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background and analysis by Scott Miller
Passing Strange deserves a place beside other great autobiographical works of art, like Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2; Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories; Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, and Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Like the others, Passing Strange traffics in surrealism and symbolism, but unlike the others, its author and narrator was right there onstage next to his fictional younger self, both in the original production and on film. And instead of being built on images, this story is built on music – rock, punk, funk, acid rock, gospel, R&B, Latin, and a little Kurt Weill and Burt Bacharach thrown in too. The show even makes sly references throughout the show to other musical works, like "Up, Up, and Away" (The Fifth Dimension) and "There’s a Riot Goin’ On" (Sly and the Family Stone), among others.
Built on the classic Hero Myth, the show follows its hero, called only “Youth,” on his quest to find “The Real” (notice how pervasively throughout the show the words real and alright show up). The script doesn’t call the story’s hero “the Youth,” just “Youth,” as if he’s standing in not only for the writer as a young man, but also for that period of life between childhood and adulthood, when choices are made and life’s puzzles are teased out. Like Pippin, the story of Passing Strange is episodic, including explorations of religion, politics, domesticity, and hedonism, but unlike Pippin, this Youth finds what he’s looking for – or at the very least, he finds the road toward that destination. And unlike Pippin, the quest in Passing Strange isn’t just about personal fulfillment; it’s also about finding an artistic voice. As the Youth explores the world, he also explores his art form – exploring musical genres in Los Angeles, exploring content in Amsterdam, exploring form in Berlin, and exploring emotional content when he returns to Los Angeles. This is an artistic quest as much as a personal one.
Writer-composer Stew (née Mark Stewart) said in an NPR interview, "It’s what I like to call autobiographical fiction, in that every single thing that’s happening on the stage, I can point to something in my life, some kind of corollary, you know, that corresponds in some way. But, was I in Europe when my mom died? No. Did the things that happened in Amsterdam in our play happen to me? Some of them, but not all. It’s really just about the costs of being a young artist. It's a 46-year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you're making that decision to really be an artist, you know?" Or as the Youth says in his performance art piece in Berlin, "I illuminate with fiction the darkness truth cannot explain."
In the show, the minister’s son Franklin references James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, about sexual adventures in Paris. Baldwin captured in the novel the experience the Youth has in Passing Strange: "Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But, again, I think I knew at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France."
This is a memory play, like The Glass Menagerie or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and so these characters exist only in Stew’s memory, fictionalized both by the years and by intention. Each character is really only the essence of the real person (or persons) he once knew, constructed of the details Stew most remembers, his most potent impressions. This is one of the densest works of musical theatre the stage has seen in a long time, so packed with meaning and metaphor, and so often in the form of rich, dense poetry, much like the 1960s concept musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which explores some of the same themes. Passing Strange is a fable and audiences can take away from this show what they need, maybe something different for each person, depending on where they are in their own life’s journey, in their own personal, lifelong Hero Myth.
The Real is a construct.
The entire story revolves around the Youth’s search for The Real. But what is The Real? Knowing that this story follows the rules of the Hero Myth, it’s easy to see that The Real represents some essential truth that the Youth is searching for. It’s what Eastern philosophies call Enlightenment, a fundamental understanding of the nature and purpose of Life. This is the central journey of our story. In The Wizard of Oz (one of the most famous Hero Myths), Dorothy Gale’s essential truth is that "there’s no place like home;" in other words, the search for enlightenment doesn’t require physically leaving home, but it does require leaving behind the assumptions of home. In Star Wars, Luke’s Hero Myth leads him to an acceptance and understanding of the power, the Force, within him and the responsibility it carries with it. These days, in our modern world, the Hero’s journey has become largely an interior one. We’ve conquered the Wild West; we’ve nearly explored all the physical space there is to explore. As our physical lives continually become easier and easier, we have more time and consciousness to focus on our interior lives.
In Passing Strange, the Youth thinks he finds The Real over and over again, but he always discovers that it’s someone else’s Real, not his own. As Brandon Woolf writes in his essay, Negotiating the "Negro Problem," the Youth is searching for "a Real – with a capital R – that is necessarily multiply defined, multiply located, unstable, in motion even." And each time the Youth realizes this Real isn’t his Real, he chooses art over love/family because only art will take him the next step toward his own Real. The line in the show about living "between the clicks of a metronome" tells us so much – that he lives inside his art but also that he exists between categories, neither black or white, American or European, and that this story is neither fully true nor fully fictional.
There are three incidents early on in which the Youth is at odds with his world in a fundamental way. The first is in church when he has a meaningful artistic epiphany and is slapped by his mother for it. The second is when he meets Edwina and she demands an artless, conforming, middle-class future from him. The third is when his garage band breaks up over questions of artistic commitment. What he comes to understand ultimately is that he doesn’t fit in his world as it is. He can’t conform when it comes to religion, domestic life, or a life of casual art-making.
He is an artist, a tribe shaman, and only through artistic expression can he discover his true nature. That disconnect with his surroundings sets him off on his journey. In real life, artists go on the Hero’s adventure themselves (over a lifetime) so that they can share the adventure with their "tribe" and pass down their accumulated wisdom. Passing Strange is Stew’s autobiography and he is both the narrator and the Youth, here to guide his younger self and to tell his story. As we will learn by the end of the show, we each have our own Real and we each tell our own story. That’s what the Youth must understand. The narrator becomes the Obi Wan to the Youth’s Luke Skywalker – the wise wizard figure, Glinda, Merlin, Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos...
From an African American perspective, this kind of interior journey was largely a luxury when most black folks were slaves. Though there were some early exceptions, the exploration of the African American interior journey, and the related cultural issues, began in earnest with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Born in the midst of the Renaissance was James Baldwin, a figure referenced several times in Passing Strange, along with his novels Giovanni’s Room, about a young man living in Paris in a bisexual three-way, (which is one of the ways Mr. Franklin knows about Europe in the show), and the sexually subversive Another Country.
Writer-composer-Narrator Stew tells us in the show that the Youth’s journey is primarily about finding The Real, but he does not explicitly define it for us. He only tells us that "The Real is a construct." Time is a construct too. Race is a construct. Theatre is a construct. Most importantly, our lives are a construct. We create them. We build them over time, moment by moment. We fashion them as we live them, very much as a product of ideology, personal history, and social circumstances. And when we realize that The Real is a construct for each of us, that necessarily means that your Real will always be different from my Real, because each of us has a different ideology, history, and social circumstance.
Before he learns this, our hero keeps getting trapped in other people’s version of The Real – the Buppies in L.A., the hippies in Amsterdam, and the Nowhausers in Berlin have all found The Real for themselves, but when they try to impose their Real on the Youth, it doesn’t fit. In L.A., they find The Real in religion; in Amsterdam, they find The Real in hedonism; and in Berlin, they find The Real in politics (and art and rioting). The Narrator even hints toward the end that he has found The Real in love. But the Youth has to find his own Real. In fact, it’s the Youth’s inability to find himself, to find his voice, to find The Real that leave him without a real name, just "Youth." He is unmade, unfinished. When he grows up, when he finds The Real, he will be Stew. While the Narrator and the Youth are both Stew, they are at two entirely different moments in their mutual journey, so their understanding of The Real is somewhat different. The Narrator doesn’t think the Youth should leave "right when it was starting to feel real," but the Youth disagrees. He must find his own Real, not someone else’s. As the show ends, the Narrator tell us:
The Real is a construct...
The Youth discovers The Real isn’t exactly real. It’s more abstract, ethereal. The Real is a state of being. It’s a way of living, a path, it’s the Tao. According to Wikipedia, "In all its uses, Tao is considered to have ineffable qualities that prevent it from being defined or expressed in words. It can, however, be known or experienced, and its principles (which can be discerned by observing Nature) can be followed or practiced." Sounds like The Force, doesn’t it? In other words, The Real isn’t concrete but it is real.
The Youth comes to understand that his Real is artistic expression. Like Stew says in the show, "Some people feel like art is more real than life... And that really gives you something to think about." (Significantly, in Act I Franklin says, "If I were any more real, child, I’d be fictional.") The song "Work the Wound" is about his acceptance that creating art is his path. The Narrator sings, "Every day I build a mask, up to the task, another song, you see. I live behind the rhyme and verse. I lift my voice till I lift the curse; it’s all rehearsed you see. This music always rescues me; there’s a melody for every malady; prescription song, you see..."
The Birth of the Strange
Passing Strange began its life as a cabaret piece called Travelogue (of Demonically Energized Souls), which was performed at Joe’s Pub (the cabaret space at the Public Theater) and Symphony Space in New York, and at the Oakland Metro. In 2003, the Public Theater, where shows like Hair, A Chorus Line, and Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk were birthed, commissioned Stew and his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald to make Travelogue into a theatre piece, and the team took on a new partner, director-writer Annie Dorsen. Her unconventional staging of the show borrows from contemporary avant-garde directors like Anne Bogart and Tina Landau and from the experimental theatre movement of 1960s New York (companies like The Open Theatre, the Living Theatre, Café LaMaMa, etc.), including actors playing multiple roles, direct narration and the rejection of the Fourth Wall, the use of Greek chorus, physical minimalism, pop culture references, the distortion of time and space, classic storytelling structure, politics, sex, and lots more.
"What I wanted was to make something that took the electricity of a rock show and merged it with the rock and roll potential that exists within theatre," Stew said on NPR. "We knew we were going to invent something, ‘cause we kind of knew this hadn’t been done before, the goal being to bring the actual music that one hears in a club to the stage – not through some kind of theatrical musical-theater filter." Now called Passing Strange, the show was invited to the Sundance Theater Lab in 2002. At the Lab the creators met Les Waters of Berkeley Rep and Oskar Eustus of Trinity Rep.
According to Stew’s journal, "Berkeley Repertory Theater, in a government funded study to see if a rock band and a group of actors (proverbial high school enemies) can live together in peace and harmony, put on Stew, Heidi and Annie’s musical Passing Strange to much critical acclaim and confusion. . . Stew moves back to Berlin, is given a key to the city but no ice in his coke." The Berkeley Rep production was the first time Passing Strange used an all-black cast.
The show opened off Broadway at the Public Theater in May 2007, where it won two Obie Awards, for best ensemble and best new theatre piece; and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical. In addition it was also nominated for three Lucille Lortel Awards, three Dram League Awards, and an Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding score. The New Yorker said, "Not since Stephen Sondheim introduced a kind of Jewish skepticism and irony to the Broadway musical, in the 1950s, and Tony Kushner revolved his 2003 show, Caroline, or Change, around the ways in which class intersects with race, have we had such a finely crafted, ethnic-minded American musical as Passing Strange." Collaborator Annie Dorsen said of the show, "We alert the audience that this is not going to be Tyler Perry, and it’s not going to be Raisin in the Sun."
The show closed off Broadway in July and re-opened on Broadway in February 2008, running 165 performances. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning best book of a musical. It was nominated for seven Drama Desk Awards, winning for outstanding musical, outstanding music, and outstanding lyrics. Fans of the show dubbed themselves "Passing Strangers" or "Scaryotypes," in a nod to the show’s punk garage band in Act I. Bill Bragin, director of Joe’s Pub, said about the show, "It wasn’t based on a hit animated movie, wasn’t afraid to fill its lyrically dense book with allusions to French arthouse cinema or German industrial artnoise or expatriate artists like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker or suburban black middle class life, and didn’t try to wrap its story up in a happy little bow at the end."
In his introduction to the published script, Bragin wrote, "Passing Strange became an inspiration to many. To young people who identified with the story of a youth who takes the brave (or reckless) step to leave home to reinvent himself and follow his dreams. To audiences who found an antidote to the malaise of incuriousness that can overwhelm popular culture. To artists who saw that it will still possible to reinvent tired forms and infuse them with a sense of mischievous adventure, intellect, and heart."
Stew wrote about the show, "To me it was a Soul Train dance through the primordial ooze-ness of life, and it never failed to both drown me (or was that baptizing?) and bring me back to life every night. Even our matinees were church. . . We brought out love of ‘60s Los Angeles AM radio, ‘70s soul and OG [original gangsta] punk rock to bear on the proceedings. "
The critics loved the show. The Wall Street Journal called it "the freshest musical in town! The songs rock harder than anything else on Broadway." Variety said, "Passing Strange could join Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a rock musical milestone." New York magazine said the show "smashes Broadway clichés with an electric guitar and the funniest libretto I can remember." Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker, "Passing Strange is a brilliant work about migration – a geographical migration but also its hero’s migration beyond the tenets of ‘blackness’ and toward selfhood." Newsday said, "Let’s not get too distracted figuring out how to categorize Passing Strange, the stranger-in-a-strange-land original passing for a Broadway musical at the Belasco Theatre. What’s important is that the thing – part indie-rock concert, part boho-art project, part coming-of-age black-identity crisis, part hipster travelogue – is all smart and all enjoyable and all very good for the theater."
Charles Isherwood wrote about the show in The New York Times, "A portrait of the artist as a confused young black man emerges in vivid colors in the fresh, exuberant and bitingly funny new musical Passing Strange. The biography of a songwriter on a wayward journey of self-discovery, this bracingly inventive show introduces an exciting new voice to contemporary musical theater, a witty wordsmith, composer and performer who goes by the single name Stew. . . Part concert, with an onstage band, part book musical with a full cast, Passing Strange defies generic categories. This is wholly appropriate, since the story being told doesn’t run in any of the familiar grooves of the African-American experience in 20th-century America. And if it does trace the classic story of the artist as a self-styled outsider at odds with mainstream culture (as personified by Mom), Passing Strange sets this boilerplate arc to a quirky new rhythm." Isherwood went on, "Although it is far richer in wit, feeling and sheer personality than most of what is classified as musical theater in the neighborhood around Times Square these days, its big heart throbs to the sound of electric guitars, searing synthesizer chords, driving drums and lyrics delivered not in a clean croon but a throaty yelp." In 2009, Spike Lee released a film of the stage show, shot on the last nights of the Broadway run.
Like very few other works of the musical theatre (Hedwig and Bat Boy come to mind), Passing Strange is sui generis; there is nothing else quite like it, in form, content, or style. It’s both rock concert and musical theatre, both autobiography and fable, both simple (on its surface) and endlessly complex. It’s full of symbolism and complicated social and political themes, but none of them intrude on the raw entertainment the show offers its audience.
The title of the show is one of those multi-layered titles that can mean a dozen things all relevant to the show. Rent is like that and so is High Fidelity. The title of Passing Strange came from a line in Othello. In this scene in the Shakespeare play, Othello is accused of "stealing" Desdemona with the use of spells and potions (of course a white women wouldn’t otherwise fall in love with a black man!), and in his defense, Othello the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him, hearing stories of his painful youth:
I did consent,
Othello’s tragic stories full of harrowing battles, travels outside the civilized world, and dramatic reversals of fortune – tales not just exotic and strange but passing strange, beyond strange – moved her so deeply that she fell in love with this sad, damaged man. In certain ways, this parallels the Youth’s own (far less dramatic, far more metaphoric) life journey. And it’s fair to speculate that Marianna and Desi (both white women) fall for the Youth for similar reasons, to "fix" this damaged man with their love.
But even outside the Othello context, the phrase by itself is just as potent, particularly applied the wild and weird adventure Stew takes us on, through church services, acid trips, marijuana cafés, riots, performance art, and more. His story truly is passing strange. But passing has so many other meanings. When it comes to African Americans, passing usually means being light-skinned enough to live as a white person, but here Stew turns that upside down when Franklin introduces the idea of "black folks passing for black folks" – not just passing but passing strange – which then underlines certain moments throughout the rest of the show when the Youth does indeed "pass" for being black. And this definition also suggests the show’s central theme of the masks that all these characters wear to hide from the world.
And there are more meanings. The Youth is "passing" through these cities – though he may intend to stay in both Amsterdam and Berlin, he is really just passing through, even if he doesn’t know it. And he’s also both passing time (wasting time) and passing through time, especially in the time-telescoping world of the theatre, when time can be compressed and elongated at the whim of the Narrator.
Almost every character in the show lives behind a mask. They all "perform" their lives in some way. That’s what the song "Baptist Fashion Show" is all about, introducing this central metaphor early in Act I. That’s what the character of Mr. Franklin and the jokes about the Mother’s faux "Negro dialect" are about. The Mother "performs" her blackness just as Edwina does, and to underline that point the Mother literally slips into a stereotypical black urban dialect whenever she needs to exert some authority, perhaps because that feels "tough" to her or perhaps only as a mask to hide behind because the role of strict parent doesn’t fit her comfortably. But Franklin’s mask is more subversive. He performs his gayness openly, but with the understanding that everyone in the church community will pretend not to notice because he’s the minister’s son. For a brief scene early in Act I, Franklin becomes the Wise Wizard figure up on Arlington Hill, when he introduces the Youth to his own artist self and sets him off on his journey. Just one scene later, the Youth and the other kids reject Franklin. They’ve moved beyond him. He opened the door but the Youth will walk through – something Franklin could never do. Franklin has given him a generalized road map and an agenda, but like Moses and Obi Wan Kenobi, Franklin can’t finish the journey. Unlike most Hero Myths, the Youth still has a Wise Wizard figure in the Narrator.
But while the others aren’t always conscious of their mask wearing, the Youth/Narrator is. He tries on everybody else’s masks over the course of the story, but ultimately he chooses his own mask, the conscious mask of the storyteller. He chooses art every time. Unlike the others, the Youth’s mask has a purpose that goes beyond hiding. In one of the most powerful moments late in the show, the Mother tells the Narrator (her son), "Don’t be sad about your chosen path, and where it’s taken you so thus far. ‘Cuz this is what you did, and that is who you are. And it’s alright." In other words, yes, he has made mistakes; yes, he has hurt and lost people; but this is his path. James Baldwin wrote in his novel Giovanni’s Room, "People can’t, unhappily, invent their own mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives those and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life." It accomplishes nothing to regret the past or to question the road he’s on. It’s his road.
In contrast to that, Desi pleads with him, "So come down now, remove your mask..." She’s asking him to come down off the metaphorical stage he lives on, to stop performing his life (even though she does much the same thing). But performing – storytelling – is his Real. She’s asking him to give up what is most essential in him, just as Edwina and Marianna did. And he can’t do that.
But while finding The Real is the primary action of our story, Stew’s message for us is not quite as simple as Follow your bliss. Stew wants us to learn that even though the search for meaning is important to life, it’s not life itself. Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." And while that may be true, Stew is telling us something deeper – that the un-lived life is not worth examining. The pursuit of The Real shouldn’t prevent us from living a full life engaged with the world. This central theme pops up in an essay Stew posted to his website about the genesis of Passing Strange:
We have GWBush to thank for this play. Seriously. When I found out that he had never been to Europe in his youth (or in his adulthood until he became prez!!!) I immediately knew I wanted to write a play about a kid who wanted to go to europe. That fact about Bush said a lot to me about America’s lack of interest in anything foreign except that which it can exploit (always to exploit – never to learn from). Can you imagine an uber-privileged billionaire’s son from any other country that would not have been curious enough to travel to a foreign country or two or 3 or 20? Especially when you’re talking the kind of money where you already own a few airplanes yourself? As someone whose experience abroad informed and shaped my very being and consciousness about everything from sexuality, politics, culture, language and human nature, I became obsessed with this factoid and decided this incuriosity was at the heart of the war. I realized that we are actually suffering the results of Bush’s and his cronies’ incuriousness… their dimwitted foreign policy time and again shows that beneath it all these fuckers don’t even care about trying to understand the world they wish to dominate.
For Stew, there’s no excuse for not being on a lifelong quest for The Real. In this story, The Real is ultimately found in the creation and sharing of Passing Strange, his true artistic expression of his self and the only way for him to truly know himself. As a friend tells him after seeing the show, "The Real is a construct. The real is a creation. The Real is artificial. The kid in your play is looking for something in life that can only be found in art."
At the end of Passing Strange, the narrator sings, “The universe is a toy in the mind of a boy, and life is a movie, too, starring you. Your whole family’s the cast and crew. That’s a little secret between God and you.” In other words, everything we know, everything we experience is all just metaphysical clay in the hands of the storyteller, the artist who must keep his inner child always alive and at work in his storytelling, finding adult insight and understanding alongside child-like joy and adventure. And there’s also the understanding here that every story we tell is our story. The storyteller is the hero, one way or another, either explicitly or implicitly, either consciously or unconsciously, or in some cases (like Passing Strange), all of the above. Storytelling connects to the eternal, the divine, the Cosmic Consciousness, through the shaping and passing along of the culture.
In many stories, love conquers all. Here it’s art that does it.
And because this is autobiography and Passing Strange the musical is the thing the Youth/Stew seeks throughout the story – i.e., artistic expression, the act of sharing a story – the show becomes a meta-musical, a musical about itself, a musical that reaches beyond the action onstage, yet completely unlike any other self-referential musical. Though self-reference goes way back to Gilbert & Sullivan and Shakespeare (see The Tempest), its most recent vogue stems from the success of Urinetown in 2007. But Urinetown used self-reference as a storytelling device to make a bigger point, while shows like Spamalot, [title of show], Gutenberg, and Silence! use self-reference only as a joke, and so theatre audiences are subjected to a string of essentially one-joke musicals. Sondheim wrote in his recent book Finishing the Hat, "As I write this, a third kind [of musical] has recently overrun the theater like kudzu: the self-referential ‘meta-musical,’ which makes fun of its betters by imitating their clichés while drawing attention to what it’s doing, thus justifying its lack of originality without the risk of criticism." But like Urinetown – and also the artistic cousins to Passing Strange, including 8½. Stardust Memories, All That Jazz, and Sunday in the Park with George – the self-reference is only implied and it springs from a serious (though often funny) exploration of what art is and what it can do. As Sondheim loves to remind us, content dictates form. But Stew goes one step further. Here, content is form.
For most of the evening, Passing Strange itself wears the mask of fiction, and only toward the end do we understand we’ve just spent some time with The Real. Stew has said, "I don’t know what this piece is. . . One day it’s a rite of passage, the next day it’s a real serious thing about the consequences of being an artist, some of it’s about this illusion of black authenticity." But the truth is, Passing Strange is all those things because those issues are all central to Stew and the journey he took. To some extent, Stew has found his Real in us, his audience – and finds it again at each performance. In the last song the Narrator tells us that we are the storytellers of our lives. We can decide how the story goes and how it gets told. Stew has decided this is how he will share his story. Since the show is now being produced around the country by other companies, without Stew’s involvement, his sharing of his story reaches even more people, most he’ll never meet. But as the Buddha says, "Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared."
Every good show can be summed up in one sentence. The point of Fiddler on the Roof is that traditions are important but they must adapt to a changing world. The point of Cabaret is that doing nothing can also be a political act. The point of Rent is that there is always life to be celebrated, even in the midst of death. The point of Hairspray is that art (music, dance) transcends fear. The point of Next to Normal is that some journeys must be taken alone. The point of Passing Strange is that we each have to find our own path and our own personal truth, but we can’t let that search for enlightenment keep us from living the life we’re trying to understand. It doesn’t help us to understand life if we’re not living it. In the song "Come Down Now," a female voice (Heidi in the original) sings, "Now you are knee deep in your head’s footnotes" – a funny, original way of describing the tendency to over-think things. Is this the inner voice of Desi or is it the voice of Stew the writer of Passing Strange, which would mean it’s also the voice of the Youth, since he, Stew, and the Narrator are the same person?
The Baptist Fashion Show
Alongside the Youth’s quest for The Real is a question about faith and religion. In the first section of the show, set in Los Angeles, the characters explore the very complex relationship many Americans have with organized religion. The Mother insists that going to church is important, but the Youth points out that she never goes, to which she replies, "Those catty church bitches give me the blues." The hypocrisy of church-going finds itself under Stew’s microscope, and when the Youth has a genuine "religious experience" through the Reverend Jones’ high energy gospel music, the Youth is punished for intellectualizing that experience. He says:
Mom, I can feel the spirit and it’s real! Check it out: Reverend Jones is singing the blues! And what we’re doing is call-and-response – we brought it over from the Motherland! mom, we’re all just a tribe of bluesy Africans and church ain’t nothin’ but rock and roll…!
He has discovered rock and roll, and this moment will shape the rest of his life. But instead of celebrating this joyful moment, his Mother slaps him, stopping the music. She says, "Don’t you know the difference between the sacred and the profane?" And he replies, "I can’t hear the difference." And with those words, Stew exposes and rejects religion without understanding, just as later he’ll explore the related idea of love without understanding. The primal beat of rock and roll is where the real understanding comes from, Stew is telling us. After all, the Youth’s description of what he hears is a hundred percent accurate, and we all know it, but somehow that truth is considered inappropriate, irreverent. It’s the first time the Youth learns that his Real may not be in sync with his mother’s or anyone else’s Real.
Is the Youth’s search for The Real actually a search for God? When the Narrator sings at the end of the show, "The universe is a toy in the mind of a boy," is he telling us that each of us is God – or that we have God inside us? – that finding The Real requires dismissing the construct of human religion, that creating art is akin to creating life itself, that in fact art can provide the same religious experience that church can? Stew describes the effects of creating art much as others describe the effects of believing in or praying to God: "I lift my voice till I lift the curse."
Just as everyone must find their own Real, is Stew similarly arguing that each of us must find his own religious experience, his own expression of God? Where others may look for enlightenment in God and religion, Stew looks for it in altered consciousness and in art. He hints at this in the opening prologue, when he sings, "If you’re ever not sure what I’m on about, just ask the song. Just ask the song." He makes the point more explicitly in the church scene. The narrator tells us:
And then the chilly church pews got suddenly
And a few moments later:
And then the right Reverend Jones revved up and started banging the pulpit like a conga drum and his screams cut through the organ’s swell like a bolt of sonic lightening…
Note that the organ didn’t sound like thunder, but like sonic lightening. It illuminates with sound. Later, the Reverend sings, "Is God real"? But the question this story really asks is: Is The Real that which we call God?
After the service, the Youth meets Edwina Williams, the "teenage goddess," and he seeks The Real in sexual excitement. In the next scene we meet the Reverend’s son, Franklin, who we learn finds The Real in altered consciousness (he calls pot "this sacrament") and in the art of foreign films. Already this early, Stew is telling us that everyone finds The Real – call it God if you want – in different places. As the Youth says up on Arlington Hill, "That’s right, Mom! I’m smoking weed with the Reverend’s son! He works in mysterious ways indeed!"
The Black One
The Youth’s first "awakening" to himself comes from Edwina, and this one short episode sets up the themes of religion, sex, family, and race, all in the space of one page in the script. As the Youth hopes to find The Real in his sexual attraction to Edwina, she also becomes a device for exploring the Youth’s relationship to his race, something which he may or may not have dealt with intellectually before. The Youth will come up against issues of racial authenticity throughout Passing Strange – a show which, not incidentally, was created by the African American Stew with his white co-composer, white director, all white designers, and all-white band (aside from him) called The Negro Problem. Additionally, though the cast is all-black, most of the characters they play are white.
In Europe the Youth will experiment with what it means to be a black man. But here at the beginning of that conversation, Edwina forces the Youth to confront race head on. She makes a list of demands:
You gotta do something about your hair. . . And get that B.A. in Communications from a prestigious black college. . . And after we marry and you’ve got a job in the corporate sector, you’ll buy me a sprawling two-story house [like this mother’s?] fulla African sculptures from tribes we know nothing about, kente cloth couch covers, and Malcolm X commemorative plates lining the walls of our airy, peach-colored breakfast nook. . . And lastly, you need to blacken up a bit. . . Like not so much that you become unhirable or anything, but you know, you kinda act too white. You’re not black enough for me. Put a little soul in your stroll.
He’s not "black enough" for her, but it seems her blackness is little more than accessory and décor. Can blackness be that superficial? If so, what exactly is blackness? Can a black man be "too white"? Can a black man wear (metaphorical) "blackface," and if so, is one blackface more acceptable than another? (This is one of the themes of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.) Barack Obama was already being accused by some in the black community of some of the same things during the 2008 Presidential race, while Passing Strange was running on Broadway. While the scene plays like a joke, its implications are serious. The Youth has had his very identity questioned. Edwina doesn’t think he’s authentic and implies that he’s been wearing the mask of blackness without any blackness on the inside. Kinda like her.
In an attempt to reassert his blackness, to "blacken up a bit," the Youth becomes The Angry Black Man, a punk Amiri Bakari, writing the faux confrontational "Sole Brother" for his punk band. His lyric, full of shallow outrage at the black race pride he doesn’t understand, goes:
I’m at war with Negro mores.
Yet for all its shallowness – this is not his authentic voice, though he is scratching the surface of real issues here – his feelings of outsider-ness and his impulse to make art to understand his world are both genuine. He is struggling against collective labels and cultural expectations based solely on race. For him, black culture is reduced to football, fashion, slavery, and Roots. He knows he is so much more than this, but he can’t make good music/art yet because he doesn’t know who he is and so he can’t find his real voice. For much of the story, he will try on other people’s visions of who he is, but none of them will fit him. In Berlin, he will try on blackness as his primary identifier, but it will be the phoniest mask of all.
Back in Act I, the Youth and the "bad kids," Sherry and Terry, take some LSD after their garage band rehearsal and his consciousness-opening acid trip leads the Youth to make a decision: "Fuck this fishbowl. If we’re gonna deal with the real, we gotta tour Europe. Hendrix had to go there to get famous. America can’t handle freaky Negroes." While the other two are happy staying where they are, neither of them really musicians, the Youth leaves family, church, and community for an adventure in Europe where, historically, black American artists like James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and Jimi Hendrix, and many others have been more openly received.
Once in Amsterdam, the Youth connects himself back to these icons of blackness who fled to Europe, also perhaps to find their Real. The Youth and the Narrator sing, "King James Baldwin and Queen Josephine Baker! They blazed his trail when they stepped outta line… They owned Paris and Amsterdam’s gonna be mine!" One of the show’s most subtle commentaries on race is in the fact that once the Youth gets to Europe, all the characters in Amsterdam and Berlin are presumably white, but they are all played by black actors.
The Dutch hippies, his new friends, ask him if he plays jazz and the blues. He answers, "Do you live in a fuckin’ windmill? Do you wear clog shoes?" He thought he was escaping racial expectations and stereotypes, but here they are again, only moments after he arrives. He can’t just escape them; he must make peace with them.
But when he gets to Berlin, he finds he can use his race. The second act begins with the Youth encountering an East German border guard asking the Youth repeatedly for his "identity" when that’s exactly what the Youth has come here to find. He finds himself among a commune of anti-authoritarian, political-activist artists collectively called Nowhaus, their name presumably chosen to radiate some faux, unearned relevance. But the Youth has always been too self-involved to be political until now.
But the politics he tries on are, at least for him, the politics of self-destruction. He dons the stereotype of the African American, becoming what he thinks they want him to be. In one of those moments that transform Passing Strange from rock concert to postmodern musical theatre, the Narrator sings, "The Black One," positing the Youth as a "postmodern lawn jockey sculpture," in other words, the dominant white culture’s condescending perception of blackness. Desi suggests that the Youth is "dancing in a cage," in other words a circus animal performing for the mainstream culture. And as he sublimates his true self to this cartoon, he asks the Narrator, "Am I real now? Can I feel now?" because he now he’s not sure. This destructive contradiction at the heart of the Berlin episode is exploded in the lyric, "In L.A., he had two left feet, our Berlin Fred Astaire." The Youth even declares himself, "I’m Super Fly in the buttermilk," in other words, an extreme version of blackness in the midst of much whiteness.
To preserve his place in this commune, he takes on the persona of an artsy Black Panther. As Stew said on NPR, "He sees that he can play on being black. He can play on the same stereotypes that he was trying to avoid back home. He can actually play on those and manipulate them and use those stereotypes to his advantage in Europe." And while he asserts this new, aggressive but insincere blackness, he also comes up against Mr. Venus’ nihilistic philosophy that "What’s inside is just a lie." Or as the Nowhaus manifesto puts it, "What’s inside of each and every one of us here in this room, what we mistakenly call our thoughts, our feelings, and our dreams, have actually been put there by a system, therefore our minds have been invaded, conquered, and occupied. Hence: what’s inside is just a lie."
But for the Youth searching for his true self, this philosophy challenges everything he thought. Where he had to feel from the conformity and hypocrisy of his Mother and Edwina, the complacency of Sherry and Terry, the aimless hedonism of the Dutch hippies, now he must also escape from the nihilism of the Nowhausers. Being black is what earns him a spot in the commune, but as we already know, being black is not the Youth’s primary identity. He’s an artist. He’s a storyteller. And he doesn’t belong at Nowhaus. On Arlington Hill, Franklin suggests that they are "black folks passing for black folks." Here in Berlin, Desi accuses the Youth of "passing for ghetto." Both are true. The final phone conversation with his Mother tells him and us everything we need to know – he didn’t belong in Los Angeles, he didn’t belong in Amsterdam, and he doesn’t really belong in Berlin. The Youth tells his Mother that Berlin is "a place I can be myself," except that’s the biggest lie of all. As James Baldwin wrote in Giovanni’s Room, "Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom."
There’s hashish on the Menu!
Having had all his epiphanies so far under the influence of hallucinogens, another is on the way. As the Narrator tells the Youth, "Open up the floodgates, knock down all your fences. The Real is just around the corner; test drive your new senses." When the Youth arrives in Amsterdam, the Narrator tells us:
He knew his destiny was looming,
And the Youth exclaims, excitedly, "There’s hashish on the menu!" For centuries, humans have created or enhanced their religious experiences through hallucinogenic drugs. As the hippies in Hair describe it during the show’s drug trip scene:
My body is walking in space.
The hippies of the 1960s – the real hippies – believed that there were good drugs and bad drugs. Good drugs like marijuana, peyote, mushrooms, and LSD opened up your mind, expanded your consciousness. Bad drugs like alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and others shut down your brain. Drugs were not a path for escape but to enlightenment. In the Biblical era, the Jewish priests used extract of cannabis in their anointing oils to facilitate the religious experience. Likewise, in Passing Strange, drugs are mind openers. It’s while smoking pot with Franklin that the Youth first has his mind opened to the possibilities of the world. It’s while tripping on acid that the Youth realizes he has to go to Europe. And it’s through a haze of constant marijuana use that the Youth finds paradise in Amsterdam.
One element of that paradise is sexual freedom. Arguably, the drug use is not an end in and of itself; it’s the key that unlocks the door to self-awareness, artistic expression, and sexual freedom. Here he can start over with a new identity, that of the Serious Artist and Deep Thinker. His hippie girlfriend Marianna sings to the audience, breaking the Fourth Wall:
We just had sex.
Later in Berlin, Sudabey declares that corporatism is pornographic; here it’s the contemporary world itself that is. But not sex. Coming from sexually Puritanical America, this is a revelation for the Youth. And the hippies continue to talk to the audience, replying in advance to their assumed discomfort.
We realize that this might
Do we hear in this lyric Stew’s own impatience with America’s hang-ups or this only the voice of the Dutch?
Amsterdam seems like paradise, like the cultural home the Youth has been seeking. But life is never that simple. The narrator sings, "The pilgrim crossed both land and sea to find a cathedral home, then two girl Jesuses colored him Lazarus and rolled away the stone." These two lines are densely packed poetry. It sees the Youth’s sexual awakening as a religious experience, comparing the sexualization of the Youth to the miracles of Jesus Christ himself. But notice that the Youth is not the Christ figure here; the Dutch hippie girls are. And as the Christian Bible tells us (indirectly) people aren’t meant to live in paradise.
Just Ask the Song
As might be expected, coming from the mind of a lifelong musician, making music is one of the central themes of the show. As Stew says, "The essence of rock and roll, among so many other things, is revealed to [the Youth] after "Listening is waiting" is sung the first time. And the other time [that phrase] comes is before he realizes that he’s going to fill the void with music for the rest of his life. This boy, and all musicians, but especially those his age, listens to music as if it were an oracle speaking via vinyl. He listens to Hendrix and the Beatles not merely to nod his head and get high to it; he is waiting to receive wisdom. He is waiting for nothing less than a revelation from this music, for something real to go down, for a sound that will change his life. (We used to have a scene somewhere late in Act One where the Youth was listening to music on headphones and describing his journey into the music and what he got and expected from it.) The members of the congregation do the same thing with church and with the music of the church: they come every Sunday listening for... waiting for... a revelation."
Stew explains the enigmatic phrase "Listening is waiting" this way: "You’re in an expectant state that is ready to receive, conscious, alert, sensitive to what's happening around you and to what might happen or what is about to happen, like any good musician in the middle of a jam session." Arguably, the Youth will be listening and waiting for the rest of the show.
Having stumbled upon the power of music in church, later in the Arlington Hill scene in Act I, music takes on its central role in the Youth’s life. As the scene begins, Franklin invokes opera singer Maria Callas and her famous aria "Vissi d’arte" from the violent and tragic Tosca, in which she sings:
I live for art.
It’s a potent yet subliminal commentary on Franklin’s own life, but only for the people in the audience who know the opera. Franklin has the soul of an artist, despite his limited arena for artistic expression. But this is the first time the Youth meets someone who takes music – art – seriously. The Narrator describes the experience of smoking pot with Franklin, and it shows us how deeply, authentically musical Stew himself (and therefore the Youth) is:
Half the time he didn’t know what the fuck Mr. Franklin was talking about. But that was cool ‘cuz Franklin’s words would just wash over him like a Bach fugue creeping out of a cheap car stereo on the brother side of midnight. You know how when the music goes right over your head and straight into that part of you which is most beautiful? I mean when your mind can’t grasp the music’s math and your heartbeat has no clue, your pilgrim’s soul just follows the melody’s path, looks back and says, I wanna thank you brother… Thank you for this fugue. And it just is and is and is and is so much that whether you get it or not – it’s got.
In the next scene, the Youth, Sherry, and Terry try to form a punk band, even though none of them can play. But the Youth consoles them: "Look, it’s not about playing the notes . . . it’s about pure energy and relentless self-expression." This is an immature, selfish view of music, one that the older Stew can satirize while indirectly admitting that was once him.
About the third of the way through Act I, Stew offers up a throw-away joke, but one that implies bigger things. The Narrator sings:
At this point in the play, we were planning a
He sees show tunes as a white cultural language (since, for much of its history, the Broadway musical has not been racially inclusive), but that implies that musicals themselves are inherently part of white culture – even though we’re sitting through a Broadway musical written by a black man, starring an all-black cast, exploring a black American story. And in a further irony, in Act II, the song "The Black One" is very much an old-fashioned Broadway show tune, though one that is aggressively ironic and satirical in its take on racial identity, perhaps conjuring up for some audiences Spike Lee’s brilliant film Bamboozled, Lee’s racialized riff on Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
As the Youth moves through his adventure, he slowly becomes more and more an artist, inching slowly closer to discovering that his Real is honest artistic expression. He realizes that he’s different from the hippies in Amsterdam. But the Youth’s infatuation with Marianna finds no real spiritual purchase; as the original director Annie Dorsen says, "the Youth would rather write a song about loving the girl than actually love the girl." The Narrator tells us late in Act I, "Her keys weighed more than the axe in his hand when he tried to write a song he knew she wouldn’t understand." In Berlin, his broken German becomes an illustration of his central flaw – he mistakes the word lieder (song) for lieber (love).
He’s becoming more and more a serious artist, and that can be a lonely road. Amsterdam is a paradise to him in many ways, but it won’t get him any closer to the Real, and so he must move on. The hippie Marianna asks him, "Why you wanna leave, right when it was starting to feel real?" But it wasn’t Real to him. He didn’t find the Real in the hedonism of sex or drugs; the Real was waiting for him somewhere else…
As he leaves Amsterdam, the Narrator intones a kind of ritualized farewell:
O daisy chain of soulful days,
Just as the Narrator established "the song" as stand-in for all artistic expression in the opening, here he carries that further. "The song" is now in control. As the Narrator told us earlier, "He’s trying to write a song, but the song is writing him." The act of creating art changes him. He is reborn into a life as an artist by the end of the story and he has learned about himself along the way through the creation of his art. The Real is leading him right to it.
At the end of the show, the Narrator and Youth swap roles, the Narrator becoming the protagonist (as he really was all along) and the Youth taking on the role of the Wise Wizard figure. We realize as our story winds down that it’s the Narrator who must learn something before our tale is over. The Narrator must learn that though art doesn’t solve all our problems, doesn’t erase our sins, doesn’t legitimize our choices, it does offer us wisdom and insight, and maybe that’s enough. The last time the Mother enters, it’s the Youth who says, "Cue music" and it’s the Youth who guides the Mother toward the resolution the Narrator needs.
Now with the newfound knowledge that only his younger, freer self could see, the Narrator leaves us with a final thought:
‘Cuz the Real is a construct…
Now that his story is done, he reminds us of the central truth of the show: this is Stew’s Real, but the Real is different for each one of us. We each have an adventure to live and a story to tell. And though we can share our stories, each of us makes our way through our Hero’s adventure on our own. And to remind us that we each construct our individual lives, that life itself is “a construct,” we realize at the end of the show that we’ve just watched Stew/Youth go through that process before our eyes. We’ve watched him construct his own life journey, choice by choice. As Judith Newmark wrote in her review of the New Line Theatre production in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Authenticity is hard-won, and it can take a lifetime.”
And while it’s true that the Narrator – and the Youth and you and I – are each ultimately alone on our journeys, none of us is alone in the world of art. Stew’s characters and his songs live there with him. The journey he has taken may have been taken alone, his story about that journey may be partly about that aloneness, and the lessons he has picked up along the way may have been learned alone. But he’s not alone when he’s putting a musical onstage – music and theatre are by necessity the most collaborative of all the art forms. Writing can be a lonely business (though in musical theatre, there are almost always collaborators), but sharing the story with an audience isn’t. As the Narrator sings those final words, he is surrounded by the band, the actors, techies and stagehands, and the audience. The very act of sharing his story on this stage on this night means he’s not alone. As Sondheim taught us in Into the Woods, no one is alone.
But Stew is not one to reduce his show to one or two sentences. In his mind, it’s at least as much rock and roll as it is theatre. In his introduction to the published script, he writes, "So be you a casual reader or someone actually crazy enough to wanna put this thing up, do me a favor and melt this play before using. Heat it up, let it become liquid and then imbibe it, inhale it, ingest it, inject it, let it run through your veins, your brain. Get stoned on this play. We did."
Copyright 2011. Excerpt from Scott Miller’s upcoming, though untitled next book. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.