Most touring musicians have more than a few sordid tales of the grind that is live music in Canada — under-attended gigs performed in dingy dives to over-liquored patrons. Ask most Canadian theatre artists, however, and — with the possible exception of those who have subjected themselves to non-union elementary-school tours — they generally draw a blank. Not so for Seth Drabinsky, the performer in, and director of, an upcoming run of the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch being mounted at the Drake Underground.
Drabinsky first discovered the ill-fated heroine while browsing the stacks at the late-lamented A&B Sound in his native Calgary. “I would go through the [musical theatre] CDs and, based on what the album cover looked like, buy it,” says the soft-spoken performer. On one such excursion, a piece of particularly camp cover art caught his eye. “This CD cover has John Cameron Mitchell in his black top and booty shorts . . . he looks like a drag queen, and I was totally fascinated by that,” Drabinsky says. “The music and lyrics were so amazing to this closeted 17-year-old… I fell in love.”
Though he studied opera in the prestigious vocal program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Drabinsky’s heart always felt the pull of the American musical. “I started singing because I wanted to do musical theatre,” he explains, “and when I moved [to Toronto] I started taking voice lessons again . . . and it helped me almost ‘naturalize’ my voice, to sing more like I speak.” With his voice freed of some of the limitations of his rigorous classical training, he set about reinventing himself as a musical theatre performer, appearing in productions at the SummerWorks and Next Stage festivals.
His history with Hedwig dates to the first non-Halloween-related time he donned drag for a 2007 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, mounted in Vancouver. After the run, he had the opportunity to perform for Hedwig’s creator and original performer, John Cameron Mitchell. “He was in town for the queer film festival [promoting his film] Shortbus,” Drabinsky says, “and the festival was doing a cocktail reception for him, and they had asked us to perform at the closing ceremony . . . so I ended up performing two songs for him and I got to chat with him.” Mitchell faced a vocal learning curve similar to the one Drabinsky encountered when he first began to sing Stephen Trask’s punk-inspired score. “[Mitchell] said it took him a while to let everything go,” says Drabinsky, “and just rock out.”
Written by Mitchell and with songs and lyrics by Trask, Hedwig tells the story of Hansel, an overeducated effeminate boy who falls in love with a self-hating American soldier who promises to help him escape from Communist East Berlin on the condition that he undergo sex-reassignment surgery. The operation fails — along with the relationship — and Hansel (now Hedwig) finds herself in Kansas, where she meets Tommy, a straight-laced teenager. Through the power of Eastern European glamour, Hedwig transforms Tommy into a glam-rock icon. After Tommy betrays Hedwig, steals her songs and gains instant fame, Hedwig and her band, the Angry Inch, follow Tommy’s sold-out stadium tour across the country in a quest for redemption.
In 2009, Drabinsky reprised the role of Hedwig for a production mounted by Vancouver’s Ghost Light Projects. Members of the Ghost Light team — including drummer, co-producer and tour manager Jeremy Knowles and sound designer, tech director and co-producer Tim Lindsay — formed a company of their own that they dubbed breathe.feel.love in order to continue their journey with Hedwig. According to Drabinsky, the new company decided to forgo the usual route of independent theatre producing. “Breathe.feel.love came into existence in order to tour Hedwig like a rock band . . . travelling on the road, doing one city and one venue per night.” This took Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg and Montreal.
The rigours of life on the road were, initially, an eye-opening experience for a group used to working in the (relative) safety of the theatre. In a scene that seems pulled from a Sex Pistols documentary, Drabinsky tells of one particularly colourful experience in Thunder Bay. “We drove up to Ottawa, [and] the next morning we drove all day to Thunder Bay.
“We got into Thunder Bay at one o’clock in the morning, and the booker was supposed to line up a place to stay, but that fell through, and we wound up finding a motel.” Naturally — as one does when one is touring a queer rock musical — the troupe headed straight for the motel’s karaoke bar. After belting out a few numbers, they struck up a conversation with an especially boisterous (and overly intoxicated) patron who offered to put the company up for the night. When the company members arrived at their new lodgings, “I was the last one to get out of the van, and by the time I got to the door, everyone was booking it back to the van,” says Drabinsky, who describes the ghastly interior as looking “a bit like a meth lab.”
The tour paid off, however, when a successful performance at a Winnipeg bar led to an invitation to return to perform in the Winnipeg Fringe Festival the following summer. This run played to packed houses and earned the company rave reviews.
After so many years spent inhabiting Hedwig’s world, Drabinsky has had time to ruminate on the musical’s myriad themes and interpretations. For Drabinsky, Hedwig’s journey doesn’t necessarily represent a trans narrative, but he does see the ways in which the piece’s themes of acceptance and perseverance can speak to the challenges faced by the trans community. “A lot of it is about gender fucking,” he says. “I understand how [the trans community] can perceive it as a negative thing,” he adds, “but deep down the story is about love and accepting yourself — that’s at the heart of it — and I think that is universal, and a lot of people in the trans community face that as well.”
Ultimately, he says, “accepting yourself is a part of your journey.”
This newest incarnation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is being mounted by breathe.feel.love at the Drake Underground, a venue whose marriage of glamour and decay should provide a fitting backdrop; Seth Drabinsky and his cohorts, seasoned by the road, are now perfectly suited to rock.