Preserving Strange

Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

That's the artist Stew, performing live on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic a few years ago. No one in the studio that day probably thought that that song, Arlington Hill, would wind up on Broadway a few years later, but it did, as part of the score to Passing Strange, arguably the best new American musical of the past decade.

This week, Los Angeles theatergoers can finally experience Passing Strange in the city where much of its story takes place — albeit not live on stage. Spike Lee filmed the last performance of Passing Strange on Broadway, capturing much of the raw energy and emotion that was on stage at the Belasco Theatre during its four month run.

I caught up with Stew and his collaborator, Heidi Rodewald, earlier this week in New York, where they were performing some riffs on Broadway standards at Lincoln Center and watching Passing Strange premiere as the latest Spike Lee joint.

The question I wanted to ask them was: how is it that LA has passed, so far, on Passing Strange?

STEW: We have gotten offers to do Passing Strange from all over the country. I have noooooo idea why theater people in LA aren't giving us any love? I credit New York with my career, but my artistry, Heidi's artistry, it's completely Los Angeles based.

Stew and Heidi feel strongly that the Passing Strange can continue to be revived even without them performing in the show. I think they're right, it's that strong of a piece, but my hope remains that somehow they will appear with it on an L.A. stage.

Until then, Angelinos should definitely experience Spike Lee's filmed version of this portrait of the artist as young indie-rocker. Lee has done a fine job of not only recreating the live experience, but in many ways, he brings certain emotions and dynamics of Passing Strange into clearer focus. Some of this is due to the complexity of the material—on stage, it's a lot to take in on a first viewing—some it is to due to Lee's strength as a filmmaker, but most of the film's clarity comes from the ensemble cast. Usually in taped productions, what looks great from 10 or 20 rows back, looks over-the-top in close-up. Not so in the filmed Passing Strange, the performances of Daniel Breaker, Coleman Domingo, Rebecca Jones and the whole cast (including Stew himself) feel as natural and unforced as they did when I saw the show in its intimate Off-Broadway space and in the big baroque Belasco.

Whatever happens in the future, this film preserves the sights and sounds of Stew and the original cast. It may not be live; but watching it on screen, Passing Strange still manages to feel real.

The final Broadway performance of Passing Strange, as filmed by Spike Lee, debuts this week as part of IFC in Theaters, which can be seen here in Los Angeles on Time Warner Cable channel 1000.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Stew, Heidi Rodewald and Spike Lee