When the rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” opened in the off-Broadway Jane Street Theatre in 1998, most of mainstream American only knew the term “transsexual” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” if that. Even when the show made its Broadway debut in 2014, the discussion of transgender and the appropriate bathrooms hadn’t quite heated up.
Fast-forward a few years, and the news-aware public at least understands that there are many terms to describe the points on the line of gender identification.
Except that Hedwig, the character originally created by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask in downtown Manhattan drag and punk bars in the mid-1990s, defies pigeonholing, which is perhaps why the marketing people behind the tour of the recent Broadway production make it known that she should be referred to as genderqueer, an encompassing non-binary term that covers the gamut.
“To me she didn’t choose to be transgender. She doesn’t speak for any trans movement. She’s a weird accidental figure,” says Mitchell in an interview about the tour, which has eight performances this week at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. “She’s not a wall or a bridge, she’s some in-between thing.”
No matter what you call her, Hedwig is a fascinating character and the centerpiece of one of the most innovative pieces of musical theater in the past 30 years. The show has built a cult following, and thanks to a 2001 movie version directed by and starring Mitchell and that 2014 Broadway revival for which Neil Patrick Harris won a Tony Award in the role, some mainstream name-recognition.
“Everyone is an alien to some other group of people,” Mitchell says. “Then you start to think about the things that bring us together. That’s why she feels relevant. I don’t think it was ever a dated piece.”
The show is structured as a rock concert, with Hedwig fronting her rock band called The Angry Inch, along with sideman Yitzhak. They perform the songs that tell of the earliest days of Hansel Schmidt, an East German boy who loved punk and glam rockers, who has a chance to leave the walled-in Berlin and go to the U.S. to purse rock-star dreams, thanks to an American G.I.
But it only happens when he has “to give up something” to be free. The concept was inspired by Plato’s essay “Symposium,” which suggests every human is looking for his or her other half. In between the songs, there is dialogue and a lot of improv, and jokes that can change to fit the times and geography. (You can bet there’ll be a President Trump joke or two here.)
In that original off-Broadway run of two years, several actors followed Mitchell in the role — including Ally Sheedy, the first woman to play the part. On Broadway, Neil Patrick Harris was followed by Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss and Taye Diggs — as well as Mitchell, who was in his 40s. Criss began the national tour, and the role is now played by Euan Morton, a Scottish actor who was Tony-nominated for playing another gender-bending character, Boy George, in the musical “Taboo.”
They’ve all brought something different to the role, which Mitchell says is vital to keeping the show alive.
“ ‘Hedwig’ was never written in stone; it’s the main document, but we never try to control productions,” Mitchells says. “All the Hedwigs have carte blanche. I don’t want to control them. They’re all great at finding what’s there in the moment.”
Lena Hall, who won a Tony for playing Yitzhak on Broadway, played Hedwig for several performances in the tour. Mitchell says he’s heard of productions in which Hedwig was played by a different actor for every song in the show.
“Lena brings this strange androgyny to it; she strips down at the very end and it’s powerful to see a female body walking into the light,” says Mitchell, who was born in El Paso as an Army brat at Fort Bliss and moved all over the country as a youth. “It’s great to see that Hedwig can be played by all body types and shapes and genders. We’ve had trans actors play the roles.”
That fluidity seems to please everyone.
“We’ve never been a target of trans activists,” he adds. “Anyone can take comfort and perhaps put [themselves] in her shoes as someone who doesn’t fit in. She’s seeking balance, wholeness, she’s a citizen of the world. She has always been a metaphor.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
- Tuesday-Feb. 12
- Winspear Opera House, Dallas
- 214-880-0202; www.attpac.org
- Recommended for mature audiences.
- Note: There is a ticket lottery at every performance. Show up an hour and a half before curtain and enter the lottery. If you are picked, tickets will be $24 (limit two tickets) and the seats are best available.