My director's notes for the program...still under construction...
Passing Strange deserves a place beside other great autobiographical works of art, like Federico Fellini’s 8½ , 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 and metaphor, but unlike the others, this story is built not on images, but almost exclusively on music – rock, punk, acid rock, funk, gospel, R&B, Latin, and a little Kurt Weill and Burt Bacharach thrown in too. Here, the visuals are as minimalist as possible to make way for the rich, rowdy music and lyrics.
Constructed on the classic Hero Myth, the script calls the story’s hero just “Youth,” not “the Youth,” as if he’s standing in not only for the writer as a young man, but also for that whole period of life between childhood and adulthood, when choices are made and life’s puzzles are teased out. Late in the show the narrator says, “You know, it’s weird when you wake up that morning and realize that your entire adult life was based on a decision made by a teenager. A stoned teenager.” Like Pippin, the story of Passing Strange is episodic, exploring religion, politics, hedonism, and domesticity, but unlike Prince Pippin, this Youth finds what he’s looking for – or at the very least, he finds the road toward his destination.
Writer-composer Stew (née Mark Stewart) told NPR, “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. 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 puts it, “I illuminate with fiction the darkness truth cannot explain.”
This is a memory play, like The Glass Menagerie or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, so these characters exist only in Stew’s memory, fictionalized both by the years and by intention. Some may see the show as a “black musical,” but race is only one of its topics. The African American Stew created the show with a white co-composer, white director, all white designers, and his all-white band (aside from him), The Negro Problem.
Stew tells us that the Youth’s journey is about finding The Real, but he doesn’t explicitly define it for us. He only tells us that “The Real is a construct.” Well, 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 our own ideology, personal history, and social circumstances. And when we realize that The Real is a construct for each one of us, that necessarily means that your Real will always be different from my Real, because each of us is coming from a different place and heading toward a different destination.
We each have our own Real to find, our own Tao. Passing Strange is Stew’s Real and tonight he shares it with us.
And it’s alright… cue music…
Long Live the Musical!