It's been a while since midtown Manhattan has seen Stew, the Tony-winning coauthor and star of the semiautobiographical musical Passing Strange. Since that show closed in 2008, Stew has been spending his time playing rock clubs in the wilds of Brooklyn while writing a few more shows and musicals along the way. Now that he's got enough songs to premiere, Stew is taking the subway to midtown and coming to 54 Below on Friday and Saturday with The New Stew Review. TheaterMania caught up with the songwriter to chat about the engagement, which will blend old songs and new and feature a host of "special guests."
How did this 54 Below gig come about?
They've been calling me since they opened, basically. I had my reservations, because I'm very happy. I still write for the theater, but I'm not an active participant. A new year on Broadway, a new slew of artists to be interested in. When I'm downtown among the kids, at the Tisch School or the universities, everybody knows who I am because they're all into Passing Strange. But I'm not sure if the people who come to cabarets are into what I do, or even know what I do.
What finally propelled you to say yes?
It was just an opportunity to jam and put theses songs in front of a crowd and to kind of say that we do have stuff going on…we've got two plays debuting this year, three next year…[and] all these songs. And I have some special guests I think people will recognize, [especially] fans of Passing Strange.
As a venue, how does 54 Below compare to the other places you've played?
Playing this kind of room has been a dream since I was ten years old. I was in Hawaii with some aunts [then] and I walked into a room kind of like this. It was afternoon, the band was sound-checking, it was dark, and I was like, I want that job. I want to play and have people come and see us. It was so exotic and seductive. When I sat here watching Patti LuPone, as soon as I set my glass down, I was like, I want to play here.
So Patti LuPone was the reason you changed your mind.
That's why they brought me. They knew I wanted to bring a big band and they were trying to get me to play here. She had a big band and I was like, OK, she rocked a big band here.
How big will yours be?
I've got a six- or seven-piece band. But when you count the guests, it gets really off the hook.
Did you ever think you'd be living a life in the theater?
No, not at all. It was a complete fluke. We were playing at Joe's Pub and the next thing you know [the Public Theater was] saying we should make a play….I think every rock performer wants to do something theatrical, but few of us know anything about theater. What I've been discovering lately is how inherently theatrical what I've always done is. I say I'm surprised that I'm doing this, but people who know my band go, "We're not surprised. You were always a big ham."
What is it like to sit in the audience and watch Passing Strange — and a version of yourself — on stage?
I don't see it as a version of me. I love it. I learn something every time. I am privileged to have these crazy, lucky opportunities. Sometimes I'll sit in the theater, with [coauthor] Heidi [Rodewald] or one of my collaborators and be like, "where am I? I'm living in someone else's dream."
Click below to watch Stew sing "Florida, Ya Kill Me."