In this play told with music, middle-aged rocker Heimvey and his hip, influential, but relatively low-income band, The Putney Swopes, are on the road to New York City to be the opening act for a popular young group at Madison Square Garden. Their crash pad for the week happens to be the artsy, immaculate Brooklyn home where Cleo, Heimvey’s ex-girlfriend and former muse, and her art dealer/stockbroker husband, Norman, live with their precocious child. As each sees how the “other half” lives, everyone starts to itch for what someone else seems to have: a creative outlet, financial security or good water pressure. In the process of forming and fraying alliances, and a jam session or two, the boundaries between the seemingly exciting artist’s life and the supposedly boring homeowners’ lot are shuffled and shattered.
Music Is Theatre Is Music
In the original Passing Strange, which premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2006, Stew narrated, sang and led an onstage band that included Heidi Rodewald, while a cast of six performers enacted the story of Youth, a black musician from South Los Angeles who defies his churchgoing mother’s expectations and finds his way first to Amsterdam, then Berlin.
The show went on to play Off-Broadway at The Public Theater and then transferred to Broadway. Since then, it has since been performed at regional theatres throughout the country without Stew and Heidi, while they have moved on with their hybrid careers as pop musicians and theatre makers. After Spike Lee’s film of Passing Strange was released in 2009, they made two shows in 2010: Making It, a song cycle about their personal breakup, which also became an album; and Brooklyn Omnibus, another song cycle about their adopted city.
When Passing Strange closed on Broadway, the pair was constantly asked what theatre projects were next.
“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,’ ” Stew recalled. “I remember doing a workshop of a new play shortly after we closed, and I wasn’t even into it—I was just doin’ it ’cause I was supposed to. It was like, ‘I’m a successful Broadway playwright now and I’m supposed to do this,’ and I wasn’t really feelin’ it. I was like, ‘I just think I wanna play some shows.’ ”
In Family Album, which doesn’t feature Stew or Heidi, most of the characters are musicians who play the score as well as act out the story, and the bandleader, Heimvey, has some asides to the audience. But, as with Passing Strange, the germs of the material came from songs they’d been writing for years.
“We’ve always been doing this, in a sense—we’ve been writing songs for musicals that didn’t exist, and now we’re writing the musicals to match them up with the songs,” Stew said. “I don’t know that I became a playwright, even still. I still feel like I’m a musician that makes theatre. I’m trying to make the plays do what music does.”
Director Joanna Settle put it another way, “Stew and Heidi approach music in a theatre like it’s music, for people, in a theatre. I really think Stew is one of the great linguists working in the theatre today. His dialogue is killer.” The music the duo makes, Settle said, has drama in it: “The way that Heidi and Stew wrap their melodies around the language, you just don’t see the punches coming. And the punches are deeply soulful, deeply personal. Something happens in the story and it lands deep inside you. The music kicks you up one way, the music’s got you there—and then the text takes you over here.”
Said Stew, “We’ve been living this divide between what is theatre and what is music. And I pay theatre the highest compliment: As much as I worship music, I think music is theatre. All music. I think any time you’re doing it in front of somebody, it’s theatre.
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.