Former Tucson Weekly editor Jimmy Boegle once wrote that "the best concert I've seen in Tucson ... was in (a) tiny black-box room ... as Christopher Johnson held court at Etcetera's production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
Indeed, Hedwig, created by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, is as much a rock concert as it is a musical.
Mitchell first performed the role of Hedwig—an East German transsexual and "internationally ignored song-stylist"—at New York City's famous drag bar Squeezebox, where Trask ran the house band.
Mitchell and Trask used rock songs and live drag performances as inspiration, and their show had a wildly successful off-Broadway run in 1998. In 2001, Mitchell directed himself in a movie version of Hedwig, which has gone on to develop a rabid cult following.
"Part of the show is not just acting the roles but (creating) a kind of punk rock environment," says Christopher Johnson, who plays Hedwig in a new production opening Valentine's night downtown, courtesy of the brand-new Bastard (Theatre). "That's ... how the show has to sound and feel and taste."
The premise is that Hedwig began life as an East German "slip of a girlyboy" named Hansel, then underwent a sex change operation. The plan was for him to marry an American serviceman and immigrate to the U.S. but the surgery was botched. Thus the "angry inch" of the title—it's what remains between Hedwig's legs. It's also the name of the backing band, which plays as Hedwig both narrates and sings her story to the audience.
This is the second time Johnson has taken on the part. When he was artistic director of Etcetera, the late-night arm of Live Theatre Workshop, he was prodded to play Hedwig by Dani Dryer, an Etcetera actor.
"He had mentioned it to me once in passing, and I wouldn't leave him alone about it," says Dryer, who ended up playing Yitzhak, Hedwig's long-suffering companion.
"It just took awhile for both of us to feel like it was even something that was at all possible. Something that we could pull off."
Dryer and Johnson were overwhelmed at the response to the 2009 show. The audience sang along and threw panties onstage, and some folks even clamored to sit in the "car wash" seat. (Let's just say that's where you get some special attention from Hedwig.)
Now, four years later, they're staging it again. Johnson left Etcetera last year to act with the Rogue Theatre and he's also co-artistic director of Winding Road Theater Ensemble. Dryer also now performs with Rogue. But both actors are still committed to working together in cutting-edge theater.
So the Bastard (Theatre) was born. And the Bastard's inaugural show? Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
"I always knew that when we started a theater company, we would start it with Hedwig," says Johnson, who is directing, as well as starring this time around. "It's a great flagship of our aesthetic and the energy of the work we like to do."
The philosophy of the Bastard is to produce "new and contemporary plays by, for, with and about Americans in their 20s and 30s." Its creed is "Violent. Lusty. Straight from the gut."
Johnson is finding it a little different to be producing the show for his own company.
"It's the first play I've independently produced," he says. "We're getting to give ourselves our dream production of Hedwig ... but financially, it's different. ... When we did it at Etcetera, all we had to worry about was whether it was going to suck."
"And what to wear," adds Dryer.
"Which is still a big concern," Johnson acknowledges. "But this time, it's like 'Can I feed my dog and not get audited?'"
But Hedwig has a built-in cult audience, Johnson says. "People are so excited that the show is happening, so it's really felt very community-driven."
To fund the production, Johnson created a website, hedwigtucson.com, to help raise a much-needed $5,000. While they haven't hit the magic number yet, Johnson was moved by how quickly and eagerly support poured in.
Additionally, the Bastard has some creative fundraising and marketing strategies. That car-wash seat, for example? You can reserve it for $50.
For this production, instead of the small black-box theater at LTW, Hedwig will be performed in a much-larger venue, the Screening Room. This downtown theater has a built-in movie screen for backdrop projections of images and animations (all designed by Johnson). There's also room for the live band.
Musical director David Lane, who performs as Madame Zero, pulled together a band from his contacts in the local music scene.
"Part of what I love about the band is they're not actors," says Johnson. "They're a real band trying to figure out the best way to play with each other, the best way to make the music sound right."
The musicians have also helped ratchet up Hedwig's rock-show elements.
"I've done a ton of musical theater," Johnson notes, "but this is whole 'nother animal."
Ultimately, this raucous rock show touches people because it's all about love, Johnson argues, both love for another and the more difficult love for oneself.
"Hedwig is so foreign on a surface level in terms of her life and her circumstances and her body," Johnson says, but "all she's talking about is unrequited love and being lonely and every single thing any single person anywhere could relate to."
One of the show's themes is that "love is genderless," Johnson says, so it has "lent itself beautifully" to queer and transgender causes. But "it is not just about gay, straight, gender-queer." It's a "love song about love songs."