Stew, the corpulent black joker who leads the band called the Negro Problem, wouldn’t seem like the most likely candidate for adapting his life story into a Broadway musical. But Passing Strange, which told the story of his youthful move from middle-class Los Angeles to Amsterdam and Berlin — wrestling with his racial and artistic identity all the while — was a triumph. It even won a Tony Award (for the book, but still). Many of the elements that made Passing Strange shine in the theater are absent on the cast album; especially missed are the bulk of Colman Domingo’s supporting performance and the clever casting of black performers as Nordic princesses, which gave extra resonance to questions of racial “passing.” And while the Negro Problem records work better as albums, there’s still plenty to enjoy about this disc: Stew’s wry presence as the “Narrator” of his own life, the supple groove of the house band, or the blistering Berlin rock song “May Day.” At their best, the lyrics capture both the “Superfly in the buttermilk” experience of being a black American abroad and the sometimes-pretentious but always-funny awakening of an artistic free spirit: “I am the twentieth century incarnate,” sings Daniel Breaker as Youth (the stand-in for a younger Stew). “The twentieth century coming home covered in mud / And missing a shoe.”
About the Author
Gavin Edwards is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and Wired, among other publications. His most recent book is Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?