It’s Saturday night, and Stew and Heidi Rodewald are rehearsing their new show about each other. They’re in the study of her Park Slope apartment, shoeless. (Heidi says no shoes.) She’s serene in a prim blue blouse; Stew (born Mark Stewart) is in all black. Everything is professional and enlightened; Stew checks his phone for news of his pregnant girlfriend. But now and then, a hand is placed on the back of the other’s chair, betraying intimacy.
Stew is adding vocals to a song called “Curse.” It starts with the sound of a music box opening. Then his voice kicks in:
“It’s a love and pain thang / A no one can explain thang / It’s simply complicated folks / The wee-hour excursions / The seven different versions / Of who got fucked / And who hurts the most.”
Here’s the story. Boy and girl meet in zonked-out nineties Los Angeles. She’s from Orange County, a bassist. He’s a troubadour playing songs he calls “Blackarach.” They start playing together. One listener calls their sound “Randy Newman meets Sesame Street.” They want to add the slur to their press kit. Alas, the band is called the Negro Problem and has larger marketing troubles.
So they start recording under the name Stew. Critics fall in love with the couple’s California-as-Weimar songs about Echo Park rehab girls and a naked Dutch painter who “does not want to fuck you.” In 2000, Entertainment Weekly names their album, Guest Host, one of the best of the year. It sells fewer than 20,000 copies. That’s not a lot.
By now, Stew and Heidi are in their forties. This is 340 in L.A. rock years. They light out for New York. They start work on a sorta-autobiographical musical about Stew’s L.A. childhood and his twenties in Berlin and Amsterdam. People like it. Robert Redford invites them to Sundance. The Public Theater stages the show, called Passing Strange.
There is just one problem. Heidi and Stew break up. The reasons are typical: front-man megalomania, a well-honed ability to push each other’s buttons. There is bottle-breaking backstage. Heidi has to see Stew’s new girls in the front row every night. Stew has to see Heidi’s eyes roll when he stumbles to sound-check in his robe. Heidi processed most of their stuff pre-breakup, but Stew’s a dude, and their split doesn’t hit him until much later, when the show moves to Broadway. “Holy shit, what have I done?” anxiety ensues.
Then come the Tonys. Passing Strange gets seven nominations but wins only Best Book. No Best Musical win means no long run. This is a relief. Doing the same songs eight times a week is driving them batshit. This makes them feel guilty. But on the final night, when Stew is singing about his dead mother, there are no tears as the notes begin to fade. There’s a smile.
Stew splits for Berlin. Heidi tries Park Slope. There’s a plan to finish a screenplay, but it’s agreed: No more songs about his life, her life, or their former life.
A year passes. Stew starts writing breakup songs. His friends tell him they’re great, but you know what would be really great? Have Heidi sing about her side of things.
Stew calls Heidi. She is skeptical. Stew says, “We’ll switch off. You’ll sing about bad things you did, and I’ll sing bad things about what I do. No one will know who did what.” St. Ann’s Warehouse agrees to stage it. They call the show Making It, after their old sense that if they just do one thing—win a Tony, sell a screenplay—they will be Officially Successful, their problems solved.
Today, Stew and Heidi are pretty sure that’s not how life goes. They get to work, and Stew sings another verse of “Curse”:
“She made her exit / When she needed to / There’s so much there / To read into / She left you / When you needed her most / And then you watched your love / Turn into a ghost.”
Then he stops.
“The music is pretty, but the words are ugly,” says Stew.
“Yes,” says Heidi.
And then they laugh, but just a little.