The Playgoer: "Passing Strange" Passes On

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Friday, July 11, 2008

"Passing Strange" Passes On

Yes, it was not meant to be. The forced marriage of Passing Strange and Broadway, that is.

The closing notice is up: final performance, Sunday July 20. So that gives me--and everyone else who hasn't seen it (most NYC playgoers, apparently)--only one more week to catch it. And that I will.

Things were tough enough before the Tonys. Now, this past week, attendance barely exceeded one-third capacity.

The good news is that Spike Lee is hastily assembling a concert-style film for future release, so Stew will live on. In addition to some closed sessions, Lee is filming the live performances at the matinee and evening shows of Saturday, July 19--"thereby," as Variety's Gordon Cox gracefully puts it, "answering the question of whether the production would hang on long enough to reap any potential marketing benefits from the release of the movie."

We've told this story oh so many times. And once again, we can rest assured that the show has found its audience already (downtown) and didn't need the glitz of Broadway to be good. But unfortunately--since Broadway is still, sadly the only venue of record in our commercial culture, and it is Broadway (just like the victors in all wars) who writes the history--"Passing Strange" will probably still be tainted by the moniker of "failure" from now on.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Broadway didn't kill this show, it saved it. It's far to conventional for Downtown. David Cote said it best, "Although last year’s premiere at the Public Theater didn’t thrill me, somehow now the show comes across as brasher, bigger, more transgressive. Context is everything."

The show didn't sell because it's boring, achingly solipsistic and cliché.

Anonymous said...

Also the show was about three sound levels too loud. Although I liked Daniel Breaker very much, I just didn't warm to Stew at all.

My 3 favourite new musicals around NYC this season: Next To Normal, Little Mermaid, Catered Affair and Young Frankenstein.

So what was nominated? Passing Strange, In The Heights, Cry-Baby and Xanadu. Well, I pretty well had Xanadu and Catered Affair a tie, so that doesn't count. But still...

Thank you, New York critics, for letting me know how bad my theatrical taste is.

Anonymous said...

i think you'll be surprised at what stew will concoct and deliver in the future... maybe you'll "get it" eventually... an acquired taste perhaps, but he's brilliant.

Anonymous said...

A failure? Hardly - 7 Tony nominations and one award for best book, Drama Desk and Obie awards for best musical, a film by Spike Lee...and the best reviews of the season.

I'd say, not bad for a first time theater piece by a basically unknown writer, composer, director and cast with a work that was smart, irreverent about race, experimental in structure...

I do think the marketing never succeeded in translating the incredible enthusiasm the critics and so many audiences had for the show into more sales - it's a more complex piece to describe than what typically hits Broadway. A show that many broadway lovers received as a breath of fresh air, and got people who wouldn't be caught dead on Broadway to come out and see it once, twice, and more.

So, maybe disappointing that it didn't play longer, but it will end up like the first Velvet underground album. As the saying goes, not a lot of people bought it, but everyone who did started a band.

It's a brilliant piece of art that went so much further than anyone would have expected.

Passing Strange changed the game in terms of real rock and roll in the theater, giving opportunities to adventurous Black artists in ways they generally don't get to have their work seen, and experimental artists a chance to reach larger audiences without compromise.

Hardly a failure.

The Playgoer said...

Anon #4: I hope you're right. I certainly don't WANT "Passing Strange" to be considered by future generations a "failure." I'm just commenting on how by current Broadwa industry standards it's a whopping one. And they tend to write the histories--unless we change that, of course. (The Age of the Blogs is coming, folks...)

What I mean by "history" is that standard entry you'll see on a show "ran X number of performances." We all use it, even in academia. Should we? Well, it does indicate something about reception, so it's relevant data. But it definitely needs to be put in context from now on, I agree.

So, yes, this does not preclude that those who DID see it really got something from it. It also does not preclude the show's unequivocal success in other venues, both past(the Public Theatre) and future (Spike's concert film, perhaps a tour?).

If anything I mean to just caution posterity against measuring by Broadway standards. So, posterity: you're on notice!

Oh, and Anon #2: you said you have 3 favorite musicals and listed 4. Obviously you didn't mean to include "Little Mermaid."

I mean, you didn't, right?

Anonymous said...

I discovered something about myself that i am not proud of: that I am prejudiced against people who, "like many Afghanis" use only one name. I could have seen this show at Berkeley Rep, but something about "Stew's" use of a single name put me off. Too self- consciously "original". And my tastes are normally way avant-garde.

Frank Episale said...

I finally saw this when the closing was announced. I wasn't sure what I'd think because I was underwhelmed by the Tony performance and by various video clips I've seen.

Turns out the show is hard to capture on video in short, widely palatable clips. I loved it in person. As I wrote at toofrank.com (forgive the plug) if Broadway were like this more often I would see a lot more Broadway shows.