BWW Interview: Passing Strange's Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Stew and Heidi Rodewald of the band The Negro Problem and the songwriter team who created the Tony, Drama Desk and Obie-winning musical Passing Strange are hitting the road with a new act called Staged Dives, which they're previewing at the Ancram Opera House in Columbia County, New York June 28 and 29 before bringing it to Joe's Pub in August. They talked with Dan Dwyer of Off Script about the new show and their twenty-year collaboration.
Stew, why do you call the new show Staged Dives?
S: Like everything with us we're always trying to reference what we think we actually are, which is a rock band that started off playing dive bars and rock n' roll bars. So we want to keep that connection. It's what makes us unique in the theatre world and so we were thinking of trying to be a theatrical version of a dive bar band.
So Heidi, who's idea was Staged Dives? Yours or Stew's?
HR: That was Stew's idea. I'm right there with him. We talk about this stuff a lot - what's important to us, where we come from - so it all makes sense that we're doing this right now.
Why are trying out Staged Dives at the Ancram Opera House?
S: Artists always play places that are highly recommended by other artists, that's the bottom line. I was talking to David Cale, he mentioned the place and that was pretty much all I needed to know. Then I found out that people like Taylor Mac and Lady Rizo had played there. Artists go where they feel comfortable. An artist also likes to go to unique places, For us it's about the actual space. The Ancram Opera House is about ninety people. I'd rather play for ninety people than nine-hundred, which goes back to the dives thing which is our history. We like unique, intimate spaces. It's where we feel most comfortable. For us, playing at Ancram is our kind of place. Heidi and I have been really privileged to play giant performing arts centers in big cities. Heidi will tell you the gigs that mean a lot to us are the gigs in these unique, intimate spaces.
So Heidi, have you ever played an old 19th century opera house like the one in Ancram?
HR: I would probably say yes at some point I probably have. For Stew and me, I'm excited about going out of town, hitting the road. Whatever happens at this show I guarantee Stew and I are going to talk about the drive up, what we ate, and what we talked about on the drive. Stew and I spend a lot of time in cars driving across the country. That's just who we are and that's where we get a lot done talking. It's really special for us to do a show up there.
S: When somebody joins a band it's like a combination marriage, joining a cult, getting a weird job. There aren't really even any words to describe it. People who've been in bands for twenty years know what that, it's a very particular relationship. It's huge. It's a combination of family and all these different things that it's really hard to explain to people. We live this band. It's a very different thing.
So Heidi, play Hermione Gingold for me and describe the first time you walked in the room and you saw Stew.
HR: Well the first time I saw Stew he was prancing out onstage with his band "The Negro Problem" It was all about the music, all about watching this performer. Stew and I have spent so much time together that it's hard for me to talk in giant glowing terms about him. Do we talk in glowing terms about each other Stew? I mean I guess we do.
S: (laughter) You don't talk about me in glowing terms! You haven't for about ten years now! (laughter all around). .....There was a time, there was a time! (more laughter)
HR: I think I talked in glowing terms last time we talked ....and it was weird! I was like "wow I'm talking in glowing terms! (more laughter from Stew). It wasn't like "oh I wanna be in that band and I wanna write music for the band" it was more "oh my God I want to be a part of that! That's what I want to be a part of."
How would describe how you compose your songs?
S: What I love most is that Heidi and I have a pretty functional approach... we're not the kind to sit around and wait for inspiration to come. If we're making an album and we're like "this album needs a mid-tempo song" I will say to Heidi "hey can you write some cool mid-tempo music?" and she'll do it. And she'll do it in an off-hand manner and then next thing you know that's the one everyone likes best on the record.HR: Yeah but....
S:...we don't sit at the piano next to each other....
HR: ...yeah but...
S: ...were you gonna say something?
HR: It's funny how people ask "Oh...who writes the words and who writes the music?" And it's like, well,we're not like that. I joined this band not even caring if I wrote anything because I just wanted to be a part of it.
S: I think the story that describes our collaboration best is.... I was on a radio show and I started talking about a song from Passing Strange called "Work the Wound" and I was talking about writing that song and half way through my monologue Heidi goes "Uh Stew, you know I wrote the music for that". (DD laughter) And I had thought-because the collaboration was so close I had remembered me having written it! And I'm like "Oh my God you're right!" and this happened on air - easily the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me in public. But that's an example. I wasn't trying to steal it because she was sitting right next me. It's hard to kind of figure out where things start and end.
Passing Strange has rock, funk, soul, some gospel. How would you describe your music?
S: The older I get the more I feel that our music comes from a particular generation, whatever they call people my age, fifty-seven years old, every kind of music you just mentioned is in the show, is everything I grew up listening to. I just saw the film of Aretha Franklin recording her live gospel album in the Los Angeles church that my sister went to. So I grew up with all those things. Every single genre you named was a part of my upbringing. I was born in 1961 so you can do the math ....you know what was on the radio back then. Heidi and I grew up listening to exact same radio stations - the soul station, the indie punk rock station, and everything in between and that's what we are...we are that. And I feel extremely privileged to have been born at the time I was because that's what we do.
Music critics and theatre critics can get wonky sometimes. A LA Times reporter described your music as "sweetly soulful, head noddingly funky, and humorously caustic." (laughter from Stew) What do you think of them apples?
S: That's a mouth full, yeah yeah yeah. I can't disagree, I can't disagree!
Stew: If only! Green is one of the five greatest singers of all time, so yeah... that writer is far too nice! (laughter)
Or would you like to describe yourself as "Superfly in buttermilk"? (Editor's note: a line from a song in Passing Strange.)
Stew: Right right exactly! That's more fitting! (more laughter)
Heidi could you explain the Superfly description?
Heidi: Oh you mean what it comes from? Yeah, well the description thing over the years, isn't that interesting that people try to constantly try to say "Stew is like this". And after a while it's like, haven't we done enough stuff to where it's kinda like Stew is Stew? It's just so funny.
What's going to be in Staged Dives?
S: Primarily stuff from Passing Strange.
Will "Work the Wound" be in it?
Stew: Without question.
And what about "Passing Phase".
S: "Passing Phase"? Wow you're asking really interesting tunes! Y'know I don't know. We're actually gonna rehearse today, so now that you've said that you might end up influencing the show!
What about "The Black One"? It really sounds like a big, traditional Broadway showtune.
S: Right. One day I said to our guy on the keyboard "Hey I got these words. Can you just play the most straightforward Broadway kind of chord changes you possibly can?" and he played them and I started singing it. That song's a lot of fun, and a lot of fun to play.
Okay so who's claiming authorship of "We Just Had Sex"?
S: (laughter) Uh I think I wrote that? Didn't I write that honey?
HR: Yeah that's you.
S: Yeah ... that was necessary y'know? It's a show so you need a sex song right? What can you do?
Passing Strange is pretty autobiographical...right?
S: We call it "autobiographical fiction". Which is to say everything that's in the play is definitely influenced or inspired by real events. But it's not strictly autobiographical, so we just use my life as a starting point. It's as much James Baldwin's story as it a member of the band, who was with me in Europe at that time. Or even Josephine Baker's story. I mean so many people I meet tell me it's their story. It's really not strictly mine.
Were you prepared for all the positive critical reaction for Passing Strange from people who didn't come from a music background but from people who were just musicals?
HR: One of the things we were very proud of was that people who didn't usually like musicals liked us because of where we were coming from and because we weren't trying to fit into a mold. The biggest compliment somebody could give us was "I hate musicals but I love Passing Strange" Even though I grew up on musicals, and I love musicals, I wasn't trying to fit into that world. We were coming from this other angle, where we come from as a band, a touring band, telling a story in our own way. Even during all the workshops, we were just trying to make ourselves laugh and feel it for ourselves. We weren't just always thinking about an audience.
Do you think Passing Strange changed the game some for musicals that followed it?
HR: I would like to think that people don't go "Oh Passing Strange... we're gonna do something like that."
S: You'd like to think that but that's not true. (laughter)
HR: I think people should know you should be really, really true to who you are and you're gonna come up with something original. You really should try to be true to yourself.
S: Right but Dan was asking "are we game changers?" Spring Awakening happened a year before Passing Strange. To be honest the game changer to me, you could go back as far as Hair. It planted a seed. Later came Hedwig and The Angry Inch. The game is constantly changing.