Just under two decades ago, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” first emerged as an off-Broadway sensation in a very different world. In the years before “Glee” and “American Idiot” brought rock-music theatricality into the mainstream, rock musicals were a peculiar anomaly. The occasional “Tommy” aside, rock musicals seemed too edgy for Broadway – especially one as transgressive as this tale of a transgender rock goddess.
In the years since, however, “Hedwig” finally graduated to Broadway with a Tony-winning 2014 revival starring Neil Patrick Harris. That was successful enough to yield a touring version of the show, which opens at Durham Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.
The larger cultural landscape of American society has seemingly become more tolerant over the past two decades as well – gay marriage is legal in the U.S. nowadays, after all. But there have been some notable back-sliding exceptions, too.
One of those exceptions is North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2. Passed by the state legislature in March 2016, the law invalidated local civil-rights protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Similar laws are in the works in other states, too.
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All of which makes North Carolina a particularly appropriate setting for a “Hedwig” run. “Hedwig” co-creator John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the book and played the title character in its original 1998 off-Broadway incarnation, professes excitement about being part of the debate.
“I hope we can be a forum for cool folks to come together and meet,” Mitchell said. “Get married, even. The internet has led to a lot of polarization and anger, and oftentimes it’s easier to change someone’s mind in the same room rather than with a screaming tweet – even though I don’t know how many (Donald) Trump or (Pat) McCrory voters will show up down there. But it will remind people that the world is a very diverse and rich place. There’s no need to be afraid of that.”
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” follows the story of Hansel, a young boy from East Berlin who attempts to escape from behind the Iron Curtain by becoming a woman and marrying an American soldier. But the sex-change operation is botched; Hansel becomes Hedwig, but with a scarred “angry inch” where his genitals used to be.
Eventually Hedwig winds up abandoned in a Kansas trailer park, launching a quest for rock-star redemption as “the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you.”
The version of “Hedwig” coming to Durham will star Euan Morton, a Tony-nominated actor who played Culture Club’s Boy George in the 2002 stage musical “Taboo.” Various actors (as well as actresses Ally Sheedy and Lena Hall) have played the “Hedwig” title role over the years, including “Rent” star Taye Diggs and Raleigh native Michael C. Hall. Probably the most notable star turn came from Harris in the 2014 Broadway version that won four Tony Awards, including Best Revival.
Appending “Tony-winning” to any theatrical work, especially one that came from as far underground as “Hedwig,” is a powerful signifier of mainstream acceptance. But societal acceptance of the show’s gender-bending themes has been slower in coming.
“Hedwig” co-creator Stephen Trask, who composed the show’s music and lyrics, acknowledges that it’s discouraging to still be fighting a lot of the same battles in 2017 – over race as well as sex, gender and orientation.
“It’s frustrating, but I think we’re actually doing pretty well on those issues,” said Trask. “People need time to think about any change. I didn’t come out of the closet the moment I figured out I was gay, I needed some time. And while nobody thinks of North Carolina as being at the forefront of LGBT rights, in an election where your state voted for Trump, people also turned around and voted for (Roy) Cooper for governor – mostly because of the bathroom bill. To some extent, isn’t that progress?”
“Hedwig” will arrive in Durham at a moment when controversies over sex, gender and race go well beyond North Carolina. The day after Trump’s presidential inauguration saw millions protesting in the streets at women’s marches all over America, including a huge throng in Washington, D.C., that dwarfed the previous day’s inaugural crowd.
It’s also a moment when theater is on the front lines of the cultural debate. Shortly after last November’s election, Trump’s Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a showing of the smash hit musical “Hamilton” – after which actor Brandon Victor Dixon made an onstage speech pleading for tolerance and inclusion from the incoming administration.
Controversy ensued, including a series of angry tweets fired off by Trump on Pence’s behalf.
“That was a bigger deal than it should’ve been,” Mitchell said of the “Hamilton” dustup. “I thought it was a very respectful and appropriate appeal from cast members: ‘You just saw a show about immigrants founding the country, played by people of color, yet we feel perhaps not all Americans are being considered in your worldview.’ You could say that’s rude, but that’s what art does. What does Pence need, a trigger warning? It’s theater, it’s serious.”
As part of the conversation, the “Hedwig” crew also adds local color to performances on the tour. So there will be a handful of North Carolina references in Durham, most likely related to HB2. But they’re not saying what.
“Somebody on the show has been going around and digging up research wherever we go, finding things to put in,” said Trask. “I do hear what it’s gonna be. But I also feel like it’s best if John and I aren’t looking over their shoulder while they’re coming up with these jokes.”
What: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
When: Tuesday through Sunday, Feb. 5
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St.
Cost: $20-$125 (plus taxes and fees)
Ticket info: dpacnc.com