With only two weeks to rehearse, City Stage did a national search to find the perfect Hedwig, the transgender protagonist in the ground-breaking musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” After director Don Baker watched around 40 video submissions, Leo Grinberg stood out most, thanks to his vast musical talent (“Hair,” “Rocky Horror Show,” “Tommy”) and previous experience in the role. And maybe more interesting than Grinberg’s résumé is how much he has in common with Hedwig herself.
“I always go for the music first, and then I look at everything else that comes with it,” Grinberg says. “I was introduced to Hedwig by a friend who showed me the 2001 movie. I remember thinking, This is powerful—n terms of the story, music and lyrics! I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard about it before, let alone had no idea there was a stage production. So when the first opportunity came along, I jumped on that wagon.”
A fairly new rock musical, which first premiered in 1998 Off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theater, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” follows a rock star who escapes east Berlin. She tours America to follow an ex-lover in pursuit of a copyright lawsuit; yet, the journey leads to more than she bargains for—primarily self-discovery.
Although well-known for its storytelling and musicianship, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” contains bold subject matter—so much so, it took an Obie Award (The Village Voice’s version of the Tony, but for Off-Broadway plays). Mostly, its lead character undergoes a botched sex-change operation—something of a taboo still today, but even more so in 1998. However, the show is about much more than gender—or in this case, transgender. Human acceptance remains at its core.
“[Hedwig] is every man, every woman,” Baker says. “I want men and women to fall in love with Hedwig, and at the same time, I want them to say, ‘This is so weird,’ because Hedwig is kind of screwed up. It is clear that Hedwig is who she is, even with her botched operation: She is honest. She is Hedwig.”
Hedwig, who is very much a philosopher in many ways, references Plato’s “Symposium” in her song “Origin of Love.” “It is an interesting concept,” Grinberg says. “[S]he explains love as a pursuit to find the other half you were once separated from, and when you find it, you become whole and live happily. We all search for our ‘half,’ like Hedwig, regardless of gender. Some find them in their lifetime, some go to [the] grave, having never experienced the joy of becoming ‘the whole.”
Much like Hedwig, living in east Berlin listening to American rock music, Grinberg, too, grew up in a communist country. He was born in the USSR and learned American music from the radio, hoping to one day learn to sing. “The dream came true,” Grinberg says.
A rock opera written by John Cameron Mitchell (who also starred in the show and the film version from 2001) and composed by Stephen Trask, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” breaks the fourth wall. Hedwig interacts with the audience directly. “The underlying premise is a cabaret act, a concert,” Baker says.
“The whole show is essentially a confession,” Grinberg adds. “Hedwig has no secrets from the audience, whether when she sings or talks, calling for them to be sincere in return with themselves and with each other. I think that’s the core of the show—and the absolutely amazing punk-rock numbers.”
Followed by her band, roadie and backup singers, Hedwig tries to connect with everyone she meets—or at least impart an important message. “It’s very much like a Paul McCartney concert, as he took the time to talk about the Beatles and speak to the audience,” Baker compares.
A director now for 50 years, Baker has experience with the show already, having directed it for City Stage back in 2004, along with Chiaki Ito as musical director. This time around, however, they’re taking what Grinberg has brought from past production experience and tweaking it musically. Most importantly, they’re adding clarity to the piece.
“The narration part will be entirely different,” Grinberg says. “It will be very fine-tuned storytelling, making sure the audience gets exactly what Hedwig means.”
The show’s edge and touchy subject matter appeals to Baker most. “[It’s] a piece that really needs [to get] people talking,” he says. Though not necessarily about LGBT acceptance, the show focuses on acknowledgement of imperfections—of being human. It’s also about love.
“Because it’s about a botched sex-change operation, there ought to be something important about that,” Baker continues. “We don’t like to think about any botched operation—something being lame, or someone [being] killed or maimed. Hedwig’s not really maimed. She’s defined it as an angry inch. She’s angry, [and] maybe she’s not happy about it, as opposed to a totally successful operation, [but] it makes her much more androgynous and she glorifies that. I realized I wasn’t expecting how much she glorified it. I wasn’t prepared to realize that this botched operation gave me this really beautiful human, and I think that’s more human-like. People that have children born with deformities [often] talk about how glorious that is. I saw on YouTube [a] kid born with no arms. [Now] he’s an engineer for race cars and his life has become more beautiful because he didn’t have arms.”
The idea centers on following one’s dreams and never losing hope, “no matter what life throws at you,” Grinberg says. “Pursue your passion and it will save you from angry, abusive parents, betraying husbands/wives/partners. That’s the core of Hedwig: her perseverance.”
Along with Baker and Grinberg, Chiaki Ito returns as musical director. The musical also stars Brendan Carter, Robin Heck, and Kaitlin Baden, and will run September 5-8, 13-15, and 20-22, 8 p.m. at City Stage in downtown Wilmington.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
City Stage, 21 N Front St.
Sept. 5-8, 13-15 and 20-22