Passing Strange
Heidi Rodewald
Productions2006 Berkeley
2007 Off-Broadway
2008 Broadway
2010 Washington
2011 St. Louis
2018 Philadelphia
2023 Arlington
AwardsTony Award for Best Book of a Musical

Passing Strange is a comedy-drama rock musical about a young African American's journey of self-discovery as an artist, while combining strong existentialist and meta-fictional elements (especially self-referential humor). The musical's lyrics and book are by Stew with music and orchestrations by Heidi Rodewald and Stew. It was created in collaboration with director Annie Dorsen.

The musical was developed at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in 2004 and 2005, one of the few works to be invited back for a second round of development.[1] It had productions in Berkeley, California and Off-Broadway before opening on Broadway in 2008, garnering strong reviews and several awards. Spike Lee filmed the musical on Broadway in July 2008, premiering the film in 2009.


Stew had never written a play before Passing Strange. In an interview with Berkeley Rep, where the play premiered, he said he was initially inspired by reading about the Old Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare productions were originally performed in front of rowdy audiences. A longtime rock musician and performer, he wanted to combine the energy of a rock show with the lively potential of a theater setting.[2] Stew stated that the title "Passing Strange" comes from Shakespeare's 1603 play Othello, the Moor of Venice. In the play, the title character utters the following lines:

My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore, in faith 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange;
'Twas pitiful. 'twas wondrous pitiful,
She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd
That heaven had made her such a man.
Othello, the Moor of Venice, act 1, scene 3, lines 158–163

Stew commented that the quote reminds him of a rock musician who tries to attract a girl with his on-the-road stories. "Passing" in Early Modern English meant "extremely" (thus, the meaning of "extremely strange" in the above passage). However, in the play's title, it also refers to the history of Black Americans "passing" (that is, "passing as white"), a concept raised multiple times in the play, as well as the passage of time.[3]


The plot itself involves an anonymous protagonist, called the Youth, who travels on a picaresque journey to find "the real", complicated by his need to rebel against his mother and society, "passing" through place to place and from lover to lover. His experiences are shaped by his black, American, and middle-class identity. As a musician, he attempts to express his true self through a number of musical genres, including gospel, punk, blues, jazz, and rock; however, the musical itself is most prominently grounded in rock music.

Stew summarized the story and the music: "It's ... about the costs of being a young artist. It's a 46-year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you're making that decision to really be an artist ... We knew we were going to invent something 'cause we kind of knew this hadn't been done before, the goal being to bring the actual music that one hears in a club to the stage — not through some kind of theatrical musical-theater filter".[4]

The musical was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning one, for best book. It won three Drama Desk Awards, however, for outstanding musical, music and lyrics (out of seven nominations), among a number of other awards and nominations. The musical was also awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; the Audelco Award for Best Musical, as well as Best Director (Annie Dorsen), Best Musical Director (Rodewald), and Best Performance (Daniel Breaker); and an Obie Award for Best New Theatre Piece, as well as Outstanding Ensemble.

Production history

Passing Strange premiered on October 19, 2006, at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California.[5] It was then produced off-Broadway at The Public Theater in New York City, running from May 14, 2007, through June 3, 2007.[6] The musical began previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway on February 8, 2008, and officially opened on February 28, 2008, with the same cast that starred at the Public Theater.[7] After 165 performances, it closed on July 20, 2008.[8] Directed by Annie Dorsen, the musical was choreographed by Karole Armitage, with scenic design by David Korins, costume design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy and lighting design by Kevin Adams.[9]

The first regional production opened at The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2010, with a revised script and ran through August. It did not include co-creator Stew as the Narrator, and the cast was expanded from seven to fourteen players.[10] "Passing Strange" played at ACT Theatre in Seattle, WA in June and July, 2014 with LeRoy Bell of "The Voice" in the lead role.

The first production in a high school opened at The Beacon School in New York on May 8, 2014, completely uncensored.[11] Stew would later work with members of the Beacon School cast where they performed numbers from Passing Strange with him at Lincoln Center.


Act I

The Narrator introduces himself as Stew ("Prologue"), openly referring to himself, his collaborator Heidi, and the rest of the band, and occasionally interrupting the plot and interacting directly with the characters throughout the play. The Narrator introduces the African-American male protagonist as "the Youth"—whom the Narrator also refers to as the "hero" or "pilgrim". In a late 1970s South Central Los Angeles middle-class neighborhood, the Youth begins searching for "the real" during his teenaged years, having just briefly turned to Zen Buddhism in defiance of his single mother's conservative Christian faith ("Baptist Fashion Show"). Regardless, he is reluctantly dragged to her church and feels surprisingly moved by the church's gospel band, joyfully equating gospel to rock & roll ("Blues Revelation / Freight Train") and, deciding to explore the spiritual power of music, he joins the church choir ("Edwina Williams"). Here, he meets the pastor's son and choir director, Franklin Jones, who as a marijuana-smoking closeted gay man, exposes the Youth to drugs, New Negro culture, and European philosophy ("Arlington Hill"). The Youth eventually begins playing guitar, deserts Franklin's choir, and forms a punk rock band ("Sole Brother"), which quickly dissolves during a bad LSD trip ("Must've Been High").

The Youth saves money to travel to Europe where he hopes to truly develop as a musical artist, despite his mother and community's disapproval ("Mom Song / Philistines"), culminating in an argument that satirizes the overly dramatic styles of European experimental cinema and which soon merges onstage into the actual journey to Europe ("Merci Beaucoup, M. Godard"). Now in promiscuous Amsterdam, with its easy access to drugs and sex ("Amsterdam"), the Youth experiences his first sense of acceptance when a local squatter, Marianna, unquestioningly accepts him into her apartment ("Keys"). After happily living among Marianna and other free-spirited artists ("We Just Had Sex"), he finds he cannot write songs when he has nothing to complain about. He heads to Berlin, leaving behind an upset Marianna, who tells him not to return ("Paradise").

Act 2

The Youth arrives in West Berlin during a May Day riot ("May Day"), joining some of the performance-artist protesters ("Surface"). His integrity falters when he misrepresents himself as poor to be accepted by the revolutionary artists whom he now lives with, collectively called Nowhaus. Desi, his new girlfriend and the Nowhaus leader, tells him that only love is real ("Damage").

The Youth can never bring himself to be honest about his background ("Identity"), though he basks in a romanticized African-American stereotype amidst his German friends ("The Black One"). Desi finally expresses her feelings that the Youth is concealing his true identity ("Come Down Now"). Meanwhile, he is irritated by his heartsick mother's phone calls and delays visiting her, even with Christmas approaching, when the other Nowhaus members abruptly return home to their families. The Youth pleads with Desi to stay with him during the holidays, but they fight over their differing views on love and she leaves him ("Youth's Unfinished Song").

The Narrator's self-reflections promptly enter into the Youth's story ("Work the Wound"), concluding with the unexpected scene of the Youth at his mother's funeral. With this surprisingly dramatic turns of events, the tone of the play shifts from largely comedic to suddenly heavy-hearted. The Narrator and the Youth confront each other directly and in a serious moment for the first time as the Youth copes with his grief; dealing with the loss of the same mother, it is clear now that the Narrator and Youth represent the same person at two different times in his life ("Passing Phase"). The Youth, after declaring that only art can correct the mistake known as life, resurrects his mother's spirit through his art ("Is It Alright?"). Ultimately, however, only the more mature Narrator remains onstage, professing the need for something beyond "the real" and that this is love ("Love Like That").

Song list

In the staged performance, this song is heavily interspersed with or broken up by dialogue and/or spoken narration.
The two titles here enclosed within a single pair of quotation marks and separated by a slash refer to two songs that play in counterpoint.


All actors except those playing the Narrator, Youth, and Mother also play miscellaneous, nameless roles such as church-goers, family members, airplane stewardesses, etc. Major roles are emphasized in boldface.

Character Original Broadway Cast Description
Narrator Stew The teller of the Youth's story through song and speech
Youth Daniel Breaker The young African-American protagonist from South Central Los Angeles
Mother Eisa Davis The Youth's single parent
Mr. Franklin Jones Colman Domingo The closeted gay son of Reverend Jones; church pianist and choir director
Marianna De'Adre Aziza A "neo-hippie" from Amsterdam
Desi Rebecca Naomi Jones A Marxist revolutionary from West Berlin and leader of Nowhaus
Mr. Venus Colman Domingo A flamboyant protest artist from West Berlin
Edwina Williams De'Adre Aziza An attractive girl in the church choir; a "teenage goddess"
Reverend Jones Chad Goodridge The leader of Mother's church congregation
Sherry and Terry Rebecca Naomi Jones and Chad Goodridge The two other members of the Youth's punk rock trio
Renata Holiday Rebecca Naomi Jones A friend of Marianna's and an abstract artist
Christophe Chad Goodridge A friend of Marianna's and a philosophy professor and sex worker
Joop Colman Domingo A friend of Marianna's and a naturist
Sudabey De'Adre Aziza A member of Nowhaus and an avant-garde filmmaker
Hugo Chad Goodridge A member of Nowhaus and Desi's ex-boyfriend

Passing Strange: The Movie

Director Spike Lee made a permanent record of the Broadway production "for generations and generations to see" by filming the last three performances at the Belasco Theatre. His feature film had its world premiere on January 16 at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival[12] and opened at the IFC Center in New York City's West Village on August 21, 2009. It aired on PBS as part of Great Performances.

Critical reaction

Reviews on and off Broadway were positive. Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times: "Although it is far richer in wit, feeling and sheer personality than most of what is classified as musical theater in the neighborhood around Times Square these days, its big heart throbs to the sound of electric guitars, searing synthesizer chords, driving drums and lyrics delivered not in a clean croon but a throaty yelp... Passing Strange is bursting at the seams with melodic songs, and it features a handful of theatrical performances to treasure... Call it a rock concert with a story to tell, trimmed with a lot of great jokes. Or call it a sprawling work of performance art, complete with angry rants and scary drag queens... I'll just call it wonderful, and a welcome anomaly on Broadway".[13] Hilton Als praised the storyline of the musical in The New Yorker: "Passing Strange is a brilliant work about migration — a geographical migration but also its hero’s migration beyond the tenets of “blackness” and toward selfhood. ...Stew, who created Passing Strange, which is an autobiography of sorts, doesn't distract us with exoticism or nostalgia; his story centers on a young black man who discovers his own Americanness while growing up, first, in Los Angeles and, later, in Europe. The Youth (Daniel Breaker) is a rock-and-roll Candide — a wanderer whose innocence is never entirely corrupted".[14]

Spike Lee's documentary of the play also received a positive review by A. O. Scott in The New York Times: "Here’s the strange thing. When I saw Spike Lee’s film adaptation, 'Passing Strange: The Movie,' in effect a video recording of a performance identical to the one I’d witnessed at the Belasco Theater in 2008, I was blown away. Loose ends ceased to dangle; soft spots were smoothed away and slow passages tightened up".[15] Laremy Legel of called the film “vibrant and compelling” noting that Lee's decision to shoot it as a play was the right one: “Spike Lee, to his credit, realized the beauty of the musical was right there on stage – no further tinkering was needed. Spike used 14 cameras at once to capture the action like it's never been done before. Amazingly, you never see a camera you weren't meant to see. Intimate shots were gathered in gorgeous high-definition over the course of three shows and seamlessly edited together. It's a technological triumph as well as an artistic one".[16]

Awards and nominations

Original Broadway production

Year Award Ceremony Category Nominee Result
2008 Tony Award Best Musical Nominated
Best Book of a Musical Stew Won
Best Original Score Stew and Heidi Rodewald Nominated
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical Stew Nominated
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical Daniel Breaker Nominated
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical De'Adre Aziza Nominated
Best Orchestrations Stew and Heidi Rodewald Nominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Musical Won
Outstanding Book of a Musical Stew Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Musical Daniel Breaker Nominated
Outstanding Choreography Karole Armitage Nominated
Outstanding Lyrics Stew Won
Outstanding Music Stew and Heidi Rodewald Won
Outstanding Orchestrations Nominated

Passing Strange: The Movie

Year Award Ceremony Category Nominee Result
2010 Black Reel Award Best Documentary Nominated
Best Ensemble Nominated
Best Director Spike Lee Nominated
Best Original or Adapted Song "Keys" by Daniel Breaker and De'Adre Aziza Nominated


  1. ^ Sundance Institute Theatre Lab Archived 2009-03-28 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Oldham, Madeleine, Interview with Stew for Berkeley Rep, Passing Strange official Web site, accessed October 25, 2010
  3. ^ Berkeley Rep Interview
  4. ^ Lunden, Jeff. "Passing Strange" a Real Rock Musical, NPR Music, December 12, 2012. Retrieved on December 6, 2015.
  5. ^ Berkeley Repertory listing
  6. ^ Isherwood, Charles,Look Back in Chagrin: A Rocker's Progress, The New York Times, May 15, 2007
  7. ^ Hetrick, Adam Welcome to Amsterdam: Passing Strange Begins Performances on Broadway Feb. 8 Archived 2008-02-11 at the Wayback Machine, Playbill, Feb. 8, 2008,
  8. ^ Passing Strange to Close on Broadway July 20,, July 10, 2008
  9. ^ Hetrick, Adam. "Passing Strange to Close on Broadway July 20" Archived 2012-10-18 at the Wayback Machine, Playbill, July 10, 2008, accessed October 26, 2010
  10. ^ Marks, Peter. Passing Strange at Studio 2ndStage: A tasty musical treat, even without Stew, The Washington Post, July 20, 2010
  11. ^ Cimato, Jo Ann M
  12. ^ Boehm, Mike. Spike Lee to make Sundance debut with musical Passing Strange, Los Angeles Times, December 6, 2008
  13. ^ Isherwood, Charles. It's a Hard Rock Life, New York Times, February 29, 2008
  14. ^ Als, Hilton. Young American, The New Yorker, June 11, 2007
  15. ^ Scott, A.O., A Young Artist’s Journey, This Time on Film, New York Times, August 21, 2009
  16. ^ Legel, Laremy. Sundance Review: Passing Strange Soars,, January 16, 2009