Two decades after its off-Broadway debut, ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ rocks back into San Diego at Diversionary Theatre
For an “internationally ignored song stylist,” the one and only Hedwig Robinson is flirting awfully close to fame these days. (And Hedwig does love to flirt.)
The wisecracking, gender-fluid East German chanteuse whose (fictional) life story “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” first surfaced in underground New York clubs a quarter-century ago has since become a certified Broadway phenom, with a Tony Award-laureled 2014 production that starred Neil Patrick Harris. (Here’s my piece from NYC on that.)
That was followed by a national tour whose stops included the San Diego Civic Theatre.
One irony: The big theaters that hosted “Hedwig” in the rock musical’s road-show victory lap are pretty much the opposite of the dives Hedwig is consigned to in the show’s story — not to mention the ones the piece first blossomed in.
But now, Hedwig is getting back to her (carefully dyed) roots, in a production at San Diego’s LGBTQ-centered Diversionary Theatre that will mark the 20th anniversary of the musical’s off-Broadway debut.
And star Jeremy Wilson is happy to see the piece reconnect with its origins.
“I love how this is coming back to a smaller, more intimate venue,” says Wilson, chatting at Diversionary before a recent rehearsal. “Because it gives it that electricity that the show so desires and craves.
“There’s such a palpable energy, and you can really feel it in a space like this.”
Speaking of origins: Wilson was first introduced to “Hedwig” back in the late 1990s, when writer John Cameron Mitchell — who created the show’s central role — performed the song “The Origin of Love” on Rosie O’Donnell’s TV show.
As Wilson puts it: “I was just transfixed.”
That number, which takes some cues from Plato, tells a mythical story of how angry gods split humans in two back in ancient times, leaving us forever searching for our missing halves.
The myth is manifested in the story of Hedwig, who was born a boy named Hansel in a city split in two — Cold War-era Berlin — and suffered a botched gender-reassignment surgery that left only an “angry inch” of intimate anatomy.
Now the world-weary but still sharp-tongued Hedwig is playing low-rent venues in the shadow of a glittery concert tour by Tommy Gnosis — Hedwig’s bitter rival and, once upon a time, better half.
In composer-lyricist Stephen Trask’s “Hedwig” score, that story is told both through such blistering numbers as “Exquisite Corpse” and more lyrical songs, including the matchless ballad “Wicked Little Town.”
Dream come true
As it happens, all that duality resonated from the start with Wilson, who is about to become one of the surprisingly few gender-nonbinary actors to have played Hedwig.
“I have always felt different,” says Wilson, an Iowa native who moved here just over a year ago from New York.
“I’m genderqueer — this was before we used these terms. I just always knew I was different. And seeing this onscreen really was life-changing.
“I knew I wanted to be an actor and was going to end up in New York. And so from that instant, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a dream. And I would love to play this role someday.’
“My life has taken many different twists and turns since then, but I always had this in the back of my mind. And lo and behold, here I am.”
It’s a pretty startling development, considering that while director and Diversionary artistic chief Matt M. Morrow was embarking on a national search for a gender-non-binary Hedwig, Wilson was already in town — having transferred to San Diego with the biotech-software company he works for.
And while Wilson (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) hasn’t performed in a full stage production in a decade, they made their mark in New York as the drag performer Ophelia Nightingale, winning the title of Miss Rockbar from the noted club of that name in 2017.
Hearing Wilson talk of all this, Cashae Monya — the accomplished San Diego actor who plays Hedwig’s band mate and put-upon romantic partner, Yitzhak — can’t help but exclaim: “Stars aligning! That’s amazing.
“And what a great time to be doing it, when the discussion of gender is so prominent.”
(Monya reports she has been prepping for her role by listening to lots of rock musicals and working to get her vocals in tune with the show’s rough-edged style: “I got a lot of notes in rehearsal like, ‘It’s too pretty, it’s too pretty — make it ugly!,” she says with a laugh.)
When it comes to “Hedwig,” Wilson seems a bit hesitant to identify as a pioneer, “because then in a way it adds some kind of pressure, if I let it.”
And yet “to have this opportunity in this moment at this theater in this way — to do it as a non-binary/genderqueer person in this role — is really remarkable.
“I’m thrilled to have this chance.”
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
When: In previews. Opens March 30. 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through April 28.
Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights
Tickets: $15-$60 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 220-0097
How ‘Hedwig’ made headway
- 1994: The first early versions of what would become “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” surface at the punk club Squeezebox in New York City; the piece is further developed at a makeshift assortment of venues around the city.
- 1998: The musical premieres off-Broadway, winning Obie and Outer Critics Circle awards and running for two years.
- 2000: “Hedwig” has its overseas premiere on London’s West End.
- 2001: The film adaptation of “Hedwig” opens at the Sundance Film Festival; it’s a hit with critics but a flop with audiences upon its subsequent run in movie theaters.
- 2003: San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre opens its very first season with the local premiere of “Hedwig”; the theater reprises the piece in 2009. (Here’s my review of that production.)
- 2014: Some 20 years after its birth, “Hedwig” finally makes it to Broadway — winning a Tony Award as (weirdly enough) best revival, as well as one for star Neil Patrick Harris.
- 2016: The touring version of the Broadway production lands in San Diego, with Euan Morton as Hedwig.
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