As a singer-songwriter with rock, prog and punk roots, Stew (née Mark Stewart) has been on a fast track to widespread success. In any other situation, having recorded Entertainment Weekly‘s Album of the Year in both 2000 and 2002, or writing and performing a beloved song for “SpongeBob SquarePants” would be career highs. But Stew has since become a Tony Award-winning playwright, thanks to his cabaret-influenced musical “Passing Strange.” Originally developed (with his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald) through the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab and the Public Theater, the show is an autobiographical journey about a young black musician from a middle-class L.A. neighborhood who learns about art, love, sex, drugs and himself in late ’70s Amsterdam and Berlin.
Witty, incredibly moving, and inventively all over the map in its musical influences (a little gospel here, a little kraut rock there), the show was a monster hit, and attracted the attention of filmmaker and fan Spike Lee. Documenting two of the last summer 2008 performances, as well as a dress rehearsal, Lee’s “Passing Strange” brings Stew’s story and music to the big screen, as well as the little one: as just announced, the movie will kick off the new video-on-demand service “Sundance Selects.” I sat down with Stew and Spike Lee to talk about the transition from stage to screen, speaking to one’s younger self, and Spike’s peculiar practice before he became famous.
Before we even get to the film, I’d like to ask you, Stew, about the creative process in translating your story and music into your first musical.
Stew: Our director, Annie Dorsen, had one credo when working with Heidi [Rodewald] and I. She wanted us to stay as true to our roots as rock musicians as possible, instead of us trying to pretend we were Stephen Sondheim. She wanted to know what it was like for a rock band to make a piece of theater. She never tried to hand me books like “Playwriting 101,” or whatever. She really got out of the way, tried to theatricalize what we were doing naturally, and I think that was the genius of her directing. Sometimes directing is not, as Spike knows, telling somebody what to do. It’s letting someone do something, and framing it. She let us go crazy.
With those minimalistic sets and complex staging, it seems like it must’ve been logistically challenging to film this particular play.
Spike Lee: It wasn’t difficult compared to what they’d done already. Many creative people — Annie, Stew, Heidi, the band and the cast — had done a monumental piece of work. The way I looked at it, I had the easy job. I just had to not get in the way. We had 15 cameras and did three shows, so there were a lot of decisions [in both shooting and editing].
Did you have a game plan going into the project?
Spike Lee: Don’t fuck it up. That was really the motto. My nightmare was they’d say, “I saw it at the Public, I saw it on Broadway, but that shit Spike did was fucked up!”
There’s a potent line in the play: “Life’s a mistake that only art can correct.” Do you believe that, and if so, is there anything else besides art that can?
Stew: All artists inherently think that because that’s why they make art. If life was perfect, we wouldn’t bother making things. We would just luxuriate and enjoy things. There’s a need to add to this world. I was talking in an earlier interview today about religion. It’s the same thing. We need other things besides the status quo. Some people look to politics, some to religion, some to art. Some to all three. But we need something more. That’s something we live by without even thinking about it.
As a story of finding one’s identity, “Passing Strange” is largely about discovering this concept of “the real.” What is that to you these days? Is it something you think you’ve found?
Stew: Yeah, sure. It’s always a struggle because I still believe strongly in art as a motivation. But I also know that the time I spend with my daughter is beyond words. It’s completely necessary for me. It’s the reason I live in Berlin. A lot of people think I live there because it’s hip or a cool place for artists, and it’s cheap to live. It’s all those things, but I live in Berlin because of my daughter. I live four blocks away from her and my ex. We all have a great relationship, and for me, that’s very real.
When you’re a kid, you’re thinking “the real” is just doing your own thing, whatever that might be. When you get older, you start to realize “the real” is a whole bunch of things. It can be the experience of hanging out with family, being in the church of your choice, being in [any] place where you feel like you’re at harmony with life. When you’re younger, you have that hunger for newness, for individuality. I was talking to one critic, and he totally misunderstood. He thought “the real” was a specific thing you could put on the table. I was like, “No, man, this is a 20-year-old dude who’s just hungry for life.” One minute, he thinks that sex with this girl is “the real,” and the next minute, he thinks it’s making a performance art piece. It’s a carrot dangling in front of the horse’s nose. What is it? Maybe closer to the end of your life, you realize it’s love. It’s a child of ours, a wife or a boyfriend. To me, art and love are very much connected. That’s how I commune through the world, is through art. It’s a loving act for me.
Spike Lee: Would you say it’s love/hate?
Stew: Yeah. [laughs]