The man in skater pants, red sneakers, and what looked like Austrian hunter hat had a question for his audience at the Studio Theatre: "How many of you have seen Passing Strange?" About half the hands in the audience went up, which is sort of surprising: At this point, Stew, the man before them, is probably far better known for his autobiographical musical than his rock career.
But music was what the show, held the Friday before last, was about, even if it was in the same venue where Passing Strange had its first regional production last summer. He wrote the musical with Heidi Rodewald, and she was onstage, too, sipping white wine and not revealing much except allowing the occasion look of slight wonder.
The pair's new project is a sort-of concert, sort-of play called "Making It," which tells the story of their relationship and breakup. One of the night's first song was a heavy take on alcohol consumption called "Kingdom of Drink"; halfway through the song Stew baptized the tired end-of-the-week front-rowers with his bottle of beer.
And so continued what felt like a mix of utter seriousness and cabaret. It's supposed to make people uncomfortable: Some of the older members of the audience looked like they didn't know what to do with themselves as Stew half-sang, half-moaned "I Just Had Sex." In "My Name Is Ken," Stew sang about how celebrities are not really allowed to be gay, and in "Black Men Ski," a poignant song about the complexity of relationships black people have in "white" settings, he sang "We can tell you how cool looks but cannot show you how it feels."
"James Baldwin" has been writing about this for years," Stew says to me after the show. He's also aware that a lot of the things he found confusing growing up aren't really issues for many younger people. He says his daughter, who lives in Germany, "doesn't have the same needs as I have had to write about race and our society."
And the show, which was so much about not knowing how to react? It received a standing ovation. "Just because depression and sadness is the very basis of human consciousness and of what produces some of the best art, that doesn't mean disco doesn't exist," Stew told the crowd.
Stew, you're all right, I was thinking.