The 1998 New York Times review of the original staging of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” contains at least two words now considered outdated, even offensive. The fact that the review was written just 21 years ago? That shows how much has changed in the world of gender and identity politics.
“Sex-change” operations are now generally called “gender-confirming” surgeries. And many “transsexuals” prefer the term “transgender.” With our language evolving so rapidly, no wonder it’s so tricky to stage the once-outré-but-now-beloved “Hedwig.” Discussion concerning gender has become a lot more nuanced since the musical premiered, with more Americans embracing a definition that is nonbinary, where people can identify with points along a continuum rather than the male-female extremes.
“ ‘Hedwig’ means so many different things to different people,” said trans actor Jay Owen Eisenberg, a cast member for Theater Latté Da’s “Hedwig” (opening Saturday in Minneapolis). “There are so many people in the queer community who love Hedwig and this show and so many who hate it and so many people in the middle. It’s true of any piece, but ‘Hedwig,’ especially, has a polarizing quality.”
That was also true when “Hedwig” debuted off-Broadway. It felt revolutionary with its story of a German youth who falls in love with a man. The title character has his penis removed so he can marry his lover and move to the U.S., only to be dumped and forced to carve out a living as a low-rent cabaret performer.
“Hedwig” became a 2001 cult movie starring co-creator John Cameron Mitchell. It eventually landed a 2014 Broadway stint that earned Neil Patrick Harris a Tony award. The show’s mass appeal proved “Hedwig” was no longer as subversive as it once seemed (the Times’ 2014 review called Hedwig’s gender “undefinable”). In fact, Mitchell — who now refers to the title character as “genderqueer,” a term that barely existed in 1998 but describes people who don’t identify with traditional roles — has said “Hedwig” would be a different show if he wrote it today. With actors including Laverne Cox and Asia Kate Dillon and TV series including “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Transparent” becoming popular in the interim — to say nothing of marriage equality and the public transition of Caitlyn Jenner — audiences are apt to see “Hedwig” a lot differently than they did in the late ’90s.
‘A third gender space’
For one thing, is Hedwig even trans?
“So many people, even LGBTQI people, still call Hedwig a trans character, but she never uses that word,” said Theater Latté Da Artistic Director Peter Rothstein, who codirects “Hedwig” with Annie Enneking. “The narrative is that Hedwig is a gay man who cuts his penis off to get out of East Berlin.”
Eisenberg concurs with that assessment.
“The show was pushing the envelope in so many ways in 1998 because we were seeing someone who was really messing with gender presentation and was a gender-variant person on stage,” he said. “But we have someone whose transition was largely informed by coercion, so it gets tricky to use the word ‘trans.’ ”
One thing both Eisenberg and Rothstein like about Hedwig is that she doesn’t fit current gender norms (as indicated by the script, the artists use she/her pronouns for the character). That’s why Eisenberg loves the idea of all kinds of actors playing the character: men, women, trans, genderqueer.
That’s also why, when he heard about the production last summer, in which cisgender actor Tyler Michaels King was cast as Hedwig (a role almost always played by cis men), Eisenberg “had some questions” about Latté Da’s take on the show.
So he called Rothstein. At a follow-up meeting with Rothstein and Latté Da Associate Artistic Director Elissa Adams, Eisenberg raised issues the queer community was debating, issues concerning the fairness of casting King. “Peter said, basically, ‘We knew conversation would come out of this, but we would rather have those conversations than not. We want to do this show and we want to talk about it,’ ” Eisenberg said.
The meeting convinced him that this was a “Hedwig” production he could get behind. “I do want us to be cast more, of course,” Eisenberg said. “But I don’t necessarily interpret this character as trans, because of how the transition happens. I interpret her, by the end, as occupying a third gender space.”
Minneapolis City Council Member, trans woman and artist Andrea Jenkins said that she’s surprised that a cisgender man is playing “Hedwig” but that she appreciates the involvement of Eisenberg and trans woman Jendeen Forberg, who played Hedwig’s drummer in the first Twin Cities production in 2002 and returns to that role for Latté Da. (The production includes several queer or gay artists.)
“I’m not always necessarily a purist around these issues,” Jenkins said. “I thought Jeffrey Tambor was an excellent choice for ‘Transparent’ because it was about a trans person coming out late in life. It totally made sense to me that that actor would portray that character, and I think Hedwig is in a similar vein.”
Rothstein stands by his casting choice but said he also gets why it’s controversial.
“We’re very intentional about opening our doors and inviting nonbinary artists to audition, to be a part of our process,” he said. “So that conversation I absolutely agree with: People were upset that Tyler got the role because there are not that many roles written for trans or nonbinary artists and I was denying them a chance to play this role.”
But “theater can build a more compassionate world,” he added, specifically because artists have the empathy to play characters who are different from them.
‘Small things matter’
After that initial meeting with Rothstein and Adams, Eisenberg was offered a job codirecting “Hedwig.” But when Meghan Kreidler, originally cast as Yitzhak, dropped out of the show, Adams asked Eisenberg whether he would consider auditioning.
He may be the first trans man to play Yitzhak, Hedwig’s sometime lover, a male role written for a woman’s voice. One “really beautiful” aspect of this production, he said, is how music director Jason Hansen rearranged Yitzhak’s vocals to make use of Eisenberg’s voice now, “a tenor with a lot of falsetto,” rather than the trained mezzo soprano he had before taking testosterone. “On the first day of rehearsal, I said, ‘Thank you for working with my Yitzhak. It feels good,’ ” Eisenberg said.
Meanwhile, Latté Da reflects Hedwig’s bravery by staging her lounge act not in a queer space, but in a suburban Minneapolis park circa 1997. That’s bound to start a conversation.
There’s also bound to be talk about the new signage at the Ritz Theater, where Latté Da performs. When patrons visit for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” they will see that the former men’s and women’s restrooms are now marked with signs inviting theatergoers to use whichever feels most comfortable. (Latté Da has been weighing an expensive conversion to fully gender-neutral bathrooms since it bought the Ritz in 2016.)
“When Peter first brought it up, I said, ‘That’s so great. I think it’s important for the run of this show to do that, considering that it’s likely we’ll have more people who want gender-neutral restrooms,’ ” Eisenberg said. “And Peter said, ‘Yeah, and then we’re going to keep them that way.’ Those small things matter. It can make you feel immediately comfortable when you walk into a place and think, ‘Hmmm. I see some very active allyship happening here.’ ”
While Latté Da’s nonbinary patrons and their allies will likely applaud the shift, Rothstein knows it won’t be easy for everyone. “We have some patrons who have said, ‘I would not be comfortable with this,’ ” he acknowledged. “But our response is usually, ‘Imagine how a transgender person has felt the majority of their life.’ ”
With President Donald Trump banning trans people from the military and seven states issuing nonbinary driver’s licenses, these are issues the country is still debating. And we’re debating them, at least in part, thanks to the trailblazing influence of “Hedwig.”
“Hedwig was a pioneer,” Rothstein said. “And we need to acknowledge these pioneers who put on a pair of heels, if that was how they acted out loud, or who knocked on doors or put on political rallies. She wants to have real conversations about her life experience, and how that resonates with gender identity and sexual identity and power.”
So Latté Da is inviting Hedwig into the Ritz to continue that conversation, one encompassing how all of us come to know ourselves, how we express that, where we occasionally miss the mark and maybe which restroom feels right.