Several years ago, if you would have asked me what my favorite musical was, I would have said, “I don't know; there are so many I like!” And I would have named musicals as diverse as Jesus Christ Superstar and Pacific Overtures. But recently, one musical has risen to the top and shows no sign of slipping from number one: Passing Strange.
In it an older, black rocker sings about his younger days in LA, Amsterdam, and Berlin as he tries to find “the real” in his music. The older rocker is played by one of the show's writers, Stew, while other cast members portray a younger Stew and the people he met.
It's a very weird show, like no other Broadway musical. Here are five ways Passing Strange bent storytelling conventions and why it works anyway.
What is this thing anyway?
It's a musical! It's a rock concert! It's a performance art piece! Usually it doesn't work well when a show doesn't know what it is, but Passing Strange turns this into an advantage; the main character is a rocker who dabbles in performance art, so the structure of the whole piece reflects his interests. And it works great. The show has all the energy of a rock concert, the weirdness of performance art, and, yes, it just happens to follow musical theatrical conventions as well.
Three separate stories, inseparable.
Most of the actors portray at least three different characters: those in LA, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Once young Stew leaves a city, those characters are gone, never to return to the stage. So how does this show still feel cohesive? Because characters portrayed by the same actor complete each others arcs through the show. For example – the unobtainable girl young Stew lusts after in LA becomes the mellow stoner he shacks up with in Amsterdam. When he breaks her heart and moves to Berlin, she becomes a damaged, radical misandrist. These three girls with one character arc are all portrayed by the same actress, further connecting them.
Real rock, real storytelling.
Rock music rarely shows a character changing. Sure, rock can tell a story about what happened to the singer in the past or portray raw emotion, but the minute there's character development, it starts sounding like musical theatre. Most rock musicals compromise by sacrificing either story or sonic authenticity, but Passing Strange does neither; it uses real rock music and the audience infers character development by comparing young Stew to old Stew. For example, young Stew sings, “This is not a passing phase.” Then old Stew sings in echo, “This was just a passing phase.” This is an authentically rock moment that obeys the theatre dictum “show don't tell.”
Young Stew destroys every one of his friendships, neglects the people he loves, and adopts an offensive “ghetto warrior” persona all for the sake of finding “the real” in his art. And yet we still cheer him on. Sure he's charming, but more importantly we see him face the consequences of his decisions, for good and ill. Which brings us to…
A different kind of narrator.
Usually a narrator acts as the lens for the audience to see the story through. Maybe the narrator manipulates some of the story elements, but it's a one-way street; the characters often don't influence the narrator. Not so in Passing Strange. Just when older Stew gets to the most painful, regretful part of his story, his younger self steps forward to offer him solace, to remind him why he keeps doing what he does. Magic? The power of art? But is it alright? It's not clear.
And that's only the start of it. The music is awesome, particularly the “Hey, Jude”-esque “Keys.” The entire Amsterdam sequence is about as perfect as musical theatre can get. Race politics is discussed in all its thorniness. The best weird performance art since Rent happens. And that ending wrecks me every time.
If you want to see the rarely performed Passing Strange, you don't have to wait a few decades for someone near you to mount a production; Spike Lee directed a version for PBS's Great Performances! Go, and let it be your favorite musical too!