Cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch comes to Leeds Playhouse
The pandemic robbed us of a lot of theatrical moments; productions that would have happened but for Covid.
One such production is – well, it doesn’t really matter now, because it didn’t happen and now it’s unlikely it ever will.
It was due to be a cult musical directed at Leeds Playhouse by Jamie Fletcher. That production is consigned to the history books, but the good news is, taking its place is – a cult musical directed at Leeds Playhouse by Jamie Fletcher.
“The other thing didn’t happen because of the pandemic when it was supposed to and then we were told we couldn’t have the rights, which was obviously disappointing,” says Fletcher.
“In that moment I pulled this out of my back pocket. It’s my dream show, so I pitched it and explained my version and my vision of the show.”
The Leeds Playhouse powers that be said yes, and so we have Fletcher’s staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
A musical that is not without controversy, to which we will return, when Fletcher calls it a dream project, she means it.
“I found out about the show via the film, something which I was really excited to see. More than anything else I had seen, it spoke to me as a piece of work that explored gender and sexuality and as a young, queer trans kid, seeing it was something of a seminal moment. It’s incredibly powerful and influential when you see something on screen or stage and you see yourself reflected.”
Given the cult nature of the show, you might not know the actual story, but the chances are you recognise the title – it’s one of those that seems to stick. Like The Rocky Horror Show, you might not necessarily get the actual plot from a stranger in the street, but chances are they’ll recognise the name.
The similarly memorable Hedwig began its life as an off-Broadway musical, which tells the story of the eponymous hero.
Hedwig, born Hansel Schmidt in communist East Germany, falls in love with an American GI and undergoes gender reassignment surgery at the soldier’s behest so that they can marry as husband and wife. The operation is not a resounding success, leaving Hedwig with an ‘angry inch’.
Things go from bad to worse when the GI leaves on their first wedding anniversary, a story Hedwig recounts while touring dive bars in 1990s America with her somewhat unsuccessful band The Angry Inch. The final insult to the hero is that another former lover has become a huge rockstar with songs stolen from Hedwig.
The controversy referred to earlier comes from the casting choices: a production due for Australia in 2020 was cancelled after complaints that a man, Hugh Sheridan, was cast in the lead role and not someone who was transgender.
Neil Patrick Harris, famously out as a gay man working in Hollywood, played the role to much acclaim on Broadway.
“I feel really strongly that a cisgender gay man like Neil Patrick Harris shouldn’t be playing this role. ‘Cis’ isn’t a slur, it just means someone who is the gender they were assigned at birth, I actually think it’s a really helpful word.
“Hedwig is genderqueer, non-binary, feminine and presents as a she. She’s definitely not a gay man playing dress up, a gay man doing drag; that’s something which is incredibly clear to me.
“There is an historical thing that transwomen are using drag as a means of expression, but when we set up this idea that transwomen are ‘men in dresses’, it devalues us and is actually very dangerous. A frightening number of people believe that is what transwomen are. For a transwoman, our identity is not ‘pretend’, we are not ‘pretending’ to be women – which is what, say Eddie Redmayne was doing in The Danish Girl.
“There are so few roles for transwomen, I believe that the small number of roles that are available should be played by transwomen.”
In Fletcher’s production the role of Hedwig is being played by Yorkshire’s popular drag act Divina De Campo.
“She is a phenomenal actor and her experience on doing drag cabaret shows means she has this incredibly quick wit and knows exactly how to whip up an audience. Hedwig is quite an anti-heroine, but very quickly the audience has to fall in love with her. It’s a real testament to Divina’s skill that she is able to do that,” says Fletcher.
De Campo, a singer who is known for having a remarkable four octave range, came to national prominence with a role on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The action has also been transplanted to a Northern working men’s club, a licence the originators of the script John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask granted those who want to stage their work.
With all the relevance and importance the piece has in terms of gender representation and queer lives, it might sound like quite a heavy show.
“It’s definitely not for kids. This isn’t a family show,” says Fletcher.
“But it’s a real rollercoaster of a show with some incredible music. It is essentially a two-hander with four musicians who make up Hedwig’s band, but they pack a serious punch.
“While it is smutty and has lots of adult stuff in it, this is really a show about how everyone should be able to be free to be themselves. It’s a story for anyone who has felt on the outside, felt like they don’t belong.
“It’s really about the idea that everyone deserves to be how they are and not have to hide their real selves or hide their identity.”
Leeds Playhouse, April 2-23. Tickets leedsplayhouse.org.uk