Hedwig & The Angry Inch! An Interview with Michael Cerveris
Los Angeles, CA
by Jay Sosnicki
Like its tragically transgendered lead character, Hedwig & The Angry Inch is unlike any musical you've ever seen. Part monologue, part rock and roll exorcism, Hedwig has been the hot underground ticket for nearly 2 years now, beginning as a performance piece in New York rock clubs, before landing its current residency at the Jane Street Theater. But Hedwig is more than a piece of musical theater -- it's an event, the first ever combination of rock and theater that delivers on both levels. Through the course of the show, Hedwig lays her life bare for the audience -- days as a "girly-boy" in communist East Berlin, a botched sex change and exile in the trailer parks of America, and her affair with "Tommy Gnosis," a boy she helps mold into a superstar, only to be abandoned by him once the truth of her "angry inch" comes to light. But Hedwig delivers much more than its outrageous plot might promise -- ultimately, the play is about the search for a soul mate and the dire lengths we'll go to find that elusive "missing part" of ourselves. Beneath the surface camp and bitchery of John Cameron Mitchell and Steven Trask's book and lyrics, the canny viewer will find a mirror -- in drag or stripped to the bone, Hedwig's search for love and respect is ultimately our own.
As performed by Michael Cerveris (Broadway's original Tommy)
and a badass backing band, the LA production of Hedwig & The Angry Inch is a 90
minute tour-de-force with the emotional impact of a tornado. Cerveris is a marvel in the
part, bringing equal doses of pathos and deft comic timing to his muscular portrayal of
Hedwig. He also brings a wealth of personal rock 'n roll experience to bear, having led
his own band and logged time as the bassist in (ex-Husker Du frontman) Bob Mould's touring
outfit. Onstage and in conversation, Michael is the archetype of the new millennium
performer -- adept in several aspects of his craft, and totally unwilling to limit his
talent to just one of them.
What do you see as the difference between a musical like Hedwig and bogus crap like Rent?
I went to see Rent, because I had a friend in it. I was sitting there thinking -- the songs, they're not terrible, but why do I feel like it would be more interesting if they were being played by some no-name band in a bar? I think it's because, even though the band was onstage, they weren't really a band. The singers were running around with these headset mikes, and there was lots of rock posturing, but it all looked false. Coincidentally, I ended up seeing Hedwig two days later, still thinking about this thing about why rock 'n roll doesn't seem to work in theater -- and here was the answer. Hedwig was a great rock show and also a totally authentic theater piece. I think the reason is that John and Steven had worked out the one thing that's hardest to accept in musical, which is why people start singing out of nowhere. The reason Hedwig sings is because it's part of her club act -- there's no attempt to disguise the fact that you're seeing a band. It's a real event and Hedwig is gonna tell you the story of her life.
You were the original lead in Tommy on Broadway -- did you feel that same sort of lack of authenticity there?
At the time I was doing it, I felt that Tommy was about the furthest traditional musical theater had gotten in the rock direction, if only because it had an honest-to-god rock score. Pete didn't intend to bring the Who to Broadway -- he was trying to expand the parameters of what musical theater was, as opposed to coming from rock 'n roll and just putting it onstage. He was doing something more complicated, really -- to sort of work within the system and see how much flexibility there was. And it was hugely successful. It tapped into a group of people who hadn't gone to the theater before, and now would. I think Tommy made Rent possible -- in some ways, it can be blamed for a lot of crappy musicals that came afterward (laughs).
What was it like working with Townshend? Did he kind of take you under his wing?
Before we started doing the New York run of the show, he flew me to London and took me around, showed me where he grew up, where the Who played their first gigs. It was like Wayne's World -- 'I am not worthy,' you know (laughs)? He told me, 'I can't tell you how to play this part, or how to be an actor, but I can teach you to be a rock star.' He's such a smart and compassionate man -- he's really able to see what people need.
Do you think that rock and roll has supplanted theater for most people?
Well, see I think theater does stuff that rock 'n roll can't do and vice-versa. But we have to make sure we don't confuse Broadway with theater. I'm all for anything that's gonna open up that stifled atmosphere of what Broadway is. But frankly, I'd rather put my energy into something like Hedwig, that's going to connect with those people I actually want to connect with -- the people who think Broadway has nothing to say to them.
Hedwig gets a serious emotional response from the audience, that real cult worship thing. Is it bizarre to be the subject of that kind of adulation?
It's flattering and fun and disorienting at the same time. Because you know you're the same guy that nobody wanted to talk to yesterday (laughs). I just try to remember how I was when I was in their place. Because I would go backstage to talk to my favorite people when I could -- I still do -- and I remember how much it meant to me when they'd take a second to shake my hand and know I was there. So I try to return that to other people. Then there are times when people are so freaked out that they can't even talk to you, so I try and help them out -- you're a person, I'm a person and we're talking, okay (laughs)?
What drew you to the character when you first saw the show?
I guess that feeling of being a freak, an outsider, not fitting in -- whatever the particulars of that might be for anyone. For me, it had to do with moving a lot as a child, getting used to one school, one set of friends and then moving on. So that leaves you disconnected in a way. Also, the fact that I grew up in West Virginia with a father and mother who were artists -- my boundaries weren't proscribed by the county line, the way it was for most of my friends. My parents made sure we knew how much world there was beyond our back yard, you know? We were exposed to theater and music at an early age and taught it was a valid thing. My parents could have lived a much more comfortable lifestyle if they hadn't sent us to good schools and paid for every kind of lesson we wanted to take -- they really lived their lives for us, gave us a good start.
You've really put your own stamp on the role of Hedwig. I mean, Mitchell wrote it and originated the part, but I think you've given it another dimension entirely.
Well, I don't think the character is insanely different, whether it's done by me or John. I think I come from more of a rock background, so my Hedwig is more of a rock 'n roll animal, whereas John comes from more of a theater background. He's also much more in tune and skilled with that kind of withering, snide, drag sarcasm -- I have to work a lot harder to get into that. Plus, with my build, it's clearer from the beginning that Hedwig was never meant to be a woman -- he's warped himself to be something that is so not who he is.
Did anyone advise you against taking the role? That you'd be "typed," that kind of thing?
Professionally, not really. But I did have friends who were like, 'are you sure you want to walk out of a Broadway contract and work for an eighth of what you're making now?' You know, go to some little theater downtown and wear a dress? And none of that stuff ever even dawned on me at the time -- all I was thinking was that Hedwig was an amazing show and that the guy who wrote it wanted me to be in it. Looking back on it, I'd say that my whole career has been like that -- following the option that seemed the most interesting, the most worth doing at the moment. Somehow, that brought me exactly where I wanted to be. But if I had set out to get into a Broadway show, become friends with Pete Townshend, tour with Bob Mould and then end up in this great show I'm in now -- I never could have planned a route to make it happen.
"Following your bliss" really works (laughs).
Exactly. If you're not happy now, when are you ever gonna be happy?
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