In the very last session of my musical-theater history course, we do three things: my students hand in their take-home finals, we talk about what makes bad musicals bad, and then we launch into what I've come to call our "showtune games." In one of these games, I put my 30G iPod on shuffle, play ten random songs (out of about 8,000, all theater music, natch), and challenge my students to name the song and show.
This past semester, one of the songs that came up on the old iPod was "What's Inside Is Just a Lie" from Passing Strange. Now, I realize that the show didn't run very long, but not a single one of my students was able to name the show. Some guessed the song title, as it's repeated so frequently, but even when we went over the answers, and I told them the name of the show, a lot of my students had never even heard of Passing Strange.
I'm not trying to dump on my students here. When the show was running, most of them were juniors in high school, many nowhere near New York City. I see this more as a testament to the fleeting nature of the theatrical consciousness. Passing Strange, while stunning and innovative, is yesterday's news. The show ran a mere 165 performances and 20 previews at the venerable Belasco Theater. And it is highly unlikely that the show will catch on in regional or community theater, mostly because the story is so specific to Stew, the show's writer and central performer.
Fortunately, before the show closed, filmmaker Spike Lee brought in more than a dozen cameras and taped three of the show's final performances. The resulting film played the Sundance Film Festival, and has now been released on DVD. And it's a real stunner.
When I saw Passing Strange on Broadway, I was so impressed with the freshness and raw energy of the show (read my original review) that I decided to take in the show again (read my re-review). Well, I'm not really sure how or why, but in some respects the movie is even more compelling than the stage play was. This is probably a testament to Lee's dynamic, almost invasive, camera angles. As in the best documentaries and concert films, Lee has taken us where the theater cannot: backstage, up close, behind, beside, below the performers. Lee has even placed cameras in the four hydraulic pits that house the on-stage band, making the players an even more integral part of the action.
Such an approach would likely not work with most theatrical presentations, but with the already anarchic Passing Strange, it significantly enhances and complements the themes, techniques, and movement employed by stage director Annie Dorsen and choreographer Karole Armitage. The cinematographic intimacy also puts into stunning relief the terrific work by the show's talented cast, including the dynamic Rebecca Naomi Jones, the sensational Daniel Breaker, and the electrifying Colman Domingo.
We're unlikely to see the likes of Passing Strange back on Broadway anytime soon. Oh sure, we'll see more rock shows, and we may even see more staged concerts, but none with the singularity of vision and execution that Passing Strange reflects. And we're fortunate to have this permanent record of a show that can genuinely be called unique.
A final note to my students: Yeah, you're not in my course anymore, but I'm giving you one final piece of homework. See this film.