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Stew Makes A Sound Decision!

The Tony Award-winning musician talks about composing songs for A Midsummer Night's Dream, his new projects, and the film version of Passing Strange.

(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Stew took Broadway by storm in 2008 with the autobiographical musical Passing Strange, which earned him the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Now, he has gone in a different direction and written some songs for a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Shakespeare On The Sound in Connecticut. TheaterMania recently spoke with Stew about the show, his preparation for another Off-Broadway piece (to be presented at the Public Theater), and his thoughts on Spike Lee's film version of Passing Strange.

THEATERMANIA: What attracted you to writing music for this production?
STEW: I had wanted to work with the director Joanna Settle, who is also going to be directing the new work at the Public that Heidi Rodewald and I are doing. And, of course, working with Shakespeare's words is like a great vacation for me. I like nothing more than writing music. I don't particularly like writing lyrics or books or prose, but music is a joy for me. I'm like a kid with a basketball; it's not really work. I love that people think it's work, but the truth is it's fun. Making words, that's a job.

TM: How did you decide on the instrumentations, such as a flute for the Lovers song or horns for the Faeries song?
Stew: I actually don't know. Maybe a musicologist could analyze and figure out at what point I bring in horns or violins or whatever. It's like putting together a collage, really. Joanna would say there was a scene of two lovers in the forest, and I would clock that -- but what is the sound of two lovers in the forest? It could be anything. The best thing to do is to respond instinctively to the text and start the critique after the music exists. I think a lot of the Hollywood film industry crap is about giving the person what they want instead of giving what you actually feel from your heart and brain that you want to create.

TM: Will your singing be heard in the show -- as it is on the album of the show that's being released?
Stew: No. I created the demos in order for the actors to learn the songs. And then after that, Joanna and all the people in the office kept saying "We need to release this, this sounds great." I was a little hesitant, because these things were not created to be released. But I listened again and thought, "yeah, it's a little rough but I guess it has its certain charm, and people would be able to take a little piece of the play away with them." So we're going to release them with me singing, but what you'll hear in the play is actors singing these songs.

TM: Are these songs "Afro-baroque" like your other music?
Stew: Come to think of it yes, absolutely! That term was thought up by a neighbor of mine in Silverlake more than 20 years ago. He thought my music contained what one might call African-Americanisms -- sometimes I get gruff and bluesy with my singing -- and the baroque was sort of a catch-all for the English influences. I feel there are very few records of mine where both those things are not reflected. Putting a racial tag on music is a little suspect to begin with, especially these days when we've all heard everybody else's music. That said, I do know my music draws on Howlin' Wolf as much as it draws on The Beatles and, since my career is not over yet, I've only begun to release the music that reflects everything that I'm interested in.

Chad Goodridge, Daniel Breaker, Colman Domingo, Stew
and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Passing Strange
(© Carol Rosegg)
TM: What else have you been doing since Passing Strange closed last year?
Stew: I've been really enjoying not having to be at a show eight times a week. I've been getting back to my rock and roll roots, writing a ton of music. I have a couple of records that will be out by the end of this year. And in the next couple of months, we'll be re-issuing The Negro Problem albums for digital downloading and also turning them into vinyl, which has made a comeback with the listening cognoscenti. Heidi and I also have this film we've wanted to make since 2005 that we're gearing up for, and I also have a lot of concerts planned that will gradually be more and more theatrical.

TM: Will the new show at the Public be semi-autobiographical?
Stew: No, it has nothing to do with me. I mean, I'm writing it so it has something to do with me, but the subject matter doesn't. We're having fun with a few historical figures, and that's about all I can say about it at this point except that it's music-oriented. I have not cast myself in it because I now have the brains to know I won't be able to get anything done if I am trapped in a play.

TM: Considering how much you value spontaneity, how did you feel about Spike Lee locking down just one version of the show on film?
Stew: That's the genius of Spike. I think he really got the show -- and with his vision. I'm not saying he got the perfect Passing Strange on any given night. He wasn't going for a filmed version of a play; he was going for a film. I get really annoyed when people call this a documentary, because that implies that somebody just set up three cameras and said "here's the play!" and he really didn't do that. I call him on this every time he says that and say "Man, that's bullshit!" Believe me, I am shocked at how much I love the movie because I am really critical. And the fact that it's going to be on TV one of these days is insane!

TM: What did you learn from performing in theatre that has stayed with you?
Stew: The ability to recreate great moments as opposed to just happening upon them -- which is often what happens in rock and roll. Sometimes magic happens in music where you have a really difficult time finding the equation that led to that magic. In theater, things like timing are more under a microscope; what makes a line funny or not funny is more a science. I often found myself on stage wondering how I'd lost a laugh on a particular line and then the stage manager would explain that to get it back I only had to turn my head immediately to the left after I said it. In rock and roll, we kind of don't want to know what happened. We like having that mystery.