Now that Hedwig — the titular trans punk rocker of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” – is over 20 years old, the subject of a film musical as well as Broadway and touring productions like the one heading to the Forrest Theatre (April 18-23), is she part of the universal theater canon like Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Falstaff” or “Iago”?
Erudite “Hedwig” co-creator and original actor John Cameron Mitchell would like to think so.
After having played Hedwig since 1994’s debut at NYC’s Squeezebox nightclub, during its 1998 Off-Broadway run and 2015’s Broadway revival, he sees casting the role — feathered wig, glossy lipstick and all — as gender and racially blind. “Just like in Shakespeare,” he says. “We’ve had a young Hedwig in Darren Criss (from “Glee”), seasoned pros in Michael C. Hall and Neil Patrick Harris, a woman in Lena Hall which we were afraid of because, you know, this trans moment… Any race or gender can play Hedwig. It has thusly entered the canon. We even did her in North Carolina where we mentioned the Governor’s anti-trans bathroom bill.”
Currently on the road with “Taboo” actor Euan Horton (“a Godsend”), Mitchell states those who tackle Hedwig must have crazy chops and embody the femme role (an East Berliner glam-punk on tour in the U.S. whose transgender assignment is an accident) as “believably as possible, not passing as a woman, but as gender fluid.” Being comfortable in the role helps; but so does being uncomfortable.
“Remember, Hedwig was forced to be trans.” Mitchell says that any-and-all-comers must be able to nail Borscht Belt humor and British wordplay (“my mother was English”) and be able to do the all-dancing, all-singing no-intermission rock-out musical with dynamism and energy. “Hell, Shakespeare never even had to do all this in heels.”
Stepping back into the past of “Hedwig,” Mitchell states that the groundbreaking musical written with Stephen Trask has aged sensationally well because the pair imitated nothing and followed no trends of the mid-90s. “The only thing that was going on at that time was grunge, which was cool because we loved Lou Reed, David Bowie and John Lennon. No one at that time had really ever successfully merged punk rock with theater, so we were our own alternate universe.”
Funnily enough, along with leading the charge for modern music on Broadway stages (Mitchell mentions “Hamilton” several times during this interview), Mitchell now believes that “Hedwig” follows as many theater tropes as any classic. “Hedwig” fits right in with “Gypsy” as we too are about one giant underappreciated talent who never makes it and one undeserving character who strikes it big on the other’s back — both very damaged people trying to define themselves.”
When Mitchell re-created his role as Hedwig in 2015, he had — at that point — not been on stage in 16 years and was nervous to relive the part. “Especially as Neil Patrick Harris’ then-new choreography was so hard, hard enough that I hurt myself — I’m no dancer,” says Mitchell with a laugh. “I remember being lowered onto the stage by wires, crying and watching my tears splash down. But I loved it all, hard work but pure joy. It was tough for me then because I thought I was too old and exhausted, but now, I think I’m ready to jump back in soon. “
Not right now, however, as Mitchell — who states he is no micromanager to the road show productions — currently and successfully got censors in China to allow it to be staged, as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has been running in Japan and Korea for over a decade.
“I’m definitely not a mother hen to “Hedwig,” he says. “This musical is a living, breathing document, just like the Constitution. It’s not precious. Let the people doing it have at it: let the directors interpret it as they may and the actors find their own Hedwig. It should be filled with modern people dealing with modern problems like the trans bathroom bill. “