Alt-Rock Musical Plays Favorite to Tonys

It's a long way from the small clubs where alt-rock musician Stew was a cult favorite to the Great White Way of Broadway, where he is now the unconventional favorite to win a Tony Award on Sunday for his musical "Passing Strange."

"None of this has registered yet," Stew, the mono-named singer-songwriter and new playwright told "I still do not call myself the Broadway star of a hit show. I can't wear that badge yet. A couple of years ago, I was a club rat and saloon singer playing small clubs for my small but adoring little cult following."

A provocative musical with an all-black cast that evolved from an avant rock 'n' roll club into a critically acclaimed off-Broadway musical, "Passing Strange" opened on Broadway in February. Since then, the show has boasted media darling status, receiving stellar reviews in leading publications and unfettered praise from numerous celebrities.

When cast members performed on "The View" last month, Whoopi Goldberg gushed that it was her favorite musical and a must-see, while in her May 4 blog, Rosie O'Donnell dubbed it the "best show" she had "seen in years and years."

Stew, the show's 46-year-old co-creator, is still getting used to the idea that his offbeat alt-rock musical is even playing on Broadway, let alone up for seven Tony nominations, including best musical. Stew is up for four awards — two of which he shares with collaborator Heidi Rodewald — in the categories of book, acting, score and orchestrations.

The idea for "Passing Strange" came about after a performance at a club. In 2003, Stew and Rodewald were performing at Joe's Pub in New York City with their self-described "afro baroque" cabaret ensemble, also called Stew. (The duo's other claim to fame is The Negro Problem, a pop-rock combo they formed around a decade ago.) Bill Bragin, who ran Joe's Pub at the time, asked them if they had ever considered theater? The rest, as they say, is history.

Aptly described as rock 'n' roll concert meets Broadway musical, "Passing Strange" tells the story of a young black rocker searching for self and something "real." The play's younger Stew, played by Daniel Breaker, is up for a Tony, and his character goes on a quest from his middle-class home in South Central Los Angeles in the mid-1970s to the sexually freewheeling Amsterdam and anarchistic Berlin of the 1980s.

"It's a surprise to me that a play this weird is being accepted so broadly," said Stew about the musical based loosely on his life.

But Village Voice chief theater critic Michael Feingold doesn't see anything strange about the play's broad appeal. "Both 'Passing Strange' and 'In the Heights' — musicals from off-Broadway that don't seem to be in a 'Broadway' idiom — tell stories that are ageless and central to the culture," he wrote in an e-mail to "[They're] simply being told in a new way with ethnic groups at their core. So, of course, we identify with them."

"In the Heights," a musical with rap, hip-hop and salsa created by Broadway newbie Lin-Manuel Miranda, has 13 Tony nominations and is the other unconventional favorite for Sunday night's Tonys, which will be televised on CBS.

Initially, Stew was skeptical about his play making the leap from off-Broadway to Broadway. He credits Liz McCann, the show's lead producer, for her vision. "She said, 'I'm putting this play on,'" Stew recalled. "And I said, 'Great.' In my head I'm thinking, 'How?' She saw something in the play that I didn't."

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