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."

For McCann, that "something" was Stew. "I thought he was a wonderful and original artist," she said, adding that she was especially impressed by his use of language. "There are phrases in the musical that stay in your head."

Like Feingold, McCann also sees relevant messages in "Passing Strange."

"Sure it's about your roots and going home. But I think the most compelling moment in the play is when the mother says to Stew, 'You went your own way and that's all right,'" she said. "None of us end up doing what our parents expect. That moment when your parents say it doesn't matter, everything turned out OK. That's the moment of ultimate acceptance of a parent to a child."

Such themes strike a chord with audience members. "I'm still processing it," said Brittany Ishibashi, a 27-year-old actress from West Hollywood, Calif., whose TV appearances include "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Office." "It's a beautifully framed family story. It's about how family is a strong support system."

The play resonates with all audiences, and is drawing a mixture of people of different races and backgrounds, McCann said.

Stew said fans have helped him to see the play in new ways. While mother-son and quest-for-self-identity themes were always apparent to him, Stew said the responses he's getting from older people, especially women, have shed a new light on things. "It's so humbling and heartening to have some lady who looks like your grandmother tell me that she did some of the same things," he said. "These older women are saying this is my story. I got out there. I did my own thing. I'm glad to see it onstage."

Another aspect that makes this coming-of-age rock musical, well, rock, is its fresh approach. "Our director tried to base a lot of the show on the strength that she knew Heidi and I had as rock musicians," Stew explained. "So instead of trying to turn what we do into a musical, she tried to turn the theater into what we do at our rock clubs."

Director Annie Dorsen did not stick to the script of a typical musical format. Instead, she left room for improvisation. "There are many places in the play where I can do whatever I want. It's completely different from night to night," Stew said. "There are monologues where I can say different things. There are song endings that I can make anywhere from one minute to five minutes. That keeps it fresh."

The result is a transformative experience. "The actors have become more like rock musicians, and the band has become more like actors," he said. "In reality, 'Passing Strange' is a rock show, and rock shows respond to the moment. They respond to the audience. They respond to how they feel that day."

Case in point: Last month, when cast members delivered an electrifying performance of two songs at The Village Voice's Obie Awards ceremony, several judges were among those roused out of their seats to dance along. "Kind of tells you something about the show's spirit and the infectious delight of its music," said Feingold, Obies' committee chairman. The rock-musical picked up two Obies.

Despite the hectic pace of life these days, Stew seems thrilled by his rock musical's success, particularly the Tony nods. Yet, in the midst of it all, he maintains his cool Californian demeanor and ironic sense of humor.

"This train we've been on is going so fast I don't have time to reflect," he said. "I'll be able to say for the rest of my life that I'm a Tony-nominated actor. That's crazy. What can I say after that? It's great to put on your job application."