Playing the lead in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a daunting task. John Cameron Mitchell’s 1998 rock musical requires an impressive set of pipes, a flawless German accent and even more flawless legs. Gay heartthrob Neil Patrick Harris, Rent creator Anthony Rapp, Breakfast Club star Ally Sheedy and Drag Race celeb Jinkx Monsoon have all tackled the role, not to mention Mitchell himself in the original production and film version.
Depending on the performer’s chops, it can be either a career-launching showcase (see Mitchell) or a career-ending disaster (see Sheedy). But when it comes to his own turn as the blonde-wigged goddess, Ottawa producer/performer Tim Oberholzer seems upbeat and unfazed.
“Our experiences are all so different, and every Hedwig is ultimately different,” he says. “It’s not often roles this challenging and complex come along, which is part of the excitement. If someone had beaten me to producing it locally, I’d have beaten down their door to audition.”
Hedwig unfolds like a memoir inside a concert as the main character tells her story through songs and audience banter. Hansel, an East German “girly boy” with a penchant for rock music and philosophy, meets an American soldier serving there and falls in love. The couple wants to flee the country but can do so only as husband and wife. With the help of her mother, a sex-change operation and a new passport, Hansel becomes Hedwig. But the operation is botched, leaving her with the “angry inch,” a small unclassifiable mound of flesh between her legs.
It may be to Oberholzer’s benefit that he’s never seen a production. His only encounter with the show was hearing the original cast recording about 10 years ago.
“I was blown away by how powerful the music was,” he says. “I’ve performed in rock musicals over the years, but this is definitely one of the best ones ever. There’s a fantastic blend of humour and pathos, and the story moves the audience from laughter to tears and back again. I immediately saw it as a potential project, because it’s exactly the kind of theatre I’m passionate about.”
Preparing for any role is challenging, but in this case there’s another level of complexity: Oberholzer is straight. Though he’s played gay characters before, Hedwig meant a crash course in trans issues. Wanting to bring a level of authenticity to the performance, he’s spent considerable time observing drag performers, paying particular attention to their physicality.
“My approach is to focus as little on the contrast between my onstage and offstage orientation as possible and try to just be,” he says. “The trans experience is so far removed from my own, I’ve rarely thought about it before encountering Hedwig. The show does an excellent job opening a door into the hearts and minds of the trans community and the challenges and obstacles they face. But it’s also a show anyone who’s struggled with issues of identity can connect with. There’s a little Hedwig in everyone, and it celebrates embracing who you are, however you identify.”