Tony-Winner Stew Goes to College

by Howard Sherman - Text and Photos
Multifaceted Theater Artist Stew (Photo ©Howard Sherman)
Multifaceted Theater Artist Stew (Photo ©Howard Sherman)

Stew Brings Queens to Musical Life at La Guardia Community College

It’s a daunting scenario. A community college commits to producing a brand-new musical, the first the theater program has undertaken. The show is cast a year in advance, with 19 students, before any script exists. When the 10-week rehearsal period begins, there are only a handful of songs written. Material only begins to start coming in earnest two weeks into the process, and keeps coming through tech rehearsals.

That’s what Stefanie Sertich, associate professor and program director for theatre at La Guardia Community College, committed herself to when she programmed Columbus is Happening. But with all the uncertainty, she also had a remarkable asset: the show was being written by Stew, the multifaceted composer, lyricist, and star of the Tony Award-winning Passing Strange, as well as the creator of The Total Bent, at The Public Theater.

The collaboration had its roots in a chance encounter two-years earlier, when Sertich took two students to see The Total Bent at a performance that included a post-show conversation with Stew. When the talk ended, Sertich urged her students to take the opportunity to speak with Stew. “They saw me lingering, so they just ducked the usher and the three of them came down,” recalls Stew. “We just stood onstage and talked for about a half-hour. She was amazing, and the students were incredible—so smart and funny. She said they were doing Passing Strange and I said, ‘OK, well I’ve got to see that.’ I went to a rehearsal, talked to them.” 

“But I was just blown away pretty much from the moment I got out onto the sidewalk in front of La Guardia Community College and saw this effortlessly diverse world that was really unlike any part of New York I had ever been in,” he continues. “Before I even hit the theater, I felt like, ‘This is cool. I’ve got to do something here. I don’t know what, but I’ve got to do something at this school.’ I’ve been to a lot of schools, but no school felt like that.” Sertich picks up the account, “Over the next year and a half, we loosely stayed in touch. I brought him out to La Guardia; he talked about being an artist and his development in the theater world. After that, he said to me, ‘I really love this school. How can I be here more?’”

Director Stefanie Sertich works with the cast. (Photo:©Howard Sherman) Stew hit on the idea of dramatizing vignettes drawn from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and with the concept agreed upon, they began exploring what shape the show might take. Stew asked Sertich which pieces of the book she was drawn to, which she thought would resonate with her students. He agreed with some, while rejecting others. But there were only a handful of songs written when rehearsals began in February, so Sertich said she worked on what she had, while exploring portions of the book with the cast—a mix of students from Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Maine, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Belize, Germany, and South Korea—that dealt with subjects of oppression, of appropriation, and of gentrification. 

Discovering a New World
The imagined presence of Christopher Columbus in present day Queens was threaded through the work. In the version of the show presented at La Guardia the second week in May, musical numbers included “New World Halal Stand”, “Undocumented Day Labor in Queens”, “The Subjugation Song”, “Lynch Laws”, and “Ain’t I A Woman”.

“We would read a passage from the book, so that they understood where it was coming from,” said Sertich. “It really impacted them, so when it became a song, they had the dramaturgy pretty immediately. They could get behind the message.” Stew described the process as, “kind of like building a house around them. When you build a house while living in it, that means you’re going to have to sleep some nights with a wall or two missing. And that’s not always the most comfortable sleep, and you just have to trust that the stairs will be here in a week, and the ceiling will be here maybe in three weeks.” 

“No one is saying it wasn’t difficult, but what I think the ace in the hole that I had to keep them with me, and to keep them with Stefanie, was, A, Stefanie, who does a phenomenal job, and, B, the material. I tried to keep the material as close to them as I could. I tried to keep it as localized as I could. What I always try to do with actors is, I don’t really write characters at all."

“I mean, I don’t think about characters. I’m not Neil Simon, I’m a performer. I’m a rock musician. I like to find an actor, check them out for a little while, and then write for them. I started trying to keep it local, keep it on the ground, keep writing about things that I knew they could relate to. People, I think, have an idea of me that I’m this crazy, uncompromising guy who just does what he wants to do. Actually, when I send in new pages, I want to make actors and directors happy. They’re my friends, so I want my friends to be happy. It’s like throwing a party and cooking something nice.” 

Columbus Is Happening cast members  (Photo ©Howard Sherman)During the dynamic yet piecemeal development of the show, Sertich explains, “I kept on reminding the students that they were going to be originating a new work and how exciting it was to be in a college program where they had the opportunity to be the originators of something. They got behind that pretty quickly. They never questioned the piece. If anything, they felt nervous that they wouldn’t pay homage to the piece. I was very real with them, saying, ‘You know, this is the business of new work development. It’s going to be challenging. Things are going to change. Usually musicals take seven to 10 to 15 years to be developed before it even gets a production.’ So, I think they’re learning how to have the stamina to get through a development process.”

Performer Feedback
Speaking on the afternoon following the first performance, some of the student cast considered what the experience had been up to that point. Regarding having the opportunity to create a new work by a Tony-winning author in the room, Adam Basco-Mahieddine said, “It was challenging, for sure, because you don’t want to mess up your lines in front of the person who wrote them. At the same time, that kind of goes out the window when you know him. As an actor, your job is to create the world with the work that you’re given. As much as I can ask Stew, ‘What do you mean by this?’ or ‘How do you expect me to play this?’, it’s also the responsibility of mine, as an actor, to do the job, which is to give life to the work. If I want to put this on the stage and I want it to come from an organic place; I have to just listen to the truth he’s creating for us, which is inspired by us. We give him something, he gives us something.” 

Actor Adam Basco-Mahieddine  (Photo ©Howard Sherman)Precious Torres spoke of Stew telling her how he’d written the song “And We Were Dancing.” “He pulled me aside,” she said, “and was just like, ‘You know what? This was written for you. So, I want you to sing it, not a character.’” Anne Husmann echoed that part of the process, saying, “Stew really put everyone in a spot where they’re able to show their authentic self,” even with the satirical elements of the show. As a visiting student from Germany, Husmann said that Columbus is Happening showed her, “That you can always learn something from someone else’s story.” 

Cast onstage at La Guardia Community College (Photo ©Howard Sherman)Considering what audiences might discover in the show, Shakerria Henderson-Smith said, “I would just like them to take away that this part of history is as important as every other part of history that they try and tell us in the history books. This is what they leave out, and you can’t have a full history if you leave out certain things.” Also contemplating the show’s many messages, Torres said, “New York is a very liberal state. So, I think the audience is a lot more open to what we have to say, but I would really like them to take what we have to say and internalize it. I think with either liberals or conservatives, it’s really easy to be, ‘That matches my agenda. Yes, I agree with you.’ I want them to sit and think about what we’re saying, as opposed to just being like, ‘That sounds right.’”

Lessons Learned
Regarding his own takeaways, Stew said, “Maybe I’m just preaching to the choir—I don’t like that phrase when it’s used very negatively; I think there’s something positive about preaching to the choir. I think it’s great that we can affirm our beliefs and support each other. I don’t think preaching to the choir is bad at all, but I also think that dealing with young people, in an arts educational context, for me now has become, just like going into the theater was a career shift from rock-n-roll, my new career shift. I really believe in the classroom as my real stage. I believe in that audience of 12 or 20 as much, maybe even more, than I believe in the 600 people at Lincoln Center.”

Stew mused, “I think I learned how exciting the idea of utopia is from the cast. I think people our age, it’s been beaten into us that dreaming is pointless, and that hoping for something is pointless, and maybe even working for something that’s too ideal is kind of ridiculous. In my 56-year-old brain I feel like I have to struggle to support those ideas sometimes. I think with them, they just embrace them and live them. The way they say them is just so forceful, it wakes you up to how great the idea is.”

Asked what she would want to say to other college educators who haven’t yet explored a wholly new work at their school, Sertich said, “I would invite college professors to invest in new work development because our world is changing and the style in which we present, I feel, should also change. And, some of our old plays and musicals... it may be time to let the new voices speak and to give it a chance. That’s number one.”

Rachel Faria in Columbus Is Happening (Photo ©Howard Sherman)“Number two: believe that the students can do it. I was speaking to an older professor friend of mine. She said, ‘Oh, that’s a young person’s thing, that’s a young person’s task, to take on a new musical. I would never do it." I just think that we should try to do these things. But, I would also say to be really clear about the intentionality of the piece and why the artist is coming in to work with the students. To make sure it’s not, ‘Oh, I want to put my work on your students. I want to use them, and then I’m going take this now and work with professional actors’.”

Working from a city college without the level of funding that might be available elsewhere, Sertich observed, “I think it’s important to know that the lived experience of students, who maybe don’t have the skill sets to get into the elite programs, their lived experience is also of value in terms of becoming an artist. Even though they may be raw and rough, I think they deserve the same opportunities.” 

Anne Husmann and Liz Camacho  (Photo ©Howard Sherman)Will Columbus is Happening have a life beyond La Guardia Community College? Stew replies, “What I would love is to be able to repeat two aspects of this experience. I hope to God that these students are going to be available to perform this show somewhere else again with my help. Somewhere in Manhattan, somewhere in Brooklyn. Some club, some small theater, whatever. I do not want this to be the last time that these actors are involved in this, without question. The second part is, I would like to relive this experience with other schools, to teach them this show and see what happens. I just want to have this experience again. I’m very proud.”