This Wednesday, a song cycle called Brooklyn Omnibus, by Passing Strange creators Stew and Heidi Rodewald, premieres at BAM. The story itself, about "what it means to call Brooklyn home," is straightforward enough, but it's hard to imagine what they mean by song cycle, when Passing Strange barely passed for a musical in the traditional Broadway sense of elaborate sets and choreography. And that's one of the reasons why it was so good. The spare production--which Spike Lee later documented--was propelled by Stew's larger-than-life vocals and his backing band The Negro Problem, who literally popped out of the stage and played a big part in the coming-of-age story.
So what will Brooklyn Omnibus be like? It seems as hard to pin down as the definition of Brooklyn. As Stew said in an interview with Sandy Sowatka at BAM, "Just ‘cuz it has a story doesn’t mean it’s theater."
Instead, he calls it more of a concert, with projections and a large vocal and musical ensemble comprised of his band and musicians like Joe McGinty of The Loser's Lounge (and piano karaoke Tuesday nights at the Manhattan Inn). Since he and Rodewald have been a very secretive about it, barring press from rehearsals, Stew's own words are the best preview.
A few choice quotes from the interview:
Sandy Sawotka: What drew you to Brooklyn as a subject? How is Brooklyn unique?
Stew: Brooklyn is too big to grasp and always in flux. Like the universe, it is unknowable, and yet we keep trying to figure it out. Brooklyn started us thinking about how strongly people identify with neighborhoods and the pleasures and dangers of that. As Californians, we are far less tribal than East Coast people; we were fascinated by that. There was also a very American ahistorical thread I became obsessed with—the idea that people can identify so strongly with an area culturally and racially that may have been populated by a completely different culture/race just 15 years before.
SS: Your recent works, Passing Strange and Making It are based on your personal stories. How is the content of Brooklyn Omnibus different?
Stew: Brooklyn Omnibus is based on our distance from the subject, whereas Passing Strange and Making It were based on our closeness to the subjects. We are relatively new to Brooklyn, so the only piece we can really make is a fresh-off-the-boat outer-space immigrant’s take on it.
Everybody in Brooklyn feels like they own it. We don’t. If anything, we feel like Brooklyn owns us.
Very excited to see how this translates on stage.
Brooklyn Omnibus runs from Oct. 20-23.