I had wanted to see Passing Strange since it's original Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, but I was lazy and never got around to it. I had heard amazing things: the music was rock (not so show-tuney), exciting and catchy; the show narratively worked in a non-traditional way -- in a style I would, upon now having seen it, call a hybrid of the traditional musical and what John Cameron Mitchell did with the stage version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, i.e., a rock concert that tells rather than shows; and that it was a fascinating and original coming-of-age story. The show had a virtually sold-out run at The Public and earned its transfer to the big (and pricey) leagues. Of course, all of these positive elements also meant that a successful Broadway run could be difficult, and it doesn't make it the most tourist-from-middle-America-who-wants-to-see-The Little Mermaid-Mamma Mia-or-Phantom of the Opera-friendly performance. I'm certain there are people who won't like it; can't get it; will find it too loud. But you know what? They're wrong. (Yeah, I said it.)
Wrong or not, though, they're influence is mighty, and the show never made enough money post-transfer to keep it alive long-term. More Tony wins would have helped, and as I have yet to see In the Heights, I'm hesitant to say the wrong show won. What little I know about In the Heights, however, makes me believe that -- Washington Heights Latino-centric aside -- it's a more accessible show. And as a final caveat, I have to say that Passing Strange spoke to me personally in a way few plays or musicals have ever done. While most certainly was not an African-American teenager growing-up in a middle-class household in South Central, nor did I escape to Europe to find myself and search for muses for my music, the general themes and story of Stew's show are ones I relate to heavily. The idea of being able to examine your post-adolescence and the time when you were free to do anything and make mistakes -- some stupid, some unexpectedly helpful -- is one which weighs on me too often these days. (There's one line in the show when Stew as narrator says, "What do you do when you wake up and your whole life has been based on the decision of a teenager – a stoned teenager?" And all you want to do is slap that teenager, that 20 or 25 year-old (stoned or not) into submission and say, "Look at what you're really doing. What is really important." But you can't. And reflecting is OK, but regretting not-so-much.
Passing Strange is one of the best coming-of-age stories I've ever seen or experienced in any medium. Again, maybe that's in large part because of how much I related to it, but no matter. Stew and his collaborators have imaginatively presented us with this story of a young man (only called "Youth") who felt so out of place and pressured by his family and community that he yearned to escape. When he's introduced to music and art and culture -- and pot -- by his choir teacher, he's determined to get away, to Amsterdam which said teacher has painted as the castle on top of the hill. But his teacher has always been too afraid to venture out of the community himself. Our hero won't make that same mistake, making his way to Amsterdam and happening upon a group of people who accept him without condition -- his new family, his new place, his new and comfortable identity (even if much, or all, of it is just another newer mask). The song "Keys" is one that has been heavily used to promote the show. Every interview I had heard with Stew played this song. It's the number they performed on the Tony telecast. And as energetic and fun as I had always found it, it never had the kind of impact produced by seeing it -- and maybe as importantly, experiencing it live in person in the theater -- in context and within the frame of the rest of the show.
For one thing, that's really only part of the number; it's been condensed. The lead-up and other internal parts are more extensive and emotional and moving and illuminating. It is the perfect combination of words and music and dancing and acting expressing the fulfillment of all the longing this character has felt his entire life. And yet, one of the things that makes this show so brilliant and so satisfying is how it shows that even once he attains his "paradise," he can't be happy there. His music is suffering. He needs angst. He leaves for Berlin. The whole time, he's trying to figure out how to be himself, and yet in Berlin, he finds that he's only successful when he becomes what everyone else wants him to be: the "Ghetto Warrior." He sings in one of my favorite lines from the show, "I want my pain to fuck my ego and call the bastard art." (I relate!) He is a black man finding himself trying to pass as ... black ... all the while running away from, as his mother repeats to him throughout the show, "his people."
It's been reported all over the place that Spike Lee plans to shoot two performances this Saturday (as well as two full run-throughs without an audience present) in order to create a filmed version of the theatrical performance. I absolutely applaud Lee for making a record of this phenomenal theatrical performance, and I encourage people to see the end result. But I also know that the full impact of Passing Strange (at least in this theatrical form) will not be felt on screen. The energy of the performance is infectious and can only be felt in the theater. The asides and speeches Stew makes directly to the audience can't feel as intimate or friendly no matter how well he stares into the center of the camera lens. Theater and film are vastly different media, way more so than most people recognize, and no matter how great a job Lee potentially does, it is impossible for him to transfer and translate the in-theater experience.
That's why I encourage and implore people to go see this show. It closes on Sunday. I believe it has five performance left including tonight, with Lee taping both Saturday shows. Seeing it now won't help it stay open, but it will enrich your life in the way great theater should and can. There's plenty of crap on Broadway. There's plenty of crap Off-Broadway. There's plenty of crap Off-Off-Broadway. Passing Strange flies high above all of it. My attempt to find seats through TKTS yesterday didn't pan out, and I wound up buying a full-price ticket. Aside from how ridiculously expensive and generally not worth it Broadway tickets are, with all the regrets I may struggle with in my life, paying $115 to see Passing Strange will never be one of them.