Correction: The name of a former New York club SqueezeBox was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story.
At first glance, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” might seem to be a tough sell to less adventurous theater audiences out in the hinterlands. But they would be wrong to stay away, fearing the shock value.
“People sometimes get the wrong impression when they hear what the plot is,” admitted Euan Morton, who plays Hedwig as the company arrives in Detroit for a Feb. 21-March 5 engagement at the Fisher Theatre.
The plot: a young German boy has a botched gender reassignment operation, ends up in a trailer park in Kansas, sings in a failed punk band as Hedwig, and chases a rocker ex-boyfriend around the country after he steals her songs.
“It sounds like an off-putting story, but it’s quite representative of all of us,” Morton insisted.
The Tony and Olivier award-winning Scottish-born actor was calling from a dog park in Houston.
That the actor playing Hedwig is almost always a male in a sky-high wig and miniskirt tottering around in high heels, vaulting onto the armrests of the first row or two (be forewarned, audience), while a female generally plays Hedwig’s long-suffering boyfriend, adds another layer of intrigue.
“Hedwig does have the anger — a certain unkindness — but she’s also a lover, not a fighter,” Morton insisted. “Hedwig is searching for her place in the world publicly, and in front of a few thousand people every night, she comes up with a few answers.”
With a book written more than 20 years ago by writer/actor/director John Cameron Mitchell, who first played Hedwig in the Off-Broadway production, the musical features a rock music score by Stephen Trask, including “The Origin of Love,” “Wicked Little Town,” and “Wig in a Box,” that pulls no punches.
Mitchell, who grew up on a military base in Kansas, and discovered glam and punk rock in his 20s, insisted on an authentic rock score.
“I wanted a real rock band composer, so it wouldn’t be the kind of half-assed ‘Rent’ kind of music that pretends to be rock ‘n’ roll,” Mitchell said. “What we wanted to bring to the theater was the excitement of watching these drag queens at SqueezeBox rock out. It was so exciting, they were bringing their showbiz skills to punk rock, and punk rock was letting them sing any way they wanted, not like Diana Ross or whoever it was they had to imitate, before.”
The musical moved to Broadway in 2014, and won four Tonys, including one for Neal Patrick Harris as Hedwig.
Mitchell thinks Morton brings a special zing to the role of Hedwig, being European himself.
“He’s British, so he really gets the humor,” Mitchell said.
“The humor is very British, very sardonic and a bit surreal at times,” Mitchell said. “Like saying ‘Anne Murray was actually a Canadian working in the American idiom while David Bowie was actually an idiom working in American and Canada’ — that’s very British. I don’t even know what it means, but you laugh because it’s a reversal. ”
Hedwig does torment her long-suffering boyfriend, Yitzhak, which makes it all the more poignant that Yitzhak sings a counterpoint to many of Hedwig’s vocals. Was it hard for Morton to play such a difficult character?
“No, because I’m not a very lovable person,” Morton said with a laugh. “I think Hedwig is just human, just well-rounded. I have my days when I’m not the nicest or kindest person to be around. She just goes through what we all go through.
The role of Hedwig is very physical. Mitchell, 53, played it on Broadway again for a special limited run in 2015, but injured his knee from hours of frenetic dancing on platform shoes. The choreography, he notes, is meant for a younger man.
Although Morton, at 39, says he feels pretty done in after dancing five nights a week, two shows on Saturday and Sunday.
Writer Mitchell was actually relieved when he injured his knee in 2015, during his limited Broadway run.
“Then I could dance in my own way, like Iggy. Less choreographed and more, whatever happens,” Mitchell said.
Michigan’s own Iggy Pop is a touchstone artist for Mitchell.
One thing Iggy said factors into Mitchell’s feeling that he’s lucky that he wrote “Hedwig” before the advent of the internet, before trolls could plague him about the quirky project.
“Do it in the dark,” is his advice to creatives. He quotes Iggy from the recent Jim Jarmusch-directed Stooges documentary to illustrate his point.
“At the end of the documentary, Iggy says ‘You know, you do it because you love it. If you do it for money, if you’re doing it for your mom, you’re probably not doing it the way you really like. You’re thinking about what someone else wants, and who really knows what someone else wants?’
There’s a freedom when you don’t expect massive success or even artistic accolades, Mitchell insists.
“There’s something more honest about what you do, because it’s what you and your friends love. Over-documenting it, getting it into the world too fast, then you get trolls dictating your development with some stupid YouTube comment. Why give them the power? So keep it close to home, let the baby be born in the dark, then deliver it to the world.”
Morton, who just might end up standing on the armrest of your chair Tuesday, likes to stress the universality of the theme, and that “Hedwig” is actually a pretty traditional Broadway musical that will please audiences far from New York. Mitchell points out: “After all, Hedwig is from the boonies — a trailer park in Kansas.”
She is not, Morton insists, “a crazy left-wing liberal nutjob proselyting to people in North Carolina about how they should change their ways.
“She’s a woman who has suffered love and loss and hardship and couldn’t find a job or health care,” the actor noted. “It’s a very universal story.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Feb. 21-March 5
3011 Grand Blvd., Detroit.