WASHINGTON — It opened off-Broadway in 1998 before winning four Tonys in 2014, including Best Musical Revival and Best Actor for Neil Patrick Harris.
Now, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” wraps its national tour at the Kennedy Center (June 13-July 2), featuring direction by Tony winner Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”), a revolutionary story by John Cameron Mitchell (book) and hard-charging glam-rock tunes by Stephen Trask (music/lyrics).
“You should see this show because it’s the kind of challenge that will make you a more complete person,” Tony-nominated actor Euan Morton told WTOP. “That’s not a ridiculous thing to say because art does that constantly. … It takes a visionary to make a change. John Cameron and Stephen were visionaries and gave their vision to Hedwig, and she’s been smashing it over your head for 20 years!”
The story follows a fictional rock band fronted by transgender East German singer Hedwig Robinson, whose botched sex-change operation left her with an “angry inch” as she storms the U.S. music scene.
“Hedwig was born a boy named Hansel in East Berlin while the wall still existed and wants to escape,” Morton said. “His mother and his lover, an American soldier, suggest marriage, but gay marriage is not legal there yet. So they drive him toward a sex-change operation. It’s botched and leaves him with an angry inch, a lump of flesh, but [the plan] works! He escapes over the wall and ends up in America.”
While the “angry inch” plot sounds controversial, viewers can expect underlying universal themes.
“It sounds like a very odd and ‘out there’ piece, but really the story is about our similarities,” Morton said. “It’s about love, regret, the need to be recognized, the need to be supported, the relationships with our families. Those are universal subjects, so although Hedwig is very different, she’s talking to people about our similarities. I think that’s what’s important today because we’re all being told that we are different, that your neighbor is the enemy, and Hedwig is here to tell you that that’s not true.”
Just as Hedwig escapes the Berlin Wall, the show sets out to tear down societal walls of hate and fear.
“They are building walls between us as human beings, the proletariat,” Morton said. “The whites are separated from the blacks, the Christians from the Muslims, the gays from the straights, all of these new walls are going up. They’re not that new actually, but they’re built higher and wider, because if you separate the masses, they can’t come together to fight what is oppressing them. … That’s why Hedwig is pertinent today. She’s talking about smashing those walls down with her giant, limey heels.”
Those “limey heels” are part of Hedwig’s stylish wardrobe throughout this flamboyant production.
“She’s definitely a punk chick,” Morton said. “She has a huge wig, she has 5 1/2-inch platform heels, wearing a little denim onesie, [but] she doesn’t have any breasts. She stuffs her bra with tomatoes. … She’s more than a woman and she’s more than a man. She is a new being — a more complete being.”
This physical presence stomps around an unforgettable set, including half a Gremlin automobile.
“It’s the same set from Broadway,” Morton said. “It’s part of the story where [the fictional show] ‘Hurt Locker: The Musical’ opened the night before Hedwig arrives and it was such a disaster that it closed at the intermission. So there’s this spare set left and an evening that wasn’t supposed to be free, so Hedwig and her band get to do a show on that set and fill the void basically, and, boy, does she fill it!”
It’s the perfect setting for what Playbill called “the greatest musical of the past 25 years.” Blending the androgynous 1970s glam rock of David Bowie with the early punk sounds of Iggy Pop, Trask’s score features “Tear Me Down,” “The Origin of Love,” “Sugar Daddy,” “Angry Inch,” “Wig in a Box,” “Wicked Little Town,’ “The Long Grift,” “Hedwig’s Lament,” “Exquisite Corpse” and “Midnight Radio.”
“Look, this is not ‘A Chorus Line,’ this is not a small, gentle, floaty musical,” Morton said. “This is sometimes in-your-face, attacking rock or even punk. But inside that, there’s the beautiful ballads, there’s the more traditional musical stuff of musical theater. Stephen has written a score with so many different genres, but which are stitched together under an umbrella concept that all feels like one thing. … It’s one of the greatest rock scores out there. I mean, people go wild for the music!”
Performing these tunes is both challenging and rewarding, Morton says. He’s up to the challenge, having earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Boy George in the musical “Taboo” (2002).
“To sing it, it’s challenging first off; my voice is pretty tired. … ‘Angry Inch’ is a hard sing, ‘Exquisite Corpse’ is a hard sing,” Morton said. “But it’s also one of those rare experiences where you get to go on the vocal gymnastic journey. It’s brilliant. I love to sing it. There’s nights when I finish ‘Origin of Love’ or ‘Wicked Little Town’ and that one tiny part of me that’s still me says, ‘That was damn good!'”
The songs drip with raw emotion from their gritty creation, developed during nightclub gigs instead of a typical theater setting, using Trask’s own band with Mitchell playing Hedwig. It debuted at the Jane Street Theatre (a.k.a. the Hotel Riverview) in New York’s West Village on Valentine’s Day 1998.
“It was a little show, there wasn’t any set … they were telling that story in this little, divey place, this broken-down hotel,” Morton said. “It was so far ahead of its time that people didn’t know what to make of it. It definitely had a cult following, but it was 20 years ahead of its time. Now, it’s finally beginning to catch up and ‘Hedwig’ is even more relevant now. There’s a larger place for this now.”
That larger place includes the Kennedy Center, the final stop on a national tour that provides for a wider national conversation about the once-controversial, now-prevalent themes in the musical.
“It’s why I took the job,” Morton said. “I thought that having Hedwig’s voice on a national tour across this country, taking what could be a safe space for [LGBT] people to towns that don’t necessarily have safe spaces … would be a wonderful way to play this character. I feel like the luckiest of the Hedwigs.”
Click here for more information. Listen to our full conversation with “Hedwig” star Euan Morton below: