By Tony Marco
Originally published on Advocate.com August 25 2009 9:55 PM ET
Monday, August 17
“We filmed the last three performances,“ director Spike Lee says, “the Saturday matinee, Saturday evening, and we came back for the Sunday matinee.”
Now think about what you did last weekend. And if you don’t feel guilty enough about that Real Housewives marathon, consider that Spike Lee shot a feature film on a Saturday and Sunday.
“And in between the two shows on Saturday,” Lee adds, “we watched the whole matinee we just filmed and said, ‘We’re missing some shit. We got to get it.’”
That shit to which Lee refers is part and parcel of Passing Strange, a rock musical that Lee has captured live for Passing Strange: The Movie. Lee is at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan to promote the film, which is a high-definition rendering of the semiautobiographical stage work penned by Stew, who is also on hand with his music partner, Heidi Rodewald. Stew and Rodewald appear in both pieces in the band, but Stew’s role is a bit more meta, billed as Narrator, while Passing Strange tracks another, much younger version of Stew, called simply Youth.
This central character, played by Daniel Breaker, is a young, black man who jettisons his churchy, middle-class Los Angeles life in the mid ’70s and jets off to Amsterdam and Berlin in search of what he calls “the real,” but he eventually returns to L.A. to deal with the mother he left behind. The show also racked up some frequent flier miles, starting first at California’s Berkeley Rep and then transferring to New York’s Public Theater before making the leap all the way to Broadway, where it earned seven Tony nominations last year.
Lee, wearing a pinstriped navy polo with a New York Yankees logo where the pony should be, has been on board with Passing Strange since its Public Theater run, seeing it twice there and immediately thinking about how to do it as a film. “Negroes would play Dutch people and Germans?” he asks, putting the kibosh on a more traditional, big-budget movie musical. “That’s not going to work.”
Nonetheless, Ron Howard’s company, Imagine, sent a scout to the Public, as Lee had just finished making Inside Man for Imagine. “They weren’t really feeling it,” he confesses. Then Passing Strange moved to Broadway, and Tony award pressure set in. The show was struggling at the box office but was nominated for seven awards. When it won only for best book of a musical, the clock on its Broadway run had begun to tick.
Lee, who’s been nominated for two Oscars, finds award economics troubling. “I had this happen to me on 25th Hour,” he says. “[The studio was] going to spend more money on 25th Hour if we got an Academy Award nomination.” Likewise Passing Strange. “When they didn’t win a whole bunch of Tonys,” Lee says, “it was like, all right, it’s not going to [run] much longer. And that’s when Steve Klein, one of the producers, approached me about making sure this thing will live on forever.”
Wednesday, August 19
Stew and Rodewall pop up again at Lincoln Center’s outdoor Damrosch Park venue to perform The Broadway Problem. Stew is wearing a straw porkpie hat he’ll have on all week; ditto Heidi and her skinny black blazer. The two met in Los Angeles and used to share a home, but now they just share the stage, in both Passing Strange and two bands. Tonight’s title is a clever play on the name of one of their bands, the Negro Problem. The piece is a cracked look at musical theater from a mostly black perspective, featuring an Inuit throat singer and a samba retool of Oklahoma!
They’re still over the moon about their whole big-screen treatment via Spike Lee, albeit not without their typical snark. “I hate seeing myself,” the stock-still Rodewall complains of the film. “It’s horrible. I think I’m moving around and I’m not. I’m just sitting there. Spike, I’m sure, was really frustrated with this. There are only, like, two shots of me where I actually move my body, but in my mind I’m moving around a lot.”
“We’re all the same people we were,” Rodewall recalls, recounting the story of being asked to dance at a junior high prom by a guy she really liked. Once they hit the dance floor, he kept asking her to dance. And she replied that she was dancing. “So yeah,” she says with a laugh, “That’s not easy, but that’s not what this whole thing was about. I’m not looking at myself. I’m just looking at this whole thing thinking, Oh, my God, this is filmed. And it’s not only filmed, it’s Spike Lee. It’s crazy. We’re looking at this through Spike’s eyes.”
Stew, however, doesn’t have time to be analytical about the film, which he jokes is by “some up-and-coming director.” He’s finishing up a new album, which he describes as “very, very unadorned because I’ve already done ‘the everything’” and two new musicals. “The thing about both of us is we’ve been doing this for a while now,” he says, speaking for Rodewall as well. “I think if we were 22, we’d be analyzing it to make corrections like, ‘Oh, I think I’ll wear green next time.’”
“We already know what we look good in,” Stew continues, thinking ahead to the film’s premiere, “and my guy in Harlem gets my goatee looking way better than it looks right now. When I’m making a Spike Lee movie I go. It’s real easy; you go into one of them bourgie black Harlem salons and say, ‘I’m about to be in a Spike Lee movie tomorrow,’ and suddenly the whole salon surrounds you. And then you come out looking great. So yeah, nothing changed. We were already comfortable with ourselves, and then you get this guy who’s framing you to make you look as good as you can, so it’s all really cool."
Friday, August 21
Passing Strange The Movie is having its premiere at the IFC Center in New York. It will play at this theater for a week and then become the first video on demand for Sundance Selects on August 26 before airing on PBS as part of the network’s Great Performances series in 2010. The cast and crew have gathered on the IFC stage. Stew’s goatee is indeed tight, and he’s wearing his lucky porkpie but has added black patent sneakers to the ensemble. Rodewall is carrying a cheap black umbrella to combat the rain, and Lee has swapped out his Yankees polo for a tee that reads “Defend Brooklyn” over an image that’s either a machine gun or movie camera or both. Cast member De'Adre Aziza is wearing black lipstick and introduces herself to the opening night audience as “Grace Jones.”
“This is the first night I actually cried,” Colman Domingo, an out actor who plays several gay characters in Passing Strange, says as the audience files out onto the sidewalk en route to the after-party. He explains that he’s seen the film before, but “maybe it’s just realizing that it’s out there. It’s released. It’s the end of a chapter, in a way, but also a new beginning for the whole piece. I felt so emotional about it.”
He goes on to explain that A Boy and His Soul, the one-man show he wrote before going into Passing Strange, is going up at the Vineyard Theatre next month and starts rehearsals on Tuesday. “It’s like, OK, universe, I get it,” he laughs.
“We all had such journeys,” he continues, “but it’s such a marker for me because I lost my mother during auditions for Passing Strange, and then Passing Strange helped me heal. Now that part of the journey is done and I move back on to the play about my family. It’s knocking me out what’s actually happening.” And the “family” in Passing Strange? “I think it’s fantastic,” Domingo continues, referring to the film’s gay content. “The way it’s dealt with is very open.” He then rattles off his three gay characters in the show: Franklin, Joop, and Mr. Venus. “All my characters are mentors,” Domingo says, “so it’s obvious that Stew had gay mentors. He always talked about drag queens that he’s admired. They’re such radicals in many ways, and that has influence over the whole play.”
Spike Lee, on the other hand, is often remembered by gays for the lesbian flap surrounding his 2004 comedy She Hate Me, but his gay characters stretch back 10 years earlier, to RuPaul’s turn in Crooklyn. Two years after that, he got “reformed homophobe” Isaiah Washington to utter the line, "Brother, I'm as gay as the Nile is long" in Get on the Bus and was even widely rumored to be one of the directors attached to the film version of Angels in America during its long gestation period. Still, Lee’s not talking about his timeline of gay characters. He’s just not that kind of director. He won’t even say if Passing Strange The Movie belongs in the fiction or nonfiction branch of his work. “It’s part of the body of work,” is his mantra-like reply.
But Domingo is happy to discuss the gay quotient. “We don’t make any commentary on sex, drugs, or rock 'n' roll,” he says. “There’s no moral high ground. This is what it is. Deal with it. There’s no opinion about anything. I just love the 'We Just Had Sex' song. They have a threesome and then he’s having sex with guys. And you move it along. There’s no moral to the story, in a way, and they made a point to do that. They want to raise questions and raise experiences. And it’s part of Spike Lee’s evolution as well. It makes absolute sense that he would direct this, and it does fall in line because he shows many different perspectives of African-American life. It’s part of who Spike Lee is.”