A debate I've had with colleagues concerns the moniker of the "rock musical": if a performance makes it to the mainstream that is Broadway, even off-Broadway, I would contend that it inherently cannot be rock music. Pop, perhaps. Or, more typically, schlock. But the polished, rhythmically precise surface and fun-for-the-whole-family vibe that most of these give off (note the proliferation of preteen girls and their mothers at the "edgiest" of these: Spring Awakening and, of course, Rent) do not lend themselves to the sex, drugs, rock and roll, never mind the bollocks music that rock should be.
And, as usual, the Tweed thesis, or "Tweethis," is a minoritarian belief, evidenced in the recent publication of The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig by Elizabeth Lara Wollman.
But the problem is by no means limited to theatre and performance. It is systemic. Most of the music streaming from MTV or VH1 (when they do indeed stream music) does not qualify, either. But with the need for another Broadway facelift, the jukebox musical is reigning, and musicians like Duncan Sheik and Bono and The Edge are being wooed to the Great White Way.
This is why I'm happy to recommend Passing Strange, the marvelous performance at the Public, which was extended through this weekend. An autobiographical tale co-written and fronted by Stew (the voice of the quirky and wonderful band The Negro Problem) not only recognizes that it's not always rock, but thwarts its form from within. When the young, rebellious teenager is leaving for Europe in search of "the real," Stew interjects in the teenager and mother's argument, saying that he would have inserted a cheesey showtune about having to leave home here; but because he doesn't know how to write this, but does know French New Wave cinema, he will have the characters act it out in the latter fashion. Hilarity and sophistication ensue.
All of the themes in it: the life of the Artist, the black experience, coming of age, and the search for the self, are all given the same healthy balance of sincerity and irony. Add a tremendous cast, design concept, and band, and you have one of the best performances of the year.
And the music totally kicks ass.