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The Measure of an Angry Inch 

Hedwig's tale of heartbreak, struggle and rock&roll

On Valentine's Day 1998, Hedwig and the Angry Inch opened at the Jane Street Theatre in New York City. Before that, John Cameron Mitchell, who originally played Hedwig and wrote the text, and Stephen Trask, who wrote the music and lyrics, had developed the show in cabarets and gay bars, trying on the glam rock lifestyle, a la Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie.Hedwig played at the Jane Street, to swelling acclaim, for more than two years. It is a thing apart from any other rock musical: it has real, sometimes gritty music that authentically rocks. The opening number, "Tear Me Down," trips the rock fantastic, and completely obliterates the fourth wall.

Billy Ensley will play the title role in the Actor's Theatre production, opening May 28. He also directs it.

"I saw Hedwig at the Jane Street," says Ensley. "The music and the lyrics were very strong, the message was powerful, and it was all behind this guise of a rock concert and a drag act. A year later, doing Hedwig had become an obsession. I brought the project to Dan Shoemaker (of Actor's Theatre). . .This isn't like other musicals. In most, an actor is in a scene, and suddenly he's singing. The thing that makes this different and compelling to a wider audience is that it's already put in the concert vernacular."

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the story of a boy named Hansel Schmidt, born in Berlin the year the Berlin Wall went up. When opportunity presents itself in the form of an American soldier, Hansel becomes Hedwig -- via a not-so-successful sex change operation -- and comes to America. Abandoned in a Kansas trailer park, Hedwig eventually gains a shred of celebrity as the ex-lover of the famed rocker Tommy Gnosis. His pan-Slavic band, The Angry Inch, shadows Tommy's big arena tour, playing in strip malls and dive bars. And every night, Hedwig tells his bittersweet tale of loves and many losses.

Ensley talked about how the show's band was formed:

"When I was looking for musicians in the beginning, I went around to places like the Double Door and Tremont Music Hall and tried to find a local band. That proved difficult, because each band had its own agenda, and its own lead singer, who wasn't eager to hand the mike to someone else. They were very nice, and loved the work, but I realized I'd have to put a band together. I asked Ben Jackson, because he's an incredible guitar player. He plays Skszp, the Stephen Trask role. He's perfect. Chip Decker is a bass player, and crazy about the music. Jeff Lynds is the drummer. Matt Olin plays keyboards. B. Pierce is the Yitsak, the backup singer and roadie. Craig Spradley is the musical director. We rented a studio and began to practice the music in March."

Ben Jackson hasn't been in a play before, but has useful experience of another sort.

"Hedwig's band is not a whole lot different from the last band I was in," says Jackson. "It was a glam punk band called Nute, and we'd show up, glammed out, and play for five or ten people who hated us, then get in the van and go to the next town. The real difference is that Hedwig's music isn't true glam rock; it's more varied. There are a lot of musical styles here."

Matt Olin is the managing director for Charlotte Rep. Theater has always been his first love, but music is a close second.

"I started when I was living in New York," explains Olin. "I was really good friends with Jesse Wann (son of Jim Wann, who wrote Pump Boys and Dinettes and Diamond Studs), and we'd spend two or three nights a week writing songs. We started a couple of bands. I was in a band in Charlotte called Toady Fatz, and that wrapped up just about the time I first talked to Billy about playing with this band."

Chip Decker (producing artistic director for Actor's Theatre) says The Angry Inch take their glam rock image seriously.

"Right now, in eastern Europe, Duran Duran is probably very popular," opines Decker. "They're 15 or 20 years behind there. The Inch thinks their material is cutting edge in 2003."

Rehearsals for Hedwig took place in Actor's Theatre's new space in the old Reliable Music building. Actor's Theatre will begin performing there in December. On moving to the Duke Power Theatre for this performance run, Billy says the only downside is that it's "nice. My way around the niceness is to make it look like we're a beat-up road show that's parked onstage for the evening. This time, we just got lucky with the venue; usually The Angry Inch gets booked into dumps."

The character Hedwig is at once fantastic and familiar. At moments, he fully inhabits his rock star aspirations, but at other times seems as worn out and sad as an old party shoe. He rules The Inch through intimidation, threatening to call Immigration and holding onto their passports. They, in turn, despise him, and let the audience know they've heard his stories a million times. But under the exaggerated wig and heavily applied make-up, Hedwig has a heart. Based on Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium, the song "The Origin of Love" explains how Zeus split men in half to make them less of a threat. People are forever destined to search for their other half.

This is an allegory for Hedwig's own longings: the same desire to be known and accepted that speaks to us all.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch opens May 28 and runs through June 12. In addition to the usual 8pm shows, Hedwig will have a second show every Saturday, beginning at 11pm.

Lydia Arnold is editor of the online arts digest, ArtSavant.

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