Talking With…Spike Lee’s Broadway Musical Partner Stew

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Q: Spike Lee is known for his stylish visuals, so it’s interesting that he chose to make a straightforward filmed version of the play. Were there any discussions about taking a more cinematic approach or did you want to preserve the theatrical experience?
Stew:
I think the movie accomplishes both things—it gives you the flavor of the theater piece, but Spike shot it in a cinematic way. It’s not a dry documentary. Spike wanted to stay true to the sweat and great and rock ‘n’ roll aspect of it. People always ask me “Were you worried about how it might translate?” and I wasn’t worried for a single second. Why would I be worried? Spike Lee is making a film out of my musical! [Laughs]

Q: Has Spike ever told you what attracted him to Passing Strange in the first place?
Stew:
One thing that we both like about it is that it tells a story that is specific yet universal. I think he also likes the fact that we have an obsession with the idea that black culture is not monolithic. Ultimately though, it’s the story of the artist and that’s what Spike gravitated towards. Also he’s a music guy—it’s weird he ended up a filmmaker and not a musician. His films are very musical.

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Q: How involved were you behind-the-scenes during the film’s production? Were you allowed into the editing room, for example?
Stew:
Spike and Barry were extremely generous. They invited Heidi and I into the editing room for almost a week. That’s unprecedented. Denzel doesn’t get into the editing room! They wanted to tell the story and they knew nobody knew it better than us. You know, we went into this thinking the only filmed record of the play we could hope for would be a one-camera videotape in the back row of the theater. So for it to end like this is great, because what artists want more than money is to last. We can all go to bed tonight knowing that 100 years from now, some geeky kid who wants to know what was going on in 2008 can watch this film.

Q: It sounds like you’re ready to let go of Passing Strange after living with for a long time.
Stew:
Totally. That’s why it’s so weird when people start talking about whether we’d want to do it again. I feel like it would only be for money.

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Q: Would you be open to reviving the play with someone else playing the lead beside yourself?

Stew:
I would so love that. Heidi and I know a handful of amazing rock singers who could do this, like Corey Glover from Living Color. But the theater people don’t know them because they don’t know any rock singers. They think I’m special. In order to make this happen, she and I are going to have to make a video with Corey and show him kicking ass on one of these songs for them to understand it.

Heidi: I think what’s great about the movie is that Spike actually captured us living through this thing. So now that its done it would be nice to see other people do it. Of course it would be different—there’s no way it could be the same.

Stew: Yeah, there would be a different relationship between the audience and the narrator, but I think that’s where the power of the performer comes in. I believe a good rock singer can make you believe anything the same way a good actor can. You could cast it so that the narrator and the kid look a little more like each other. Or have a woman be the narrator.

Heidi: As long as people are doing it in their own way and not just doing you.

Q: Passing Strange begins when you’re a teenager and ends when you’re in your early 20s. Is there material from your adult life that you think could be the basis for a new musical?
Stew:
It would take awhile. I’d have to be an older man to really write about it. But Heidi and I have often talked about doing a play or film about what it’s really like to be in a rock band. Not the 22-year-old kid with a hit record, but what its like to be 35 and the question about whether you’re going to make it or not really comes in. I’ve never seen that onscreen, you know, when the drummer has a wife whose not happy with the music and the guitarist has a habit and the other guy has a really good computer job with health insurance. I feel lucky to be us in this business, because we’re not writers trying to invent cool stories. We just know our lives and the people we’ve observed and are lucky enough to be in the position to tell their stories. But it’s not like I can make anything up—I can only invent songs, not stories.

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Q: Do any of the real people you base your characters on ever get angry with you about your portrayal of them?

Stew:
Luckily, all of the characters are composites. I still have some real names; I use my mom’s real name even thought the mother in the play isn’t in any way shape or form like my mom. There’s a great Bob Dylan story from the ’60s when he started writing love songs. There would be six women in Greenwich Village going “That song is about me because I wore a green shirt.” But then another girl would be like “You know where he mentions the snaggle tooth Cheshire Cat? That’s me, I’m the one with the cat.” But those songs were composites; he wasn’t writing about one woman. That’s the beauty of the composite—you never get totally in trouble. Nobody can show you the song and say “I’m gong to kick your ass because all of these things correspond to me!” [Laughs]

Q: What do you hope viewers take away from the film version of Passing Strange?
Stew:
I would like people to say, “I want more.” I want the Asian American Passing Strange. I want the girl version of Passing Strange. I want the gay Hispanic Passing Strange. I want stories that actually exist to be told. Not just the same out boy meets girl bullshit.

Heidi: Also it’s nice for people to walk away thinking, “Anything I’m doing I should just do it, because these kind of things just happen.” We didn’t plan to get to Broadway. We stuck to what we were doing.

Stew: It’s pretty dorky and sentimental but I get a lot of emails from young people going “This makes me feel like doing what I want to do now” and older people going “Maybe I should have finished that novel.” It’s pushing buttons and I’m grateful. Sometimes on Broadway I’d walk into the lobby after the show and people would start telling me all this personal stuff about their lives. And I’m standing there on 46th Street thinking, “I just finished a two-and-a-half hour show. What I really need is a beer and steak right now!” [Laughs]

Passing Strange opens in limited theatrical release on Friday and will be available via Sundance Channel’s new on-demand service starting August 26th.

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