Apr 24, 2013

The Notes: Stew & Heidi, Part II

photo 2012 by Stephen P. Marsh
In this second installment of my talk with Stew and Heidi about rock and theater (part 1 here), we get deeper into the divide between the two, and talk about how they've bridged it.

Q: How did you navigate your first theater collaboration?

Heidi: We were lucky, we had already been through so much—we were so like beaten down by the music side of things, so that in theater, every step along the way we weren't afraid to question everything. They told us, "We don’t put the band in the program," I think that was our first thing where we were like, Why? And we wanted to bring our band out from L.A.

Stew: Our first struggle with the Public Theater was that they wanted us to use New York musicians. We were like, "You don’t understand, this is a band." They didn’t understand that this was not an orchestra pit. And when we initially said, "We don’t want musical theater singers," a lot of people said, "That’s not possible. You can’t do that in a musical. You can’t have people who quote-unquote can’t sing," and we’re like, "We don’t want people that can’t sing—we just don’t want people that sing like that." We want people that sing like me and Heidi sing, which is like human beings that have a voice. I’m stealing that from David Cale, our actor in The Total Bent; I was trying to explain to him how I like people to sing in theater, and he goes, "Oh, you mean like human beings."

So we’ve been living this divide between what is theater and what is music. And I pay theater the highest compliment: as much as I worship music, I think music is theater. All music. I think any time you’re doing it in front of somebody, it’s theater. But I’m into the inherent drama in music, not music as a servant of narrative. The absolute best moment in Total Bent is when one of our actors, our lead, during a rehearsal, goes over in the middle of a song and starts playing drums, the theatre—it electrifies the house. It’s like, Oh my God, this is actually happening! You couldn’t write that. I had no idea that was going to happen.

Heidi: Along the same lines as that, a friend of ours from L.A., said, and I thought this was great, when he saw us on Broadway, he said, “I felt like I was watching a real band—I felt like you could fuck up. Like something could go wrong.” And you don’t feel like that when you see a Broadway show. And it was a compliment to think we were actually human beings up there who were being ourselves.

Stew: We bring a kind of a learned swagger, a studied swagger, to the stage, and the actors bring this learned precision, this timing, which we kind of don’t have. What happened in Passing Strange, and what happens in every single play we do after that, is that there’s this learning process, this give and take between the actors and the musicians, so that the actors teach us about timing—how to get a laugh when you say something and then look, when to turn, literally to the second, I learned this by watching them onstage how they got laughs. And they learned some swagger from us.

Q: You say you're not in Total Bent, but part of the authenticity of Passing Strange was that you were in it. Are you going to be in any future shows?

Stew: We’re looking into whether we’re in Family Album (the show for Oregon Shakes) or not, actually. We’re investigating that in a workshop, so we’re going to have understudies on hand. It’s going to be a fun experiment to see. I’m torn. I’m certainly not dying to be in a play, but I’ll be in it if it needs it. This is really the experiment. It’s one thing for me to be talking to Daniel Breaker or Colman Domingo about rock performance when they’re doing a character that I wrote, but Family Album is going to be someone loosely based on me—my character, as Heidi's is based on her. So this is the first time that we’ve ever actually gone to someone and said, "You’re kinda gonna be us."

Q: Other people have played "you," though—you had an understudy on Broadway for Passing Strange, and that show has had a number of other productions. Have you seen any of them?

Stew: The productions that I’ve seen have been really wonderful. The farther away they get from us, the better. I’ve loved them. There was a college production where the narrator was a Greek chorus. There was no fat guy standing there singing; there was a bunch of kids there singing. I couldn’t stop thinking about how brilliant that was. There should be an all-female version. I would just hope that people would get a clue from the kinda show it is that they’re encouraged to reinvent. To “cover” it in an interesting way. To me, it’s like an album, and then you do covers. I’m fine for the covers to be freaky and weird.

Q: Have you learned anything valuable from the way theater is done, and on the other hand, are there things that drive you crazy about it?

Stew: The thing I love most about the theater are notes. No one ever does that with albums. I love hearing what people have to say. Often dramaturgs are very careful, and they speak in this kind of euphemistic way, and I’m like, "No, tell me what sucked. My ego’s not so fragile. If I like it, I’m going to keep it in whether you like or not; I didn’t get this far changing things because someone didn’t like it. I’m confident enough to want your notes, including the stuff you don’t like, you know?" I think it’s great that everyone chimes in and everyone cares. I’ve gotten some of the most amazing notes from everyone—from Oskar Eustis, who’s one of the greatest dramaturgs around, all the way down to some assistant of mine who just got out of Yale and has never held a theater job, but he’ll be like, "Yeah, I think it would be cool to see the father in this kinda situation, because you normally see him in that kind of situation," and I’m like, "Boom, that’s a great idea."

Heidi: Also, the bad notes make you stronger; they actually made us talk about stuff and go, "No, this is why we're going to stick with this." It’s good to hear bad stuff.

Stew: There were monologues and things that people said we should take out, like uniformly, there were opinions about certain things in our plays where more official theater people have said, "That’s not moving the story forward," blah blah blah. And we go, "That’s a great note, thank you, but we’re going to keep doing what we want, because there must be something there." It was striking a chord.

Heidi: Because it’s not a science; you can’t always go, "This relates to that..." It’s like listening to a record.

Stew: Something has to be said for this business of the rules, the Aristotelian situation, and in particular the idea of what’s supposed to happen to a character. My big contribution to theater theory is this: I think in theater, normal theater, drama, the protagonist is supposed to change. Fine, you can have that. In rock and roll, the audience is supposed to change. The protagonist doesn’t change. Bob Dylan doesn’t change; Bowie doesn’t change.

Q: But Bowie changes clothes.

Stew: Right, they change clothes, they change songs, they change the wig. But you are supposed to walk away from that concert changed. So the cathartic experience—I’m not saying the cathartic experience doesn’t exist in rock and roll, absolutely. But we don’t change; we’re just telling you the fuckin’ story. And if we are going through changes, those changes are only 3:58 long. It’s “Diamond Dogs” one minute, and it’s “Golden Years” the next. Those songs have nothing to do with each other, and it doesn’t matter; they create a narrative at the end of the day, at the end of the concert. They don’t create a necessarily logical narrative, but I think it’s completely valid to call it a narrative. You look at every David Bowie song in that set, I defy you to find a logical narrative, but you will absolutely find an emotional narrative in that that makes total fucking sense, that makes just as much sense as the most hardcore Aristotelian play you’ve ever heard of.

Heidi: I think we’re really lucky to be our age; I remember the first band I was in, where it was like, “The first song on the first side of the album, and the last song…” It’s so much fun to talk about. We’ve kind of carried that on, we’ve kind of thought that way.

Stew: If it’s done right, a well-sequenced record has a kind of story, even if it’s done by the producer after the artist has gone off to do a tour. Even if it’s by chance, you receive it, and it tells you something, the way it’s put together. Whether it’s a Cagean flip of the I Ching, or it’s something that’s completely thought out.

Heidi: In theater, everybody spends so much time talking about why things work and why they don’t, and what’s so beautiful is sometimes you just can’t explain it. That just works and I don’t know why. It felt right.

Stew: This is why, if musical theater was made more like rock bands make music, you’d have more moments like the moment in Total Bent where our lead goes and plays drums suddenly, because I would never write that. I would never be able to write that scene. We were just standing around, and we said, Why don’t you go get on the drums? And now it’s a showstopping moment in the show. I never could have written that, sitting at home at 7 a.m., “Lead singer walks over to drum set and starts playing in the middle of a song.” Most of the best melodies in Passing Strange were written when we were standing around waiting for fucking something to happen. We got a section of Passing Strange, “Why you wanna leave/Right when it was starting to feel real.” It’s like a main melody. That came up literally while we were standing there waiting for somebody to move something; I started humming it, and I asked the guy next to me, whoever the workshop actor was, "Sing this with me," and then we all started singing it. I would have never written that at home. That’s how rock band rehearsals go. That kind of looseness, giving it up.

Next: The final installment looks at Albee, Moliere, Shakespeare, and Homer through a rock and roll lens.

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