‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’
Through July 2
The Kennedy Center
Tickets start at $59
1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Tickets start at $48
Two of the best musicals to come out of the 1990s were “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” memoir meets rock concert, and “Rent,” a modern take on Puccini’s “La Bohème” exploring a year in the life of bohemian friends living in New York’s Alphabet City. Both enduring works feature unforgettable genderqueer characters. And now tours of both shows are overlapping in D.C.
Out actor/writer/director John Cameron Mitchell wrote “Hedwig’s” book and created the title role off Broadway in 1998. Composer Stephen Trask supplied the hard-driving score. Hedwig’s back story is riveting: Wannabe glam rock star undergoes botched gender reassignment surgery to escape East Germany for America. And that’s not that half of it. In a night, Hedwig reminisces via songs backed by the hard-rocking band the Angry Inch, and inimitably fills in the gaps.
Mitchell developed the Hedwig character in downtown New York clubs. He’s said that Hedwig is not a trans woman, but a genderqueer character. “She’s more than a woman or a man. She’s a gender of one and that is accidentally so beautiful.”
A successful revival of “Hedwig” opened on Broadway in 2014 and currently acclaimed actor Euan Morton is playing the title role in that production’s national tour. With his gorgeous soaring tenor, Morton arguably has the finest voice of the actors who’ve donned Hedwig’s wild blonde wig (a heady roster that in addition to Mitchell includes Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rennells, Darren Criss, Taye Diggs and D.C.’s own Rick Hammerly who won a Helen Hayes Award for his efforts).
“The score is definitely an odd combo and ballads and rock songs and requires some serious vocal acrobatics,” Morton says. “The day following a performance, I can barely speak which means I can no longer sing in the shower which is one of my favorite things. I really have to be careful, but it’s worth it — anything for the pleasure of performing this role.”
It’s fair to say he’s fallen in love with part.
“To be honest, I first really got a handle on the part when I was cast and sent to the script,” he says. “When I sat down and actually read the script, I wasn’t sure this was something for me, but I’m up for a challenge. We’re brought up being told where our box end. It’s good to go outside that box every now and then.”
Morton received a Tony Award nomination for his sensational portrayal of ‘80s icon Boy George in “Taboo.” And while playing Boy George prepared Morton to wear a lot of makeup and some wild outfits, he says that’s where it ends. No past part or any other actor’s interpretation of the role has influenced his take on the part.
“She is strong, aggressive, sexy and has led a very large life. Hedwig takes the actors who play her and molds them and uses them for her ends and not the other way around. It’s a not a character you can force. I’ve taken my cues from Hedwig.”
Morton, 39, didn’t do extensive research prior to joining the tour in November.
“My entire life has been an investigation into all things transgender. I was lucky enough to leave home when I was very young. And have been living and working with cisgender, transgender, non-binary gays and straights ever since. I’ve experienced this story through life. I’ve seen and can empathize but never really know what this is — the years of questioning and the pain. But I hope our tour can be for those on the journey to see people like themselves on stage.”
Born in Scotland, Morton left home early to study theater in London. Career highlights include Broadway’s “Taboo” and the lead in Ford’s Theatre production of “Parade” for which he deservedly snagged a Helen Hayes Award. Morton is married to theater producer Lee Armitage and their son is Iain Armitage the adorable boy theater critic who’s currently embarking on a big acting career. In March, CBS announced that it had ordered to series “Young Sheldon,” a prequel to the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” starring young Armitage as the title character.
Morton says “Hedwig’s” concert feel is part of what makes it work.
“She spends an hour and forty minutes talking directly to the audience. She’s doing her thing present day which allows me to bring in some Trump jokes. There’s no division between what’s happening and the audience. If you want to be part of the art rather than just an observer than come see the show.”
Out actor David Merino is currently making his professional debut playing Angel in the 20th anniversary tour of “Rent.” Merino was born in 1995 just months before “Rent” opened on Broadway in the spring of 1996.
“It’s meaningful for me to be part of this particular tour. To play this character and be part of this story and show at this time in this country is incredible. I’m happy that this is my job. The fact that the show and I are the same age is not lost on me. This story and the characters still resonate strongly.”
Angel is a drag queen and talented drummer who makes her money performing on the street. She and her partner Tom Collins are both dealing with having HIV and very little resources. Angel’s spotlight moment is the high energy number “Today For You Tomorrow For Me” which she sings costumed in a saucy Santa suit.
The tour is Merino’s third time playing Angel. Originally he assayed the role with a group of high school friends who formed their own company in his native Los Angeles. More recently he played Angel in college production at New York University where he was noticed by Broadway casting agents. He’s interrupted his studies to go on the road with the tour.
Merino took time to understand an era when people were dying from AIDS-related complications at a terrifying rate.
“I had to fill the gap with research and dive in,” he says. “I had to watch documentaries about covering pop culture and AIDS to figure out it. It wasn’t difficult to modernize Angel. But it was important for me to get across that’s she’s not a frivolous party person. She emanates a lot of love and light. She wasn’t a frivolous person.”
“I’ve never known a person like Angel in my own life. To portray her I had to discover her on my own. Now I work to bring her to the stage and show her to people.”
Coming out was difficult for Merino. His family didn’t understand his sexuality or his love for theater. In his teen years, he spent hours secretly watching the screen version of “Rent” again and again. Within the last several years his family has grown proud and supportive, he says. And for that Merino is very grateful.
Not everyone is comfortable with the material “Rent” or “Hedwig.” For Merino, touring with “Rent” through red states during campaign season was poignant. He felt an obligation to bring the musicals stories to those who valued them and those who had never heard them before.
“And it’s not just subject matter,” Morton says. “Hedwig’s score is very punk rock. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. One audience member who left midway famously commented, ‘I thought this was a show about Harry Potter’s owl.’”
Both Morton and Merino leave their respective tours after Washington. Merino plans to finish up his degree at New York University. And Morton says he’s eager to get back to singing Whitney Houston songs in the shower again.