PASSING STRANGE: Production History/ Location, Location, Location



Stew maps out Youth’s travels to find “The Real” through song. Explaining his personal experiences influencing Passing Strange, Stew says, “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,” (NPR, 2007). The journey of Stew is documented in his music: the church of suburban LA; the funky, psychedelic life of Amsterdam; and the militarized, radical world of Berlin.

Content courtesy of The Wilma Theater’s Passing Strange Education Guide.


In 1997, Stew formed a band, The Negro Problem. Heidi Rodewald joined the group in 1999 and became Stew’s frequent collaborator. Stew said in an interview with Spike Lee: “It started on a club stage in front of about 150 people playing songs. Public Theater, downtown New York, was interested. They thought it might be a play. I wasn’t sure if it would… but I knew it could be something.” After that, a piece following a young African-American traveling through Europe called Travelogue was work shopped first at Berkeley Repertory and later Sundance Theater Lab. Through those workshops, it became the Passing Strange we know today, opening Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2007 and at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in 2008. It ran for 165 performance and Stew won a Tony Award for Best Book. In 2008, Spike Lee made Passing Strange: The Movie, a documentary recording of the original production.

Lindsay Smiling, Savannah L. Jackson, Stew, Anthony Martinez-Briggs, and Kimberly S. Fairbanks at Opening Night of Passing Strange. Photo by Kristin Finger.

Passing Strange isn’t what you would call a standard Broadway musical; it’s a “rock musical.” In an NPR interview, Stew said: “The goal being to bring the actual music that one hears in a club to the stage — not through some kind of theatrical musical-theater filter. ‘Rock’ musical — that term ‘rock’ should really be in quotations, right? Because it’s not really rock music that anyone who likes rock music would actually listen to.”

In 2016, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote an article in The Washington Post likening Passing Strange to the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton. “Even eight years after its premiere, [Passing Strange] feels like a musical sent from
the future to challenge the expectations for what a black Broadway show might be like… It’s high time Hamilton-lovers and anyone else who cares about weird, smart, highly personal art rediscover Passing Strange.” Ten years after its Broadway premiere, the Wilma is ready to rediscover Passing Strange.


In the fall of 2014, Joanna Settle directed the Wilma’s production of Rapture, Blister, Burn. Joanna and Stew had collaborated on projects previously, so Stew was a natural choice to compose the original music for the production. Through Rapture, Blister, Burn, Wilma Artistic Director Blanka Zizka and Stew became collaborators. For the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, the Wilma produced Stew and Heidi’s piece Notes of a Native Song. Stew also translated and arranged the protest songs for the Wilma’s world premiere production of Adapt! in 2017. After years of collaborations, the Wilma is thrilled to produce the first major revival of Passing Strange.


Stew (Co-Creator)
Mark Stewart (born August 16, 1961) is an American singer-songwriter and playwright. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up heavily involved in the Baptist church. He briefly moved to New York in 1982 for the growing punk rock movement before heading to Europe. He lived in Amsterdam and Berlin for five years each before returning to LA in his late 20s. Nowadays, he is most often known by his stage name, Stew. Stew wrote the book and lyrics for Passing Strange. Stew also co-wrote the music with Heidi Rodewald and
starred in the original production as the Narrator. Between his personal and musical influences, the DNA of Passing Strange comes straight from Stew’s life.

“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…”
-Stew, NPR, 2008

Heidi Rodewald (Co-Composer and Bass Player)
Heidi Rodewald is a singer, composer, arranger, and music producer from Los Angeles, California. Heidi joined Stew’s band The Negro Problem as the bassist in 1999. After almost a decade of collaboration, Heidi and Stew cocomposed all of the music for Passing Strange.

“I’m a girl in a rock band — I never expected to be doing this.”
-Heidi Rodewald, NPR, 2008

Heidi and Stew have co-composed three other musicals together: Family Album (2013), a story of a middle-aged rock ‘n’ roller reflecting on the choices he’s made; Notes of a Native Song (2015), a musical homage to James Baldwin; and The Total Bent (2016), a story about a young musical prodigy coming of age in the music industry. Stew said to Fresh Air in 2008, “I know what this means to Heidi’s family, they’ve done theater…And the idea that Heidi is the one person in the family who decided to join punk rock bands rather than, you know, be an actress and now suddenly she’s the one on Broadway. It’s like a fairy tale. It’s too much.”


Content courtesy of The Wilma Theater’s Passing Strange Education Guide.


by Walter Bilderback

“My story being done, . . .
She swore, in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange.”
Othello, Act One, Scene 3

James Baldwin in Paris, 1949

Passing Strange is, first and foremost, a coming of age story. Although it shares some moments with Stew’s real life, it is not autobiographical. It’s a musical, but perhaps more accurately a “performance art musical,” if that’s a category. The story follows Youth, from his 1970s adolescence in a South Central LA that doesn’t conform to popular stereotypes, to young adulthood in Amsterdam and West Berlin. There are two central relationships for Youth: one with his mother and another, metatheatrical, one with the Narrator.

Passing Strange also tells a story of an America, which as Youth says, “can’t handle freaky Negros.” As it did for his historical forebears Josephine Baker, “King James Baldwin,” and Jimi Hendrix (plus numerous others), Europe offers Youth an opportunity to create his idiosyncratic art in a way that seems unavailable at home. In conversations with Stew, a theme that recurs is the stereotyping of Black experience. “I mean what would people say if I told them that The Partridge Family was probably the single biggest influence on me becoming a professional musician? That doesn’t fit the standard narrative but I’d like to mention it.”

In the standard narrative, I’d quote James Baldwin here. Although Baldwin is endlessly quotable I’ll go to “Brother Al Camus” instead for a couple observations. “With rebellion, awareness is born,” Camus wrote. Anticipating Youth’s punk rebellion, he also wrote, “I may not have been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t.”

But let’s quote Baldwin anyway, on his reasons for going to Paris (and then Istanbul). “Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But, again, I think I knew at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France.”

Like Othello’s story, Stew and Heidi’s play is “passing strange.” But it is also about “passing strange.” As the critic and producer Scott Miller notes, Youth is passing through the cities in the play. Miller adds: “But passing has so many other meanings. When it comes to African Americans, passing usually means being light-skinned enough to live as a white person, but here Stew turns that upside down when Franklin introduces the idea of ‘black folks passing for black folks’ – not just passing but passing strange – which then underlines certain moments throughout the rest of the show when the Youth does indeed ‘pass’ for being black. And this definition also suggests the show’s central theme of the masks that all these characters wear to hide from the world.”

Which raises another question: In what ways are each of us “passing strange?”