The stage musicalís had it pretty rough over the past few decades. After the glory days of the í50s and early í60s (you know, Oklahoma, The Music Man, West Side Story, Fiddler), the form — with a few vibrant exceptions — got lost in Schlockville. In recent years itís become increasingly dire, its biggest hits little more than random spectacles cobbled together from pop playlists, when theyíre not slapdash stage adaptations of lightweight films.
Which is part of what makes Passing Strange such a staggering achievement. Its music is an eccentric blend of raw rock, psychedelia, alternative soul, avant-garde incantations and other forms unlikely to be heard on Broadway nowadays — with a few wanton deconstructions of the classic "show tune" thrown in for good measure. It has the acerbic wit (and occasionally the Teutonic lilt) of The Threepenny Opera AND the insurrectionist spirit of Hair. This musical is a blend of idealism and cultural satire, self-discovery and realpolitik, that was previously unimaginable.
Odds are that, like me, you missed its stage run. Fortunately for us both, itís now available on DVD — and this filmed version, directed by Spike Lee, succeeds magnificently.
Passing Strange has the acerbic wit of The Threepenny Opera AND the insurrectionist spirit of Hair.Passing Strange was largely written by Stew, an L.A.-bred troubadour known to rock critics and freak-pop fanatics as both the frontman of The Negro Problem and one of the sceneís most engaging solo artists. Stewís music has always offered a richly ironic yet deeply humane take on race, art and love. He explores these and other subjects here with sublime power and grace. One imagines he wouldíve won the Tony he snagged for Best Book — as well as his Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Musical trophies, among other laurels — even if the competition had been more formidable.
The music business acknowledged Stewís genius but never had the slightest idea what to do with him. Broadway, however, proved a surprisingly good fit for the story he wanted to tell, the odyssey of a middle-class black kid from L.A. who chases his muse (or ìThe Real,î as he conceives it) to Europe and never fails to miss the important stuff lurking right under his nose. Itís no accident that this callow, twentysomething version of Stew is called only ìYouth.î
Over several years Stew and his collaborator, bassist Heidi Rodewald (whoís part of the versatile stage band), developed the production in assorted workshops and theaters before bringing this highly unusual picture of blackness to the Great White Way. Under the firm hand of director Annie Dorsen, Passing Strange stormed the Belasco Theatre. Lee captured its cathartic final performance, enhancing the live rendition with strategic close-ups caught in a run-through without the audience. His film of the show, energetically photographed by Matthew Libatique, has an immediacy no other recorded play has achieved.
Daniel Breaker shines as the intellectual, self-absorbed Youth, while Stew is a wry and world-weary presence as the narrator. But the showís most stunning work is done by the entirely African-American supporting cast; Eisa Davis is a wonder as Youthís loving but tragically misunderstood mom. De'Adre Aziza, Rebecca Jones, Colman Domingo and Chad Goodridge, meanwhile, assay South Central churchgoers, Amsterdam potheads and Berlin performance artists with true fire and prodigious humor.
But a musical canít be great without great songs, and Passing Strange has plenty: the gorgeous ìKeys,î the sweetly spaced-out ìMustíve Been High,î the exuberant ìAmsterdam,î the whimsical ìWe Just Had Sex,î the explosively bitter "Stoned," the Kander-and-Ebb-ish ìThe Black Oneî (a hilarious riff on postmodern minstrelsy), the wrenching ìLove Like Thatî and, astonishingly, many more.
Halfway through this smart, deep, subversively funny show, the audience is on its feet. It's up again at play's end, roaring for the bandís triumphant, thunderous encore, in which Stew, seemingly possessed, uncorks a litany of black heroes and heroines over an ecstatic, gospel-fried refrain of ìItís alright.î Even in the privacy of your living room, you may find yourself standing too.