Playing By Ear: “She Gave Me Her Keys”

“Afro-Baroque cabaretGo straight to this NPR page. Scroll down the left-hand sidebar to the songs and click “Keys. ” Be patient. The NPR leader ad will pass in a few seconds. Then listen. I’ve heard the song several times in the media blitz surrounding the Broadway premiere of Passing Strange. I love the way it builds a subtle narrative recitative to rock n’roll crescendo. I want to know more, want to see the play, want to buy the score when it’s available on CD. It isn’t your dad’s “rock” opera (I’m thinking Tommy by The Who), but maybe it could be.

After you’ve heard the song, you’re good to go ahead and read Jeff London’s review:

Last spring, a new musical called Passing Strange opened at New York’s Public Theater, off-Broadway, to rave reviews. The show, a hybrid of a rock concert and a traditional musical, has now traveled a couple miles uptown to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway.

Passing Strange was written and performed by indie-rock musician Stew, whose real name is Mark Stewart. With his band, The Negro Problem, the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll lifer” has toured around the world, putting out albums of what he calls “Afro-Baroque cabaret” music.

The Public Theater was so intrigued by his songs that it commissioned him four years ago to write a musical. Stew didn’t know what the subject matter was going to be, and he didn’t know how the story would be told. But he knew how he wanted it to sound.

[…] What emerged from the process, Stew says, is a semi-autobiographical musical. It charts the journey of a character — known only as Youth — from his middle-class adolescence in Los Angeles, to sex and drugs in Amsterdam, to the tumultuous days in the Berlin arts world before the wall fell.

“It’s what I like to call autobiographical fiction, in that every single thing that’s happening on the stage, I can point to something in my life, some kind of corollary, you know, that corresponds in some way,” Stew says. “But, was I in Europe when my mom died? No. Did the things that happened in Amsterdam in our play happen to me? Some of them, but not all.

“It’s really just about the costs of being a young artist,” he says. “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, you know?”

Stew is on stage the whole time, with his band and with six actors, who play multiple roles. If the piece is about a young artist trying to find himself — to find his “real” self — the same is true of the staging.

“I’m not a fictional person onstage,” Stew says. “I am myself. I am Stew. I call myself Narrator because it’s boring to hear Stew all the time, you know, to read it. … But I am my real self, and the band is real as well, you know? And I think we even try to let you know, from all the mask changing — I mean the real, human mask changing, not costumes — that even the actors are real.”

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