Believe it or not, 20 years ago a play hit Seattle like a meteorite.
To understand its power, cast your imagination back to early November 2000: George W. Bush had just been elected president. The internet existed, but most people didn’t live on it. And there was no movie titled “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
In fact, only a handful of people in Seattle even knew what a Hedwig was — some crazy, thrilling, glitter-punk concert of a play rumored to be making theaterheads in New York very, very excited.
Improbably, it was about a young man from Communist East Berlin who was pressured into a vaginoplasty that didn’t go so well, hence the angry inch — and also, somehow, a riff on Plato’s “Symposium” and early Christian Gnosticism. Improbably, it wasn’t so much a solo show with a backing band as an emotional meltdown happening in front of the audience in real time. Improbably, it was a musical that sent even musical-haters into swoons.
Everything about it sounded like a big stack of improbabilities.
But “Hedwig” was about to open at Re-bar — Seattle’s beloved, quasi-underground gay bar/theater/dance club — and even if you didn’t know what a Hedwig was, you probably saw stickers with the name stuck above crosswalk buttons at intersections all over town.
Steve Wells, former longtime owner of Re-bar, had trekked from neighborhood to neighborhood, putting them there. He thought the show was going to be big. Improbably, it was bigger than big. It was a phenomenon.
A menagerie of customers — gay, straight and trans; theater people, rock ‘n’ rollers and curiosity seekers — stood in lines down the block for tickets. Some people came every weekend. (“That,” Wells said, “had never happened before.”) Other people, music director Jill Wangsgard remembered, made pilgrimages to Re-bar: from San Francisco, New York, even across the Atlantic Ocean.
“Iceland, Denmark, a ton of people from England,” she said. One couple from the London theater scene allegedly flew to Seattle four times to spend the weekend at Re-bar. Wangsgard said they became part of the “Hedwig” family. One night, four women — who’d been following “Hedwig” around the world — showed up from Japan.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” starring Nick Garrison as Hedwig and Sarah Rudinoff as her long-suffering husband, Yitzhak, was supposed to have a normal theater run — just a few weeks. Then it got extended. And extended. And extended.
The show ran for six and a half months.
In July 2001, the movie — starring “Hedwig” creator John Cameron Mitchell — came out. Re-bar’s “Hedwig” got a remount. Then, in 2013, Jinkx Monsoon, fresh off her victory on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” starred as Hedwig at the Moore.
Now, 20 years after the meteor hit, Mitchell is coming to Seattle with his Origin of Love tour (also at the Moore) to tell stories and sing songs from that shooting star. (The songs, it should be noted, are by the great Stephen Trask, who won’t be joining the Seattle stop.) Mitchell will also show off material from other projects, including his new, five-and-a-half-hour podcast musical, “Anthem: Homunculus,” which co-stars Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Cynthia Erivo, Marion Cotillard and some other folks.
Mitchell said he’s even prouder of “Anthem” than “Hedwig,” but the show hasn’t really caught fire yet, in part because it’s not easy to describe in snappy marketing-speak. “It’s not ‘the new duh-duh-duh-duh,’” he said. “It’s its own thing. But people are sheep, and they want to see what they just saw or are told is the cool thing to see. The audience is growing by word-of-mouth.”
Fair enough. But I suspect that most of us sheep will show up to Origin of Love to get a fresh sip from the old well.
A deep and resonant chord
What is it with Hedwig? Why are we so fascinated?
For those who’ve never experienced her in her native habitat (scruffy bar), or who, for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand, fail to be moved by her, Hedwig Robinson and her angry inch are nothing more than that stack of biographical improbabilities.
But for the rest of us, she hits a deep and resonant chord, one that’s cousin to the visceral genius some people hear in Kurt Cobain: hard-earned rage alloyed with knowing, existential exhaustion, softened and enriched by vulnerability.
She is also extraordinarily funny as she tells her story: Hedwig used to be Hansel, “a slip of a girlyboy” in East Berlin who fell in love with American rock ‘n’ roll and wanted to go west. An American soldier falls in love with Hansel, promising marriage and a ticket to the U.S., with a catch: to get a marriage visa, Hansel has to become a woman. Hansel becomes Hedwig, but the surgery is botched, and the soldier leaves her on their anniversary. Devastated, she moves into a trailer park and falls for a Christian teenager named Tommy. They write songs together, but he freaks out and leaves when he see Hedwig’s unique anatomy, then becomes a famous rock star using Hedwig’s songs. Now he’s on a marquee national tour and she’s tailing him from town to town, playing dives and telling her story. On the night we see her — lucky us! — Hedwig has her transformative meltdown.
“She’s the ultimate survivor,” Mitchell said. “Anyone who’s felt marginalized or powerless in some way can relate to her story, which tries to tell itself without didacticism: ‘This is how you must recover.’ It’s about self-creation after trauma, this mutilation — both spiritual and physical — that she’s suffered.”
Her self-creation is the fierce and frightening Hedwig, who yearns for an audience and then spits in its face. (At Re-bar, Garrison sprayed beer and threw tomatoes.) Like any good hero, she defeats the monster — in this case, a hostile, homophobic, transphobic, commercialized, spiritually bankrupt world — by overcoming herself and the brittle mask she hides behind.
“She does it with humor and openness,” Mitchell said. “And she eventually drops the drag, which had become a bit of a coffin, and essentially says: ‘You can call me whatever you want. I’m a gender of one, a person of uniqueness and I’m OK with that.’ I imagine she’s now a nonbinary adjunct professor of philosophy at some Midwest college — and singing in a band. And that’s enough for her.”
Through the show, Hedwig became an avatar for outsidership of any kind — an heir to the electrifying, primeval lineage of rock ‘n’ roll. “Rock ’n’ roll was originated by real freaks,” Mitchell said. “Little Richard was the original punk and he was a queer rocker of color. That’s the rock ’n’ roll I come from — David Bowie and Lou Reed, connected to androgyny and outsiders. When it became the music of the mean boy at school, I was confused.”
Theater doesn’t often have the raw power of a great concert — which is what made seeing Hedwig so special, and sometimes scary. Because it’s theatrical, with rock music and queer elements, some will want to draw a lazy comparison to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” — but that is a mistake. Dr. Frank N. Furter and company have a Teflon coating of silliness. “Rocky Horror” is a sleepover; “Hedwig” is a knife fight.
“As a young, closeted gay kid, I went to ‘Rocky Horror’ and thought: ‘What’s that feeling in my pants?!’” Ian Bell, who directed Jinkx Monsoon’s “Hedwig,” said with a laugh. “But ‘Hedwig’ is a real exploration. It’s a wrestle, like the seven stages of grief: there’s anger, denial, bargaining. And there’s a desire for freedom and love and connection — and the thing they gave to get to that [the botched surgery] is what’s betraying them.”
And unlike “Rocky Horror,” Bell added, the movie is good enough, but no substitute for a masterful and intimate live performance, saturated with the feeling that something could go horribly wrong at any moment — and land in your lap.
“The Moore wasn’t totally done with its renovation when we were there and still had a grungy feeling — it was about as classy a theater as you could pull ‘Hedwig’ off in,” he said. “I don’t think of it as a musical. It’s a live rock show that goes off the tracks. It’s visceral and dangerous — and as soon as it stops feeling like that, it starts feeling like theater with an ‘re.’ And that kind of language is lost on me.”
Maybe that’s Hedwig’s real, lasting legacy in this town. Yes, the movie is great. Yes, Trask’s soundtrack is a work of brilliance. Yes, the story, as Mitchell once described it in an interview, is “A ‘Wizard of Oz’ for the weirdos.”
But in Seattle, and especially at Re-bar, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” reminded us how gut-punchingly, memory-searingly powerful theater — the kind without an “re” — can be.
John Cameron Mitchell: The Origin of Love Tour. Thursday, Feb. 27; Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $50-$65 (plus Ticketmaster fees); 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org