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Passing Strange

Passing Strange
Music Stew
Heidi Rodewald
Lyrics Stew
Book Stew
Productions 2006 Berkeley
2007 Off-Broadway
2008 Broadway
Awards Tony Award for Best Book

Passing Strange is a comedy-drama rock musical about a young African American's artistic journey of self-discovery in Europe, with strong elements of philosophical existentialism, metafictional and self-referential humor, and the Künstlerroman. The musical's lyrics and book are by Stew with music and orchestrations by Heidi Rodewald and Stew. It was created in collaboration with director Annie Dorsen.

The musical was developed at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in 2004 and 2005, one of the only works there ever to be invited back for a second round of development.[1] It had productions in Berkeley, California and Off-Broadway before opening on Broadway in 2008, garnering strong reviews and several awards. Spike Lee filmed the musical on Broadway in July 2008, premiering the film in 2009.


Stew had never written a play before Passing Strange. In an interview with Berkeley Rep, where the play premiered, he said he was initially inspired by reading about the Old Globe Theatre where Shakespeare productions were originally performed in front of rowdy audiences. A longtime rock musician and performer, he wanted to combine the energy of a rock show with the lively potential of a theater setting.[2] Stew stated that the title "Passing Strange" comes from Shakespeare's 1603 play Othello, the Moor of Venice. In the play, the title character utters the following lines:

My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore, in faith 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange ;
'Twas pitiful. 'twas wondrous pitiful,
She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd
That heaven had made her such a man.
Othello, the Moor of Venice, act 1, scene 3, lines 158–163

Stew commented that the quote reminds him of a rock musician who tries to attract a girl with his on-the-road stories. "Passing" also refers to the history of African Americans passing as white, as well as the passage of time.[3]

The plot itself involves an anonymous protagonist, called the Youth, who travels on a picaresque journey to find “the real,” complicated by his need to rebel against his mother and society, "passing" through place to place and from lover to lover. His experiences are shaped by his black, American, and middle-class identity. As a musician, he attempts to express his true self through a number of musical genres, including gospel, punk, blues, jazz, and rock; however, the musical itself is most prominently grounded in rock music.

The musical was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning one, for best book. It won three Drama Desk Awards, however, for outstanding musical, music and lyrics (out of seven nominations), among a number of other awards and nominations. The musical was also awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; the Audelco Award for Best Musical, as well as Best Director (Annie Dorsen), Best Musical Director (Rodewald), and Best Performance (Daniel Breaker); and an Obie Award for Best New Theatre Piece, as well as Outstanding Ensemble.

Production history

Passing Strange premiered on October 19, 2006, at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California.[4] It was then produced off-Broadway at The Public Theater in New York City, running from May 14, 2007, through June 3, 2007.[5] The musical began previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway on February 8, 2008, and officially opened on February 28, 2008, with the same cast that starred at the Public Theater.[6] After 165 performances, it closed on July 20, 2008.[7] Directed by Annie Dorsen, the musical was choreographed by Karole Armitage, with scenic design by David Korins, costume design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy and lighting design by Kevin Adams.[8]

The first regional production opened at The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. on July 18, 2010 with a revised script and ran through August. It did not include co-creator Stew as the Narrator, and the cast was expanded from seven to fourteen players.[9]

Plot summary

At the start of Act 1, the Narrator introduces himself as Stew ("Prologue"), openly referring to himself, Heidi, and the rest of the band, and occasionally interrupting the plot and interacting directly with the characters throughout the performance. The Narrator prefaces his story with the description of the initial setting: the home of the male, African-American protagonist, the Youth—whom the Narrator also sometimes calls the "hero" or the "pilgrim"—in a church-going, middle-class, late 1970s South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. The story of the Youth's spiritual journey to discover "the real" commences at his teenaged years, during which he has turned briefly to Zen Buddhism, going against his single mother's conservative Christian faith ("Baptist Fashion Show"). She urges him to find God and he begrudgingly attends her church ("Listening is Waiting"), but when he compares the church's gospel band to rock & roll during an epiphanic moment of joy, she slaps him ("Blues Revelation/Freight Train"); he realizes that the rush he experienced was not due to a religious experience as much as the power of music. This inspires him to become more and more interested in music, though he mostly now joins the church choir because of his attraction to its most popular girl member ("Edwina Williams"). There, he befriends the pastor's son and choir director, Franklin Jones, who as a marijuana-smoking closeted gay man turns the Youth on to drugs, New Negro culture, and the concepts of European autonomy and resistance ("Arlington Hill"). The Youth eventually develops an attachment to the guitar, deserts Franklin's choir, and forms a punk rock band with two other ex-choir members, Sherry and Terry ("Sole Brother"). During a bad LSD trip ("Must've Been High"), the Youth abandons his bandmates to their chosen life of middle-class materialism and starts saving money to travel to Europe where he hopes to work on truly developing as a musical artist, something of which his mother and community disapprove ("Mom Song").

The Youth and his mother argue about his travel plans in a satire of the overly dramatic styles of European experimental cinema (according to the Narrator's own description). The Youth's explanation to his mother of what he desires in journeying to Europe merge onstage into the actual journey itself ("Merci Beaucoup, M. Godard"). Now in promiscuous Amsterdam, with its easy access to drugs and sex ("Amsterdam"), the Youth experiences his first sense of acceptance when a young local, Marianna, invites him to live in her apartment without questioning his black identity ("Keys"). After squatting with Marianna and other free-spirited artists ("We Just Had Sex"), he finds he cannot write songs when he has nothing to complain about. Claiming paradise is a bore, he heads to Berlin, leaving behind Marianna, who tells him not to return ("Paradise").

Act 2 begins as the Youth arrives in politically chaotic West Berlin during a May Day riot ("May Day"), falling in with some of the protesters who are avant-garde performance artists ("Surface"). His integrity falters though when he misrepresents his identity as poor to be accepted by the revolutionary artists whom he now lives with, collectively called Nowhaus. Desi, his new girlfriend who is an activist, intellectual, and the Nowhaus leader, tells him that only love is real ("Damage"). In Berlin, though, he finds he can never bring himself to be honest about his background ("Identity"), though he relishes the romanticized African-American stereotype he has tried to fulfill among his radical German friends ("The Black One"). Desi finally expresses her feelings that the Youth is concealing aspects of his true personality ("Come Down Now"). Meanwhile, he feels irritated by his heartsick mother's phone calls and offhandedly promises that he will come home to visit her when he has time. With Christmas approaching, the other members of Nowhaus suddenly return to their homes and families, leaving the Youth to try to convince Desi to stay with him during the holiday season, though the two consequently fight over their differing views on love and she leaves him ("Youth's Unfinished Song"). The Narrator's self-reflections promptly enter into the story ("Work the Wound"), concluding with the unexpected scene of the Youth at his mother's funeral. With this surprisingly dramatic event, the tone of the play shifts from largely comedic to suddenly heavy-hearted. In the eulogy for his mother, the Youth explains that although he rushed back to Los Angeles when he heard his mother was dying, she died before he could see her. The Narrator and the Youth encounter each other directly and in a serious moment for the first time as the Youth copes with his grief; dealing with the loss of the same mother, it is clear now that the Narrator and Youth are representations of the same man but at two different ages ("Passing Phase"). The Youth, after declaring that only art can correct the mistake known as life, resurrects his mother's spirit through his art ("Is It Alright?"). Ultimately, however, only the Narrator remains onstage; he professes the need for something beyond the real and that this is love ("Love Like That").

Song list

In the staged performance, this song is heavily interspersed with or broken up by dialogue and/or spoken narration.
The two titles here enclosed within a single pair of quotation marks and separated by a slash refer to two songs that play in counterpoint.


All actors except those playing the Narrator, Youth, and Mother also play miscellaneous, nameless roles such as church-goers, family members, airplane stewardesses, etc. Major roles are emphasized in boldface.

Character Original Broadway Cast Description
The teller of the Youth's story through song and speech
Daniel Breaker
The young African-American protagonist from South Central Los Angeles
Eisa Davis
The Youth's single parent
Mr. Franklin Jones
Colman Domingo
The closeted gay son of Reverend Jones; church pianist and choir director
De'Adre Aziza
A "neo-hippie" from Amsterdam
Rebecca Naomi Jones
A Marxist revolutionary from West Berlin and leader of Nowhaus
Mr. Venus
Colman Domingo
A flamboyant protest artist from West Berlin
Edwina Williams
De'Adre Aziza
An attractive girl in the church choir; a "teenage goddess"
Reverend Jones
Chad Goodridge
The leader of Mother's church congregation
Sherry and Terry
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Chad Goodridge
The two other members of the Youth's punk rock trio
Renata Holiday
Rebecca Naomi Jones
A friend of Marianna's and an abstract artist
Chad Goodridge
A friend of Marianna's and a philosophy professor and sex worker
Colman Domingo
A friend of Marianna's and a naturist
De'Adre Aziza
A member of Nowhaus and an avant-garde filmmaker
Chad Goodridge
A member of Nowhaus and Desi's ex-boyfriend

Passing Strange: The Movie

Director Spike Lee made a permanent record of the Broadway production "for generations and generations to see" by filming the last three performances at the Belasco Theatre. His feature film had its world premiere on January 16 at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival[10] and opened at the IFC Center in New York City's West Village on August 21, 2009.

Critical reaction

Reviews on and off Broadway were positive. Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times: "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... Passing Strange is bursting at the seams with melodic songs, and it features a handful of theatrical performances to treasure... Call it a rock concert with a story to tell, trimmed with a lot of great jokes. Or call it a sprawling work of performance art, complete with angry rants and scary drag queens... I'll just call it wonderful, and a welcome anomaly on Broadway."[11] Hilton Als praised the storyline of the musical 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. ...Stew, who created Passing Strange, which is an autobiography of sorts, doesn’t distract us with exoticism or nostalgia; his story centers on a young black man who discovers his own Americanness while growing up, first, in Los Angeles and, later, in Europe. The Youth (Daniel Breaker) is a rock-and-roll Candide — a wanderer whose innocence is never entirely corrupted."[12]

Spike Lee's documentary of the play also received a positive review by A. O. Scott in The New York Times: "Here’s the strange thing. When I saw Spike Lee’s film adaptation, 'Passing Strange: The Movie,' in effect a video recording of a performance identical to the one I’d witnessed at the Belasco Theater in 2008, I was blown away. Loose ends ceased to dangle; soft spots were smoothed away and slow passages tightened up."[13] Laremy Legel of called the film “vibrant and compelling” noting that Lee’s decision to shoot it as a play was the right one: “Spike Lee, to his credit, realized the beauty of the musical was right there on stage – no further tinkering was needed. Spike used 14 cameras at once to capture the action like it's never been done before. Amazingly, you never see a camera you weren't meant to see. Intimate shots were gathered in gorgeous high-definition over the course of three shows and seamlessly edited together. It's a technological triumph as well as an artistic one."[14]

Awards and nominations

Original Broadway production

Year Award Ceremony Category Nominee Result
2008 Tony Award Best Musical Nominated
Best Book of a Musical Stew Won
Best Original Score Stew and Heidi Rodewald Nominated
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical Stew Nominated
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical Daniel Breaker Nominated
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical De'Adre Aziza Nominated
Best Orchestrations Stew and Heidi Rodewald Nominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Musical Won
Outstanding Book of a Musical Stew Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Musical Daniel Breaker Nominated
Outstanding Choreography Karole Armitage Nominated
Outstanding Lyrics Stew Won
Outstanding Music Stew and Heidi Rodewald Won
Outstanding Orchestrations Nominated

Passing Strange: The Movie

Year Award Ceremony Category Nominee Result
2010 Black Reel Award Best Documentary Nominated
Best Ensemble Nominated
Best Director Spike Lee Nominated
Best Original or Adapted Song "Keys" by Daniel Breaker and De'Adre Aziza Nominated


External links

  • Official web site
  • Internet off-Broadway Database
  • Internet Movie Database
  • , April 28, 2008, Retrieved 5-2-2008
  • , April 21, 2008, Retrieved 5-2-2008
  • , April 22, 2008, Retrieved 5-2-2008
  • , March 31, 2008, Retrieved 5-2-2008

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