Saturday, July 5, 2008

Don't pass me by

Since Passing Strange opened on Broadway, a lot of the press has focused on insisting that it's totally not a "Broadway musical." As if there were some set of characteristics common to all "Broadway musicals" besides the fact that they're performed in a small number of designated theatres in midtown New York, and only Passing Strange has ever broken the mold. It's a hacky approach, one that rings false to anyone who has seen more than a few musicals on Broadway, and the more I read about how completely different this show is (in articles where I could practically see the authors and/or persons being interviewed wrinkling their noses in disgust at the phrase "Broadway musical"), the less I wanted to see it for myself. This is a shame, because there is quite a lot that's fresh, bracingly so, about Passing Strange's approach to telling a story through song. Instead of insisting that it has nothing to do with "Broadway musicals," I think it might be more interesting, and certainly more fruitful, identify the new ground it's breaking by first considering the preexisting foundations it's built on.

How do you come up with a Broadway show as unique and exciting as Passing Strange? Start with a base of Stop the World: I Want to Get Off (with a dash of The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd for a thicker consistency). Throw in a touch of Candide, to give it shape and lightness. Mix with some Hair-style rock-musical flavoring. Add a generous scoop of Jelly's Last Jam for texture and color. Season with a few handfuls of Cabaret.

Those are some of the shows that came to my mind as I watched Passing Strange -- maybe some others occurred to you. I'm not trying to say Passing Strange is derivative -- the way it engages and builds on those models is enormously creative, and I was consistently impressed by how effectively it used all the available tools. It's insightful, thought-provoking, rewarding, and very novel. And yes, miles ahead of much that has opened on Broadway lately in terms of intelligence and invention. But to claim Passing Strange is "not a Broadway musical" is to miss out on a huge part of its achievement and its appeal. And whatever they might tell the press about their discomfort with the Broadway scene, Stew and Heidi Rodewald are certainly aware of their debt to the form, and they acknowledge it during the show with cheeky references to My Fair Lady and Cabaret (and maybe others I'm forgetting?). So let's just dispense with all the "This is so not a Broadway musical!" nonsense.

Stew et al. want Passing Strange to feel like a rock show -- no curtain, no follow spot, no pretense that the performers don't know the audience is there. At first I wondered whether I'd be able to get into the characters and the story, since the presentation goes beyond metatheatrical into flatly atheatrical. But once the show gets started, theatrical principles are set into place, firmly but never rigidly, and the relationship between Narrator, musicians and actors becomes a compelling, ever-evolving aspect of the story. These guys know what they're doing.

The rock-show approach does have one major drawback -- rock acts don't play the Belasco very often, and the sound system isn't well suited to this approach. Depending on where you sit, one or another of the mics on stage will be disproportionately loud; my rear orchestra seat was near a speaker fed by Heidi Rodewald's mic, and every time she piped up, I felt like one of the women behind me was singing in my ear. More damaging was the fact that I couldn't make out a lot of the lyrics. The ones I caught were so good I found myself straining to hear more, but a lot got lost in the noise, and I'm sure if I read the libretto now I'd find a number of surprises.

I liked the music, and I think I'd like it better on a second visit. The pace is brisk, for the most part, but there are repetitive stretches that go on a bit too long ("Keys" is a pivotal moment in the story, but as a song it wears out its welcome long before the final verse). And the second act has an uncertain stride, with strong emotional peaks spaced at odd intervals; it drags its heels, then suddenly accelerates downhill to a slightly abrupt ending. I went from checking my watch, to weeping, to checking my watch again more than once. (I'm seldom sorry to see the end of a rock show, so I guess that's authentic.) The cast is terrific, especially Daniel Breaker as the central character, "Youth." Once he takes the stage, you'd be foolish to take your eyes off him, because his physical presence communicates more than the lyrics do, even when you can understand them. Without Breaker, Passing Strange's story of growth and artistic development would be far less compelling. When I saw the show, a few nights before the Tony Awards, I left thinking, "He'll win the Featured Actor Tony for sure -- how could any voter see this show and not vote for him?" He didn't win, as it turns out, but that's not hard to explain: a lot of those voters didn't see the show. But do yourself a favor and see him onstage; "The Black One" alone is worth the price of admission.

You might call Passing Strange a "song cycle," if you were feeling academic. It's not divided into distinct "numbers," at least not as the audience experiences it; one song flows into another, hewing to a structure that feels loose and impromptu but is actually quite solid. For that reason, it flops in excerpted form; the number performed on the Tonys made little impression on most people I've heard from (and on me). It depends on the presence of the audience, even more than the average currently running musical; you can't get a real feel for how Passing Strange works unless you are a part of that audience. And I think you should be, at least once. Not because it's nothing like a Broadway musical, but because it's an important entry into the Broadway musical canon.

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