If you made a list of the singer/songwriters whose work pointed them toward the theater, let alone made them seem likely to have a Broadway show built around them, let's be honest, would Stew—the pop polymath of The Negro Problem and L.A.'s Crazy Sound All-Stars—have made the cut? After 2007/8's Passing Strange, obviously, yes, but it took a big leap of faith on the part of the Public Theater to see in Stew's tunefully bemused tall tales (which he co-composes, it should always be noted, with Heidi Rodewald) a play, or plays, waiting to be born. (I actually floated a theory about why relatively obscure indie-rock auteurs make better theater-makers than giant pop stars back then, and in the age of Once I think it still holds up.)
Stew and Rodewald are sticking with the theater thing, with a new show in development with the Public (The Total Bent) and series of new commissions, including one for Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I had a beer with Stew and Rodewald a little while ago for my big American Theatre story on band-created musicals (something of a fleshing-out of the above indie-musical post), but was able to use a mere fraction of Stew's perorations on the subject in that vast, multi-sourced story. It was my wife, who happened to glimpse some of the interview transcript on the back of some scratch paper at home, who reminded me how intensely entertaining and quotable Stew's interview/lecture was, and insisted it be shared with the world.
Herewith, then, the first part of a lightly edited transcript of my evening with Stew (and Heidi), which I'll publish in a series (now up: parts 2 & 3).
Q: So you're sticking with the theater thing—you two make musicals now.
Stew: Our thing is weird because we really stumbled into another career—literally stumbled, no intention, and then were pretty unusually successful. I tried to write a play, and didn't know how, didn't know how to make a musical, Heidi and I didn't know how to do any of these things, and we kind of got to the pinnacle of what you're supposed to, and pretty much in no time. When we closed on Broadway, everybody else was like, "So now all the projects," and we were like, "Actually, we want to take some time off, play some shows, play some dive bars, see if we really want to do this theatre thing." It really took two years to figure out if we actually—I mean, we kept writing stuff, but we didn't really have this hardcore focus. I remember doing a workshop shortly after we closed of a new play; and I wasn't even into it, I was just kinda doin' it 'cause I was supposed to. It was like, I'm a successful Broadway playwright now and I'm supposed to do that, and I wasn't really feelin' it. I was like, "This is cool, it's fun, but I just think I wanna play these shows."
So we did these shows that nobody in theatre world knew about; we did these song cycles, one at St. Ann's Warehouse called Making It, we made a record of it, which is kind of about my and Heidi's relationship, going from point A to point B, to this weird Broadway experience. Which we were in, but it was a concert. Then we did this thing called Brooklyn Omnibus, and we did that at BAM, and again, it was a song cycle with a band onstage, heavy video projections, all of our backup vocals were actors. For us it was another hybrid. It was sort of like the Passing Strange experience, but leaning more toward our comfort zone, which was a concert. Those were completely unrecognized by the theatre community.
Now we're back with three commissions: Public Theatre, Oregon Shakes and Studio Theatre. Last summer we did a lab of The Total Bent at the Public, which for me was just a total joy. The theatre looked at it like a live workshop, and I looked at it like a play that we were doing in the moment, and there's going to be another version in 2014. The theatre mentality sometimes is like, you're working toward something, and for me, music is about whatever it sounds like tonight is valid. The Total Bent, which does not have Heidi and I in it, is about trying to find that thing in the actor that kind of connects them to what I feel rock and roll performers have, or all music performers have. I think all music performers are actors. Every guy in a band who knows that 500 people are watching him, he's not going to stand exactly like that when he’s at home. But the beauty of the musician as an actor is that they’re really smart actors, they’re smart enough to know that the game is really making it look like it’s natural.
What’s the best, the thing we all want out of acting is that it looks real, right? Musicians do that all the time. They pose, and you think that pose is the first time they’ve done that on tour, and they make it look spontaneous. Musicians do this naturally. And they’re just like actors: They hit the mark. Pete Townshend jumps the same way every time, but it doesn’t make it any less dramatic when he does it. It’s like when you come out at the top of Romeo and Juliet and you say here’s what the play’s about; that doesn’t ruin it for anybody, does it? Annie Dorsen, when we were doing Passing Strange, she said, "This play needs something to tell people what they’re going to see. Like in Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, he comes out and says it." And I’m like, "Really, that doesn’t fuck it up for them?" And she’s like, "No, theatre audiences are weird. They kinda don’t mind knowing." And I realized, you know what? Rock and roll crowds really don’t mind either. People go to see the Who, in the old days, to see what level of destruction Moon is going to render his drum set, and you go to see how high Townshend is going to jump, and when he’s going to jump. But at the same time, what they seemed to do is make it feel new every time. And that’s something…
When I go into schools, I talk only about rock and roll and what rock and roll has to do with theatre, because I don’t know anything about theatre, but I know something about playing a club at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, and what you do on that first song to get people to stay there. And to me that’s drama. Drama is like, we gotta do something in these first two songs to make these people be late for their job tomorrow.
Q: The Total Bent has musician/actors in it?
Stew: Some of them are learning the instruments in the play. We don’t like musical theater actors so much. I have learned that a great actor can do anything. Even sing. Certainly sing in a rock band. A great actor maybe can’t necessarily sing Oklahoma!, but a great actor can sing any song of mine. I’m convinced of it, because I’m not a great singer either, but I buy the songs I’m singing, and I sell it. I’ve seen actors who literally don’t have singer on their resume kill on our songs. Daniel Breaker, I don’t think he’d ever been in a musical. I’ve seen guys in workshops who say, “Oh, I don’t sing, man, I’m sorry,” and I say, “Dude, take this tape home and fucking learn it,” and they come back and they nail it.
Q: Of course, there are a number of good actors who also happen to sing and play really well, and not just "musical theater" types.
Stew: We’ll try anybody out. But there’s something about rock and roll, which is really just folk music—which means it’s the music that folks play. Folks can’t play classical music, regular folks can’t play jazz; you have to study that. But folks—anybody in this bar can learn “On Top of Old Smokey” within the next half hour, I can teach anybody in this room to do that; that’s folk music. It’s three chords and we can all do it. So to me it’s about getting someone to connect with that, which is actually not that difficult, really, but mentally I think that’s difficult, because they have such a formal approach to acting and performing. Rock bands are about taking that guy who hangs out with you, and going, “You know what? You’re the singer, you’re the bass player.” It’s functional.
Heidi: "What’s needed? OK, I’ll be that." That’s how I joined my first band. I actually lied and said I played bass when I didn’t, because they needed bass player.
Stew: That’s the way rock bands work.
Heidi: It’s like joining a club, you just want to be a part of it.
Stew: Yeah, and you pretty much have to do whatever isn’t being done. If there’s not a drummer, you’re going to play drums. I remember we forced this guy on our block to play bass. This was my first band in junior high. We even told him what bass to buy: He had to buy a Paul McCartney violin bass.
Heidi: You told him what to buy?
Stew: We told him what bass to buy. He was practically crying. My friend and I were guitar players, and this guy wanted to hang out with us, and we said, "OK, you have to play bass, and you have to play that kind of bass." He really wanted to play something else, like drums. But that kind of functional, informal, just-among-friends kind of vibe is to me what rock and roll is really about. And we like to try to bring that to the stage, to the theatre, and to get actors to believe that, that they really are musicians, that they could be in a rock band. And most of them figure it out pretty quickly. We’ll do things where we’ll do a gig with them, a real gig. Invite them a real gig. The Passing Strange band had gigs. As soon as you get a guy up in front of a crowd, he’s like, "Oh, here’s what it is."
Next: What Stew and Heidi love most about theater.