HANSEL SCHMIDT, growing up in a walled-off East Berlin, is a divided person seeking a unity only, it seems, to be found in myth – an Aristophanean myth of a third gender. We meet him after he has transitioned into Hedwig Robinson, a wanna-be glam-rock queen whose self-deprecating wit and compelling way with song and story propels a heart-rending and ultimately uplifting saga of a search to which we’re all subject.
|Euan Morton as Hedwig | Photo by Joan Marcus|
The theme of dismemberment runs through many of the numbers, explored in physical and psychological ways. Hedwig is pursuing an ex-boyfriend, the far-more-successful rock star Tommy Gnosis, who is performing in a nearby arena.
It reveals nothing to note that Morton doubles in this role, and he deftly impersonates a succession of people in Hedwig’s life as the story unfolds. It’s a breathtaking performance. Morton put himself on the map with his acclaimed portrayal of Boy George in the 2002 musical “Taboo,” and has gone to star in shows as diverse as “Sondheim on Sondheim” and The Who’s “Tommy.”
As Hedwig, he careers from the opening number, “Tear Me Down,” into a delightfully filthy riff on this appearance at Proctors, and the scripted part of his spiel is punctuated throughout with effective ad libs. Which means that Morton is on his toes throughout in most figurative and literal senses.
Although the show began, intentionally, with more of a concert than theater vibe – with a selfie-obsessed drunk in front of me to underscore that – John Cameron Mitchell’s script (itself developed through a succession of club dates) skillfully unpeels throughout the intermission-free show, drawing even the glam-rock ignorant me into its clutches.
Hedwig’s current spouse, Yitzhak (Hannah Corneau), “was the most famous drag queen in Zagreb,” Hedwig tells us. “Billed as ‘The Last Jewess in the Balkans,’ he lipsynched something from ‘Yentl’ under the name Krystal Nacht.” Yitzhak is now forbidden to don such garb, and the abuse that Hedwig piles on him reveals aspects that are neglected in the story being told.
Just as Yitzhak can’t hide his superior talent, so does Corneau’s skill prevent us from thinking there’s an actor behind this role. We’re drawn into the troubled, enigmatic life of this character, and the payoff becomes part of the (classically rooted) catharsis the story enjoys.
Although the show is practically a monologue for Morton, there’s a back-up ensemble that’s a crucial part of the story. Each of the players – Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, and Peter Yanowitz – has a character that develops throughout the piece, and each has to deal with the mercurial Hedwig in a character-appropriate way.
It’s also a show about lights and sound, and, particularly, the scrim-projected animations by John Bair’s design company, Phosphene. Julian Crouch’s set gives us the remnants of someone else’s show, complete with the hulk of an automobile at center; Kevin Adams’s lights worked as effectively in subtle scene shadings as they did when blinding the house during musical moments. And special praise to Mike Potter for the lavish wigs and make-up.
Hedwig might, as the story winds down, be finding some sense of peace. Certainly there’s an affecting detente with Yitzhak as they sing to one another, “Hold on to each other, you gotta hold on tonight / And you're shining like the brightest stars / A transmission on the midnight radio.” The otherworldliness of the lyric now contrasts with the universality of Hedwig’s pursuit, and we’re all examining that path by this show’s uplifting, melancholy finish.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Book by John Cameron Mitchell
Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask
Directed by Michael Mayer
Proctors, Schenectady, May 16, 2017
– The Alt, 24 May 2017
Euan Morton: The Power of One
GENDERQUEER EAST GERMAN SINGER Hedwig Robinson has a story to tell that’s more about personal empowerment than politics – but, although politics has thrust itself into everybody’s story these days, “Her politics are not about the man at the top,” says actor Euan Morton, who plays the title role in the Broadway tour of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” that’s heading to Proctors May 16-17. “Her story is about how the hell are we going to get through it as individuals and as people coming together. How do we build for ourselves a safe and secure place that doesn’t require us to change fundamentally who we are. There is very little we can do about those above if we can’t do it for those below, and certainly if we can’t do it for ourselves. So the show is political, but not necessarily in the way you might think.”
“Oh, I’ve played lots of different kinds of people,” he says pleasantly. “And Hedwig is one of the more bold, one of the more truthful people that I’ve played in a long time – certainly the most challenging physically – and honestly I couldn’t be happier, because she is a real joy to play. And I know she’s a joy for other people to watch because she’s a character that allows them to question their own place in the world, their own ability to love and be loved.”
“Hedwig” was written John Cameron Mitchell, inspired by his own experiences growing up in Berlin as the son of a U.S. Army Major General, with Hedwig herself drawn from the character of a family babysitter. Music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask, an homage to the glam rock stylings of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and the like.
It opened Off-Broadway in 1998, went to the West End in 2000, and finally made it to Broadway three years ago, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
Morton was drawn to the world of musical theater as a child, noting that he always has been a singer. “My first musical trip with my school was to go to London to see – wait for it! – ‘Starlight Express,’ followed by ‘Cats.’ And I was deeply moved by both of them, particularly by ‘Starlight Express.’ Greg Ellis was in the role of Rusty and he was brilliant, and it was the first time that a man in musical theater had made me feel a connection, and I thought I could do that – I could be in musical theater, because there’s a man doing what I would like to do. It had always been the women. I’d always been love with the female performers – Lea Salonga, and millions of others, but when I saw ‘Starlight Express’ I knew I wanted to do this.”
He stepped into the show last November. “Darren Criss was playing the role in L.A. when I saw the show a few days after the election, and he made many political references and the audience was eating it up, desperate to laugh at the situation. There are a couple of references to modern politics in the show, but not many because John’s script works for itself – it has such wonderful moments, and very prescient moments: ‘It is the direction of the aggression that defines the act.’ Every night I say that line and I pause – yes, for effect, but also because I take that moment for Hedwig, and for Euan, to be reminded of that fact.”
But it remains one of Morton’s more challenging roles, both physically and vocally. “For the first three months I was doing all eight shows every week, then I got very sick in Detroit with strep throat and flu, and I took six days off and it was horrible. I hate to miss shows, and it was very difficult emotionally to give her to someone else. But after that, I realized that I’ve been driving myself into the ground, so there have been other weeks when I’ve taken a Sunday evening off for the relief of not doing the dancing in the heels and the emotional highs and lows that are required.
“But that’s not to say that it isn’t joyful and wonderful. There’s such power storming around that stage in giant heels and a huge big wig telling people what you think! I think it’s the most possessive I felt about a character since Boy George. They’re similar in many ways in their iconography, and playing these kinds of icons makes one feel a little iconic – so, it’s been difficult to relinquish that power.”
– The Alt, 10 May 2017