Listening is waiting.
We hear these words early in Passing Strange in the church scene. As a female voice sings the hypnotic melody, the narrator speaks over it, "The whole congregation was listening and waiting to be released from its collective frowns. Even the bad kids in the back pew were wondering, Is something real gonna go down?"
As we ran this scene tonight at rehearsal, I stopped the scene and asked what that means -- Listening is waiting. Active (listening, as opposed to hearing) is passive (waiting). Which led to a really fun conversation about all the various things it could mean. But I quickly came to understand that we couldn't just assign our favorite interpretation to the phrase. It seems central to the core of the show. Stew used those words intentionally. It means something. This musical moment leads directly to the first big incident of the show, as our hero, the Youth, has his first religious experience -- only to be slapped and scolded by his mother for his inappropriate revelation. This struggle with organized religion is the first step on the Youth's hero myth journey.
"Listening is waiting" returns again late in the show, just before the Youth leaves his girlfriend Desi in Berlin. This time, as the female voice sings the phrase, Desi says to the Youth, "You came here to be real . . . but you're not. How can I love you if I don't even know you? Let me see your pain. Let me know the geography of your Hell." (She's German.) As the song segues into a new section, she makes him a commitment as she sings, "So come down now. Remove your mask. See, all you gotta do is ask me; I'll give you all the love life allows. All you gotta do is ask me, all you gotta do is ask me..." And then he leaves her. This is the last step on the Youth's hero journey before he finds that which he is in search of.
So what does the phrase mean? Listening is waiting. Both scenes seem to me to present a moment where the Youth has a choice. He can either be the person others tell him to be and live the life others tell him to live, or he can take his own journey and find his own answers. He can live safely and uneventfully in his "big, two-story, black, middle-class" house in L.A., or in the hippie family in Amsterdam, or the artists' commune in Berlin, his choices made for him either by others or by convention. Or he can find his own way, his own path. He will take missteps but they will teach him. He will lose people but gain wisdom.
He can listen to his culture and community, but that means not going on -- or at least postponing -- his hero's adventure. Likewise, Luke Skywalker can listen to his aunt and uncle and stay to work the farm on Tatooine, but then he can't leave with Ben Kenobi and discover his true nature. Listening is waiting. And waiting is passive. It is Not Doing.
The point of the Hero's Adventure is to gain true enlightenment, or as the Youth calls it, The Real. He thinks he finds The Real in all three cities, but in all three cases, he finds that it's someone else's truth, not his own. What he finds ultimately is that he is an artist, the tribe shaman, and only through artistic expression can he discover his true Jedi nature. 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. The narrator is the Obi Wan to the Youth's Luke, the wise wizard figure, Glinda, Merlin, Tony's psychiatrist on The Sopranos... Within this piece of art, Stew has become his own wise wizard figure.
For Stew, The Real is found ultimately 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 told 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." Yeah, exactly.
It makes me think about Sunday in the Park with George, and the brilliant song, "Move On," when Dot sings to the artist George, "Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see." Likewise, 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 many stories, love conquers all. Here it's art that does it. Listening is waiting. Making art is acting.
Still thinking about this...
Long Live the Musical!