Indie rock is hardly a traditional path to success on the Broadway stage, but Stew has never been an ordinary musician. As leader of the group the Negro Problem, he's crafted witty, literate, and intelligently constructed pop music that didn't bear much resemblance to the work of his peers, and the fact he was an African-American artist working outside the widely accepted confines of "black music" only made him seem that much more unique. After years of pleasing critics and a small number of loyal fans, Stew enjoyed remarkable success in a new medium as the musical Passing Strange -- written, composed, and starring Stew in collaboration with Negro Problem multi-instrumentalist Heidi Rodewald -- became a Broadway success that earned Tony and Drama Desk awards.
Mark Stewart (he adopted the nickname Stew as his stage name to avoid being mistaken for the British musician of the same name who led the Pop Group) was born in Los Angeles in 1961. He was a musical omnivore from an early age; when he was 14, he joined a local R&B band but his record collection was dominated by psychedelic and progressive rock, and later in the decade he became a keen observer of Los Angeles' burgeoning punk rock scene. In 1982, Stew left Los Angeles for New York City, where he became involved in the avant-garde noise-rock movement, and in 1983 he left the United States, spending nearly a decade in the Netherlands and Germany. While in Berlin, Stew played with a variety of musical ensembles and worked with a mixed-media art group known as "The Wonderful Guise". After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, he became disenchanted with the growing racism in Berlin and returned to Los Angeles. Settling in the Silver Lake district, Stew formed a new group that married Baroque pop melodies with lyrics that cast an often satirical eye on contemporary culture. Offering his own commentary about the gulf between his chosen musical style and the audience's expectation of African-American performers, Stew dubbed the group "the Negro Problem" and assembled a sexually and racially integrated lineup featuring bassist Gwynne Kahn, keyboardist Jill Meschke Blair, guitarist Probyn Gregory, and drummer and multi-instrumentalist Charles Pagano. In 1995, the Negro Problem made an ambitious recording debut with a box set of 7" singles, and two years later, the group released its first album, Post Minstrel Syndrome, which recycled several tunes from the singles set, including a striking, rewritten cover of "Macarthur Park." The Negro Problem's first lineup began splintering not long after their first album was released, and 1999's Joys and Concerns was mostly recorded with session musicians, though former Wednesday Week member Heidi Rodewald signed on with the group and would become Stew's primary collaborator, helping to arrange and produce the songs and lead the band. In 2000, Stew stepped out as a solo artist with the release of the album Guest Host, which featured production and instrumental contributions from Rodewald; it was a considerable critical success, and was named the best album of the year by Entertainment Weekly. Guest Host was followed by Sweetboot in 2001. In 2002, a third Stew album was released, The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs (which was also cited as a top album of the year by Entertainment Weekly), while the Negro Problem returned with Welcome Black.
After Stew released Something Deeper Than These Changes in 2003, he stepped back from recording and began work on a new project. He had been invited to perform his songs as part of an American Songbook series at New York's Lincoln Center, and when a theatrical director suggested that his songs could work well as part of a musical, he and Rodewald began work on Travelogue, a performance piece about an African-American musician in Europe. After being accepted into the Sundance Theater Lab for development, Travelogue evolved into the musical Passing Strange, which debuted in the fall of 2006 at the Berkley Repertory Theater in Berkley, California, with Stew performing the leading role and he and Rodewald performing in the on-stage band. The show moved to New York City's Off-Broadway Public Theater in May 2007, and made the jump to Broadway in February 2008, where it ran for 165 performances at the Belasco Theater. Passing Strange was nominated for seven Tony Awards, and Stew took home the prize for Best Book for a Musical; the production also won five New York Drama Desk awards, including Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Music, and Outstanding Lyrics. The final performances of Passing Strange at the Belasco were filmed by director Spike Lee for a performance documentary, also titled Passing Strange, which was released in 2010.
In 2009, Stew and Rodewald collaborated on music for a new stage production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and began work on their next show, Making It, which debuted at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse in early 2010. The songs from Making It became the basis for a new album, which was credited to Stew & the Negro Problem, bringing together his two musical personae; the album, also called Making It, was released in early 2012. ~ Mark Deming
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