladly forgive some messy, ponderous stretches in what is, all in all, the funniest libretto I can remember. Stew flashes an off-kilter sense of humor that leads him to introduce, say, a German artist whose idea of porn is fully clothed businessmen doing deals. The dialogue about art and life that winds up the show may not be very deep, but Stew ends with a gutsy choice—a note of resignation, in a subgenre of musical theater ruled by the desire to please. He brought this story to Broadway with no experience, little training, and paltry affection for the form. No matter what you think of the result, the mere act of showing up is the most punk-rock thing the place has seen in years.