"Passing Strange" has no celebrities, nor is writer-composer-star Stew convinced it will fly with the same demo flocking to "Color Purple." " 'Passing Strange' is like the black, gay, rock 'n' roll cousin of that kind of play," he says.
Yes, despite all this, Passing Strange--a hit downtown at the Public last year--is coming to Broadway. I'm personally glad, since I missed it before. So as long as Broadway doesn't make it unaffordable, I look forward to seeing it.
But notice how the contrast between Stew's words and those of his producer, Liz McCann: "I want people to see a new American musical, because 'Passing Strange' is quintessentially an American story."
Not that all good stories don't speak to all people. But is it really too much to ask of theatre audiences to see a play about someone different from them?
All this, by the way, is by way of Mark Blankenship's interesting piece in Variety today pointing out the unusual non-white presence on Broadway, whether in projects coming out of non-white communities (Passing Strange, In the Heights) or in prominent "color-blind casting" choices, like the all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or S. Epatha Merkerson's turn in Come Back Little Sheba. (A triumphant one, I hear.)
Personally, I think this has less to do with any "enlightened" trend among producers and audiences than with a long overdue acknowledgement that some of our best and most popular stage performers are African American and need some good roles to play! If they can be found in drama written by African Americans all the better. But meanwhile, why not Tennesee Williams, William Inge, and (in the case of Morgan Freeman's Country Girl) Clifford Odets. Merkerson and James Earl Jones (playing Big Daddy in Cat) are deservedly beloved figures from film and tv, and it only makes sense mass audiences want to see them. In anything--but if in good plays, all the better.
A sobering thought though on the possibilities for more diverse audiences, though, comes from Heights producer Jeffrey Seller. Faced with the prospect of filling a more or less 1,000-seat house, you can imagine his predicament.
"The Latino community will find 'In the Heights,' " Seller says, "but they will never be more than 25% of our audience. If this show is going to work, it has to reach everyone."
At Broadway prices, attracting even 250 non-white ticket buyers a night--eight times a week--will indeed be a challenge.