What a Passing Strange week it’s been. First Stew and Heidi Rodewald hit the Walter Reade Theater for a talk about creative partnerships, something we’ve already talked about here. Then came The Broadway Problem show in Damrosch Park on Wednesday. And then the crowning event: The theatrical premiere of Spike Lee‘s film version of Passing Strange at the IFC Center yesterday.
For a guy who often says he knows nothing about Broadway musicals, Stew did a good job of demonstrating otherwise at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Wednesday night. Stew, with the help of Heidi and a dozen guest musicians, did almost exactly what was promised in the promotional blurb written months before planning out their free show at Damrosch Park Bandshell — they deconstructed a raft of Broadway tunes.
They tackled the the gamut from “Nobody,” a tune in the 1906 show Abyssinia by Bert Williams, the early 20th Century’s greatest black entertainer, to a mashup of “Big Black Man” from The Full Monty and “Black Boys” from Hair (done in hilarious Sudabey-from-Passing-Strange-style by de’Adre Aziza) , the musical choices were full of dark humor and biting wit. And the arrangements and deconstructions put them in an entirely new light.
Stew and Heidi called in friends from many parts of their careers to help out. Singing friends from Passing Strange onstage in addition to d’Adre, included Lawrence Stallings (Youth understudy) and Eisa Davis (mother). Chivas Michael, who played Flute and Peaseblossom in the fabulous Connecticut production of A Midsummer Nights Dream for which Stew wrote the music, and singer/actor/playwright Paul Oakley Stovall, a friend from the early days of Passing Strange, also lent their voices to the effort.
Players included drummer Marty Beller, a longtime collaborator of Stew and Heidi (“Marty’s was the first couch I crashed on in New York,” said Stew upon introducing him) and Joe McGinty‘s Losers Lounge crew and a few others.
Stew maintained his tradition of sarcasm and lies (albeit with a sly wink) by completely misidentifying composers and shows just to mess up with the audience. He said repeatedly referred to one African-American composer as Vietnamese, and called another a Cambodian novelist. (My memory fails me at the moment, but one was Fats Waller and the other Duke Ellington, though there’s some dispute as to which was which.
He credited Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” to The Fantastiks and introduced “Magic to Do” from Pippin as a Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill number.
Although he threw in some pop tidbits (Stevie Wonder’s “She’s a Bad Mamma Jamma”), mostly he tackled classics, like “Summertime,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing),” “Feelin’ Good” (popularized by Nina Simone) from The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd and even “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.
They only thing they didn’t touch on was any of Stew and Heidi’s music — either from Passing Strange or from their The Negro Problem/Stew back catalogue.
The evening got off to an amazing start with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq‘s erotically charged performance. Her sound is at moments gutteral, or wailing, or moaning, resembling nothing less than an onstage orgasm.
There are only two days left in the Lincoln Center Out of Doors schedule, but they are chock full of great stuff. And everything’s free.
Meanwhile, Friday’s premiere of the Passing Strange movie was absolutely magical. The packed audience at the 9:20 pm show was clearly blown away by the movie, and gave the creators and cast, who spoke after the screening, a standing ovation.
For someone like me, who saw the show many times in various incarnations, the movie is a fantastic document of a moment in the show’s life — a near-perfect distillation of a life-changing experience.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, make a point of doing so — soon. It’s too important to miss.
Last night, Eisa described Passing Strange as “a myth,” a story that makes you think about who you are and forces you to confront what it means to life and to die. It’s not about race, it’s not about rock and roll, it’s not about drugs, even though all of those themes are in it.
Eisa is right. It is a myth in its own right.