1. Prologue (We Might Play All Night)
2. Baptist Fashion Show
3. Church Blues Revelation/Freight Train
4. Arlington Hill
5. Sole Brother
6. Must Have Been High
7. Mom Song
8. Merci Beaucoup, M. Godard
10. Keys (Marianna)
11. Keys (It’s Alright)
12. We Just Had Sex
14. Berlin: A Black Hole With Taxis
15. May Day (There’s A Riot Goin’ Down)
16. What’s Inside Is Just A Lie/And Now I’m Ready To Explode
18. The Black One
19. Come Down Now
20. Youth’s Unfinished Song
21. Work The Wound
22. Passing Phase
23. Cue Music
24. Love Like That
The first Broadway cast recording to get a digital exclusive release on iTunes in advance of a traditional street date, Passing Strange by its very nature defies convention. Written by musician Stew, whose solo work, as well as his work with band The Negro Problem, has been an underground success in its own right, the show is a musical memoir of sorts, chronicling Stew’s international and internal journeys from LA to Amsterdam and from innocence to maturity, always struggling within – and against – the confines of a primarily white world and the pressures of being black and middle class simultaneously.
Having originated at Joe’s Pub, the famed cabaret space at the Public Theater downtown and frequent host to musicians and performers the likes of Nellie McKay and Kiki & Herb, Passing Strange is a rich musical-cum-theatrical concoction informed by the melting pot of styles that Stew embodies. Featuring elements of pop, rock, jazz, blues, gospel, and traditional theatre music, Passing Strange, which had its first full-length New York production last season in the Public’s Anspacher Theater thrust space is a strange hybrid that makes for a fascinating listening experience. Black icons the likes of James Baldwin and Josephine Baker are Stew’s aesthetic influences, beacons of black culture who seem to follow him on his musical journey, which seems at every turn haunted by the ghosts of black America’s past.
The cast album doesn’t always make for an easy listen. Songs like Sole Brother, Berlin: A Black Hole With Taxis, and What’s Inside Is Just A Lie have an ironic, mocking tone that sometimes grates, but just when you think the music is about to spin out of control, Stew’s mostly mellow sung interludes interrupt to ground the proceedings. Stew-led songs like The Black One, Work The Wound and the finale, Love Like That are some of the most sensitive pieces of narrative theatre music in recent memory and should be welcome in the annals of what is becoming an emerging genre of distinctly contemporary-influenced musical theatre.
In addition, despite a host of puzzling international accents, the cast’s vocals are exceptional. Stew’s voice – both lyrically and musically – provides the piece with its narrative center, and Rebecca Naomi Jones, particularly on the track Come Down Now, puts in a powerhouse supporting performance. All things considered, however, Daniel Breaker’s performance as Youth – the young Stew character – is the major revelation here. His voice is soulful and distinctive, driving the more insistent and impassioned portions of the score with particular vigour. Stew’s collaborator and co-composer musician Heidi Rodewald also provides solid backing vocals on songs like the aforementioned “Come Down Now” and “Love Like That,” consequently some of the show’s most powerful tunes.
What’s most invigorating about Passing Strange‘s Broadway recording, however, is the live quality of the performances, which were captured during a stop-and-start on-stage recording session in front of an audience at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. Allowing for multiple takes, this approach seems to have been a perfect match for such a narration-driven, audience-fueled show, combining the excitement of a live performance with the meticulous give-and-take of the recording studio experience. Stew’s music beckons for the audience’s attention and response, and hearing them react on record feels thrilling and totally satisfying. In “Work The Wound,” Stew sings of “a melody for every malady, prescription song,” and that’s exactly what the record feels like, a personal testament written down in order to spread the gospel of what it’s like navigating the world in search of the “real,” not only to a live audience but consequently to listeners through this truly unique theatrical record.