Director bets Pittsburgh’s ready for transgender rock star

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written by John Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, is the first-person story of Hedwig, a transgender character born in East Berlin and influenced by American glam rock. The “angry inch” is the unfortunate result of a botched sex-change operation performed as part of an attempt by Hedwig to escape Communist oppression with an American serviceman who later abandons her.

Hedwig’s American life begins in rural Nebraska and consists of touring the country as head of a rock band, performing biographical tunes that relate the triumphs and perils of her life. Hedwig mitigates her disillusion and frustration with colorful humor—for example, she recalls that once when an audience threw tomatoes, “After the show I had a nice salad.”

Enjoying rave reviews soon after opening off-Broadway in 1998, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was translated into an equally successful independent movie in 2001. The upcoming Pittsburgh production of Hedwig at the City Theatre will be directed by Brad Rouse and stars actor Anthony Rapp, who’s been featured in Rent and A Beautiful Mind.
Out recently talked to New York-based director Rouse by phone for this exclusive interview.

Out: What were your impressions the first time you saw Hedwig?
Brad Rouse: I just loved it! I saw the stage show during the first few weeks it was playing at the Jane Street Theater in Greenwich Village. I saw it seven times after that with a lot of different actors. It’s just an extraordinary piece of writing. The songs are great. What John Cameron did in creating this character and writing the material is really wonderful.

How does the stage show differ from the movie?
The stage show consists of a one-night rock concert—it doesn’t travel around the country—and the only characters are Hedwig, Itzhak (her guitarist and backup singer) and the band. The scenes played out in the movie are stories that Hedwig tells during the concert in the stage show.

The stage version is much more contained and just wonderfully satisfying—magical, funny and extremely entertaining—so I think it’s a little lighter than the movie. The movie got a little heavy at times but the play is a real triumph because it has the authenticity of a rock concert while it tells a wonderful story. Outlandish as Hedwig’s character is, she really tells a universal story.

How has your understanding of the story changed after seeing so many different versions, and what changes will you make for the Pittsburgh production?
Any successful production will really draw from the actor who’s playing that part. As much as John Cameron put a real stamp on it, Anthony Rapp has a different sensibility, a different energy and a different look. The band we have here in Pittsburgh is also quite different from the players in New York. The success of any production of the show needs to draw from the unique and special energies of those particular performers.

In a way, a lot of our design choices and our style are being drawn from what Anthony does as a performer. Even the set design will be different. The theater in New York used to be an old hotel; the theater in Pittsburgh used to be an old church [formerly Bingham United Methodist Church]. The design of the set will draw from the cues of being an old church. We want the production to be occurring in that room—not trying to transport the audience elsewhere. We’re trying to make it happen specifically in Pittsburgh.

How did your working relationship with Anthony Rapp transpire?
First of all, Anthony Rapp hired me—not the other way around. His brother, Brad Rapp, is one of the up-and-coming stars as a playwright in America and England. I directed a reading in a workshop of two different plays by Anthony’s brother.

What does Rapp bring that will make this performance special?
What he brings is a theater background, but he also has a rock band in New York; so he has an incredible sense of authenticity while performing with the musicians. He’s also going to function as the musical director of the show because he’s a very proficient musician, and rock music is his specialty. I went to see him perform with a band before I got this job, and he just lights up a room with his own material and his own songs. He’s just as at ease playing Henry IV [which he did in Boston last year] as he is in front of a rock band. He has incredible passion for writing and performing music; so it’s all just an easy fit.

Have you been to Pittsburgh before, and what are your impressions regarding the city and the local talent?
I have been there before because I had friends at some of the Pittsburgh theaters, and I feel very much at home in Pittsburgh—it’s very familiar to me. We could have cast all of the parts three or four times over here. People came in with such openness. The caliber of the musicians and the actors that we saw were as high as you would see anywhere.
In fact, I think Hedwig fits better in Pittsburgh than it does in New York. The character grew up in East Germany but landed in rural Nebraska; so there’s this sense of the industrial heartland of the country. A lot of the music sprang from that frustration of feeling like an underdog.

Eastern Europe, Pittsburgh and much of the country exist in the shadow of post-industrialism and a lot of that existence deals with finding a new place to fit in.
The character of the story plays right into what you’re talking about. We went to a club—the 31st Street Pub—and saw a really great, fun band called the Science Fiction Idols covering Hedwig tunes. Half of the people there were singing along, dressed for the part. I wanted to hand out tickets right there thinking this is exactly the audience I want! I also went to Pegasus and the Eagle, and after looking around I thought this show is going to touch so many people. It won’t be a culture-vulture event here. In New York it was sort of a culture-vulture event and I don’t want it to feel that way.

Does Steven Trask’s score have any particular personal meaning to you or bring back any memories of the rise and fall of glam rock?
I’m not a rock ’n’ roller. When Anthony interviewed me for this job he asked, “Do you have rock ’n’ roll in your soul?” I replied, “No, but I think you have enough in yours for both of us.”

When I first heard the music in context of the production, I thought the songs were terrific. Even though I did not spend my adolescence listening to that music, the lyrics, the story and the characters are so strong, that it had a huge emotional impact on me.
[But rock] didn’t influence just my generation. My father, a 60-year-old chemist from rural Missouri, happened to be in California for a conference when I got this job, and he went to the San Francisco production. He said, “It was a little loud, there was maybe too much fog, but I was really surprised by how exciting the show was.” The hardest rock my father ever listened to was “All Shook Up” by Elvis. But the music is part of the character. Hedwig picked the musicians and wrote the songs. The lyrics are Hedwig’s story and it’s all her take on love and being an outsider. Hedwig is probably the only rock CD I own, but I listen to it a lot because of how I felt in the theater.

The performance combines a tragic story with a lot of humor. How difficult is it to maintain the fine line between the two?
There is great sadness but also great heart and a great ability just to live large. If anything Hedwig does it’s to live large, and her disappointments and triumphs are also large. Her performance is large and her clothing is loud. Everything about Hedwig is full of life.

What would you tell audiences that have seen the movie but not the stage production?
I would tell them they are in for a surprise! I’m very partial to the play. I feel that in translating to the movie they did a really terrific job. John Cameron Mitchell is one of the most talented people working these days. That said, having Hedwig in the room and to hear that music live, to have the band there all night will surprise people with how much fun and entertaining an evening can be.

Do you have any other comments to share with Out’s readers?
The City Theatre has provided a wonderful atmosphere for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and I owe a lot to [Artistic Director] Tracy Brigden. The City Theatre really embraces new and challenging material of all kinds. It’s a hot, happening place in definitely the right neighborhood at the right time. I tip my hat to Tracy and everyone there, and also to Anthony and all the musicians that showed up to audition. There was such an outpouring of enthusiasm for this material.

The April 30 performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch will be the Shepherd Wellness Community’s 11th annual City Theatre benefit. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Frank Borrelli AIDS Fund of the Lambda Foundation, which provides grants for HIV/AIDS services. The regular run of Hedwig continues through June 8. For more information, call 412-683-4477 or check the ad in this issue.