The singer/songwriter Stew wrote the most exciting musical theater piece of the last decade: Passing Strange (recently broadcast for Great Performances), which played at the Public Theatre in 2007 then moved to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre in 2008 (winning Stew a Tony for Best Book of a Musical).
Since then, Stew and his longtime collaborator (and sometime companion) Heidi Rodewald have continued to try their hands at theatrical experiments: last summer they re-mixed Broadway showtunes for a Lincoln Center Festival concert then Stew wrote some incidental music for a Connecticut production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This week Stew and Rodewald are putting on a new show titled Making It. It’s less a story-based work like Passing Strange and more of a song cycle clustered around a loose theme. If Passing Strange was a portrait of an artist as a young black man; Making It is a portrait of artists as a slightly older couple.
The tunes in Making It tell stories of musicians writing lyrics while working the graveyard shift (“Speed”), touring in vans and crashing on friends couches (“Tomorrow Gone”) and, of course, the perils and problems of “making it.” All these numbers are bracketed by tart non-sequetors by Stew and the occasional dry, one-liner by Rodewald.
As with Passing Strange, this mix of anti-Rock Star banter, affecting music and sophisticated lyrics adds up to an event that feels fresh and fun—yet always full of feeling.
The subject of Making It is darker and less audience friendly, so don’t expect a Broadway transfer anytime soon. Fans of Passing Strange won’t want to miss Making It (a number of that show’s cast members were in the St. Ann’s audience the night I attended). So will aficionados of great songwriting—one number about pining over a lost girlfriend (“Break The Curse”) features an extended rhyme scheme that would bring a smile to Cole Porter or Stephen Sondheim’s face.
Stew and Rodewald’s singular brand of west-coast, indie-cabaret-rock positions them somewhere between the Bowery and Broadway. Making It seems at once a deliberate effort to cloud any effort to pigeon hole them or label them as “theater artists” or downtown indie rockers; at the same time it feels like a therapy session for the two artists—not just in terms of their personal relationship, but more as musicians. The loose theme is: “we survived, let’s keep muddling through.” What’s unsaid but clear is that for artists, more than big contracts or big houses, this is “making it.”
Photo of the production by Jeff Fasano.