BWW Feature: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at Cabaret Mado
The last time I saw you, we just split in two. You were looking at me. I was looking at you.
- from the Origin of Love, by Stephen Trask
Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of a musician named Hedwig Robinson. Hedwig, who refers to herself as "neither male nor female, is originally from East Germany, whose love of Western rock music helped her cope with her emotionally distant family, and the bitter landscape of the Cold War. Through a series of misadventures and failed relationships, Hedwig finds her way to the West. Along the way, she gets sex re-assignment surgery from a sketchy East German doctor, which is botched. She is left with genitals which do not resemble anything conventional, which she calls the "Angry Inch". She gives her band the same name.
As the audience, we are all witnessing her show, as her significantly more successful ex-boyfriend plays songs they wrote together (and some that she wrote herself, thank you very much) in a (much bigger and better-attended) adjacent venue. She's assisted by her husband Yitzhak, a drag queen, whose relationship with Hedwig isn't always picture-perfect. It's easy to dismiss Hedwig as being nothing more than campy satire, taking the gender-bending and theatrical rock scene of the 70s to its logical and absurd conclusion. This oversimplifies the power of the work: Hedwig has a long history of the kind of success that a show can only get when it remains unapologetically itself. Hedwig won the Obie Award and Outer Critics Circle Award when it opened in 1998, and in 2014 won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Hedwig has been produced hundreds of times, all over the world, and is considered a kind of seminal text of queer culture and a right of passage for many members of the LGBTQ+ community. This recognition and fanfare is not despite its unconventional subject matter, but as a direct result of it. Despite being beloved by a diverse audience of people from all walks of life, Hedwig is ultimately a show for those people who don't actually want to be at the big mainstream show next door. Hedwig is for the rest of us, the freaks and the queers and the showgirls, the gender-fucked little slips of girlboys conspiring in the next room, while the lady of the evening pulls at our heartstrings and makes us laugh (as much at her as with her).
I asked Andrew Morrisey (Hedwig) and Noelle Hannibal (Yitzhak) a few questions about the In The Wings Promotions production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which opens Wednesday November 14th at Cabaret Mado. Noelle Hannibal, who moved to Montreal from Los Angeles "aeons ago," orginally worked with the Centre for Entertainment and Theatre in Montreal, with its founder Stephen Pietratoni. Pietratoni was lost to lymphoma in 2015, which Hannibal says "left a void in [her] as an artist and a collaborator." Sensing a need for more opportunities for both seasoned an emerging talent, Hannibal founded In The Wings Promotions. With a creative team that also includes Nadia Verrucci (director) and Ian Baird (musical director), In The Wings has mounted a series of productions including The Who's Tommy, and Hair. "We had 90 seats and 120 people showed up," says Hannibal about their début production of highlights from Chess. "30 people stood to watch our whole show and I thought, 'Hey, I think we've got something here.'"
Hannibal says she's had a "love affair with Hedwig" since her friend Michael Cerveris took the titular role from director and book writer John Cameron Mitchell. "I think I dragged every one of my friends back home to see the show," says Hannibal, who also calls the show "beautiful and timely." On presenting Hedwig at Montreal's premier drag bar, Mado, Hannibal says that this choice "brings the show back to its core and creation. The show was developed in drag bars in New York City, so Mado is the perfect spot."
Hedwig is especially timely given the current political climate, which includes motions from the American administration to legislate an end to legal recognition of trans and other gender-diverse people. Actor Andrew Morrisey remarks that Hedwig "brings people together of various backgrounds and beliefs," with its sense of humour and universal themes about the search for love, recognition, and acceptance. "Though Hedwig may appear different from the 'norm', we see ourselves in Hedwig's strength, perseverance, search for her identity and for love." While watching the show, "we very quickly forget her differences and begin to connect [to her] and understand her. The show brings us together to enforce the old adage that we are more alike than we are different." He adds, "if more poeple understood this and could feel this empathy, we'd be living in a very different society."
Empathy and understanding was a big part of how Morrisey and Hannibal prepared for their roles. "I drew from both my own experiences and the experiences of others," says Morrisey. "I personally understand Hedwig's desire to be loved for who she is, her search for validation, her humour and perseverance. I drew from others' experiences when it came to her struggles as a trans woman. Unfortunately, I didn't have to look far to find these stories. It seems every day I read a news story or Facebook post about the discrimination of trans people."
On portraying Hedwig's partner Yitzhak, Hannibal says: "I fully understand Yitzhak's desire to be loved by Hedwig, but I also understand his resentment." She admits that it's been a challenge to channel the physicality of Yitzhak. The character of Yitzhak is written to be performed by a female actor, despite the character being a male drag queen (a man who was assigned male at birth, but who does performance art where he personifies a female character). Hannibal remarks that this exploration has been an opportunity to grow and learn: "I'm having a great time finding him, and every day something new emerges."
As a final question, I asked the actors how we can show up for the trans members of our local and global communities with the same enthusiasm that we show up for their stories. Morrisey had this to say: "We must stand with trans people and raise our voice to the many injustices [that they face]. Participate in a protest, question your local elected official, stay informed, and vote." Hannibal seconded this, with enthusiasm.
As an extra special treat, In The Wings will also be hosting a masterclass Stephen Trask, co-creator, composer and lyricist for Hedwig, on November 13th. Details about pricing and participation can be found here. Participants will have the special opporunity to workshop their audition techniques and some original music with Trask.
Stephen Trask has won an Obie Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a New York Magazine Award, and two GLAMA awards, as well as a Drama Desk nomination and two Grammy nominations for his work on Hedwig. For the 2001 film version of Hedwig, he also won Entertainment Weekly's Best Soundtrack Award. He has provided arrangements and orchestration for the Broadway production of Rocky, and has scored independent and studio films, including In Good Company, Little Fockers, and The Savages. As a musician, he's performed with Stone Temple Pilots, Sleater-Kinney, Yoko Ono, Bob Mould, Debbie Harry, and a myriad of others. He was a founding member and music director for the iconic nightclub Squeezebox, where he backed the best, worst, most fabulous, and most infamous of New York City's drag queens, and performed with Hole, Green Day, Joey Ramone, and more. He also produced Say Anything's album "...Is a Real Boy," which was the best thing that could have happened to me when I was a teenager (except, perhaps, joyfully ignoring the film version of Hedwig on a date when I was eighteen). About the incredible gift of his presence to the Montreal creative landscape, Trask has this to say: "When I was a kid, Montreal was the first place outside of the US that my family visited for vacation. It was very exciting for me to stay in another country, to hear people speaking French, to eat frogs' legs. Also, when my mother's family came over from Russia, some of them settled in [Connecticut] and the rest continued on to Montreal so I have family there. So it is really a kick to return years later and be a part of the culture of this city. I am really looking forward to seeing In The Wings Promotions' take on our work. I expect it to be unique and exciting. I can't wait." Trask will also be giving a talkback after opening night.
Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not: Hedwig and the Angry Inch opens on November 14th at Cabaret Mado. Audience members are advised that a strobe light will be used, and that the show deals with mature themes and contains strong language. Theatre fans under the age of 18 will have to wait for their first Hedwig experience. For more information about In The Wings, please visit their website, which also contains links to buy tickets online and by phone. For more information about the Trask masterclass, please e-mail email@example.com