Will 'Hedwig' Return as a Star-Launching Show? Taye Diggs, Composer Reflect on "Spiritual" Broadway Run (Q&A)
Before the final performance on Sept. 13, THR speaks with Diggs and Stephen Trask on how the repeatedly extended revival aligned with diverse casting onstage and transgender topics in the media.
It’s nearly time for Hedwig and the Angry Inch to put the wig back on the shelf, after topping the heads of Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, John Cameron Mitchell (again), Darren Criss and, now, Taye Diggs.
“The wig was the most difficult for me at first — what a weird wig!” Diggs tells The Hollywood Reporter during a wide-ranging chat with composer Stephen Trask, who penned the the cult musical — about an East German rocker who receives a botched transgender surgery, and comes to America searching for fame and a truer sense of self — with Mitchell in the ‘90s.
Yet as the repeatedly extended Tony-winning Broadway revival wraps its 18-month run at the Belasco Theater on Sept. 13, Trask applauds how their heroine admirably wears resilience so well. “Shit keeps hitting the fan for her, but ‘suddenly I’m Miss punk rock star of stage and screen...’ Every time she's at the bottom, she finds a way of remaking things.”
The following is THR’s edited chat with Diggs and Trask about the “transformative” title role (in Diggs’ case, affecting both his professional process and his views on sexuality), the run’s remarkable alignment with diverse casting onstage and transgender topics in the media, and further potential (star-studded and star-launching) stagings of the beloved production.
What was your first impression of Diggs’ Hedwig?
TRASK Surprisingly feminine! I don't think it's just because you have a pretty face …
DIGGS Well, thank you!
TRASK … But there's something about your mannerisms that seems unselfconsciously feminine.
DIGGS In character or in life?
TRASK In character — and maybe in life too, but I don't notice it. Like the way you just did that [wiped under his eye], with makeup and a wig, it’d look feminine. Not exaggerated in a drag way; it seems natural. And because your body is so big, it makes you look really trans. Sometimes when you see a trans person, you can actually see, “That's a person who was born a woman but is now a man,” or “That's a person who was born a man but is now a woman.” So there's this very feminine, very trans quality to what Taye is doing that I haven't seen in anybody else's performance.
DIGGS Usually, I’d study trans and feminine to pick up characteristics, but I didn't have time to do that because the text was so dense. I was the slowest of all the Hedwigs to memorize everything. But I feel like something magical and spiritual happened, which is why I know I was supposed to do this at this time in my life.
Before this role, I hated whenever actors talked about "the craft," and the character like it wasn't themselves: "Hedwig was crazy tonight!" It used to get on my nerves! But for the first time, I get it because I get onstage in the wardrobe, those heels, the accent, the movement, and — I can't believe I'm saying this shit — I'm like a vessel, only because I don’t understand it, and I won’t claim it. I learned how to surrender. I'm usually very practical and logical; if you want to appear more male, you stiffen your hips and shoulders. But I didn’t do any of that, it just came — and it's fun! I feel like I'm watching myself — whoever this is, is working it out tonight!
Do you hear anything new in the music, as Taye sings it?
TRASK There's a soulful breeziness to "Wig in a Box," there's a Leonard Cohen/The National quality in "Origin of Love" when it's down there. And there's a richness to some things like "Tear Me Down," it feels heavier and thunder-y. I like it.
DIGGS I told Trask when I started, I never enjoyed singing, outside of being in the chorus and f—ing around with other people onstage. I never really liked the sound of my own voice; it's kind of low and nasal-y, and my range has been capped. I couldn't play the roles I wanted, for whatever reason. I tried singing jazz, thinking I could be smooth in concerts. And I always thought, if I was going to do something for myself, it'd be with someone else and have some back-and-forth. But once they lowered the key, I enjoyed singing onstage by myself. These solos, I'm excited to sit down on that stool, fold my legs and sing those songs.
Taye’s first line, “You’re seeing straight: The bitch is black!” is a fun addition, immediately acknowledging the diverse casting — a popular Broadway topic right now.
TRASK I like to see how the book changes from actor to actor, and I was actually concerned in this case because I didn't want anything overwritten to deal with the fact that our Hedwig was black. It didn't seem any need to make a big deal out of it from a textual perspective: "Your father was a black G.I.?" No, your father's an American G.I., whatever.
DIGGS If there's a role I’ve wanted to play that happens to be white, I'll just want to play it, but I'm not necessarily looking for white roles to make them black. It's getting better now, but unfortunately, as a young black man, most of those roles were like that. You can either limit yourself, or stay positive and know that it's gonna happen at some point. I got lucky, and that happened with me for some reason in a few instances, and it just so happened that the role had been written white.
Then you get dumbasses that try to change it. …
TRASK Change the language? You don't say, "Hello," you say, "Yo! 'Sup!"
DIGGS Exactly! And it's a slippery slope — sometimes it makes sense, but then other times, it doesn't. It's less about black or white, but the character. I think it's gonna be a sticky point for a while, unfortunately, because we still don't get it. Sexuality, same thing. This has really opened my eyes to sexuality — when I was much younger, I used to be so intent on, "Are you gay or straight? Would you ever f— a girl? Okay, so if you're a guy and you suck a penis, but you have a girlfriend…" It was like, if you do this, you gotta be that. And that's just not the case. All that still fascinates me.
I'm still fascinated by trans. There's tons of shit I don't know, I have no problem admitting that, and I try to love everybody. This is something I'll admit — I struggle with the idea of how someone can feel like a woman. How do you know what a woman feels like? I'm just wondering. If this person were alone on Earth, what would they say? Does it have to do with what they see? It's got to, I think, maybe? Then if that's the case, how do you feel it? Are you making a perception? It fascinates me. And I'm curious as to why you feel like you have to have a penis. If you didn't know a man had a penis, would you still think you need a penis? All of that, I'm curious. You know what I mean?
TRASK Yeah, I do. It's metaphysical — some of these issues bring up large, metaphysical, existential questions that make you sit down, and if you stop and think to yourself, most men are born with penises but not all; some men are born with vaginas. You're like, well then, how are they a man? You find yourself in an almost philosophical place, and then you come back to Earth and say, oh I get it: we're all people. We're all just people sharing the planet, we all have things in common and we all have ways we're different, and that's what it is.
DIGGS Yes! We're all people. But we f—ed it up by making labels so stringently; it backfired. At the end of the day, if people were cool with whatever way we were born, we would've done whatever we want with each other and been cool. But I have a suspicion that because we tried to categorize people and separate, we're going back on ourselves until we come back to that it doesn't matter what we have.
It's amazing that this revival played as transgender issues were gaining widespread focus.
TRASK I [recently] found an email I wrote to Neil in 2010: "I know you know I've been wanting you to play Hedwig on Broadway. … I know you're busy with your TV show, but what if we're willing to wait for you in 2012?" And in 2012, it was, "What if we're willing to wait for you until whenever?!" That it happened to line up when this topic became a popular thing is so coincidental.
DIGGS Do you feel like it was in the stars or was supposed to happen, or any of that?
TRASK I do. I don't really know why, because I'm not a spiritual person. I might be spiritual, but my spirituality doesn't include the universe doing things; it's much more of a spirituality among fellow humans beings and animals and life on the planet. But the fact that this happened the way it did, over so many years, to line up at that exact moment?
You know, people very often will suggest trans women to play this role, but no one ever suggests trans men. It’d be interesting to have a trans man in drag. What if Yitzhak were played by a trans woman who had to dress as a dude and tape her breasts down, and only let that side out at the end? That would be rich.
Ultimately, it comes down to: Can the person act? Is the person funny? Can the person sing? Can the person dance? Does this person look good with their shirt off? That's the role! [laughs] That's kind of our brand — you go through this whole thing and get emotionally raw, and then this really sexy guy takes all his clothes off. And it's just been one sexy guy after another!
Taye, you stretch so many muscles as Hedwig — singing, improv, physical comedy and dramatic moments. Which excites you most?
DIGGS Improv. I always thought, it'd be cool if I could do that without getting anxious or worried about other people. There's no time for any nerves or pride or ego in this show. Even if I f— something up or a joke doesn't land, the moment passes.
I grew up painfully shy. Then I slowly started shaping out what I thought I could be good at, and for the longest time, I just stayed in that box. I thought, I'm gonna be the smooth, cool guy who doesn't sing too far out of his range. I felt safe. But now, I'm turning forty and divorced and coming into a spiritual path, and I thought, "I need to step outside of this box. This isn't what life is supposed to be." So I started to say yes to shit. With this, I said yes so quick because I knew if I thought about it, I'd start running in the other direction.
TRASK There were a lot of things you did for the first audience that you never did in rehearsals. Not insignificant stuff, but huge blocks of material, and it was all hilarious. I almost cried the first night during that bit of sliding on the car! It's like Lucille Ball or Buster Keaton kind of comedy! It was revelatory.
I hadn't seen bits like that from other Hedwigs, or from you in other roles.
DIGGS I do that all the time at home for my brothers and sisters. I'm so thankful, because this is so much of everything I've wanted to do for so long. Same with the music — Rent was the closest, but the music is different and I had the smallest part. I was on the outside, looking in, wishing that I could do more and sing songs like the other leads. I think I finally got my shot. This was a transformative role for me in ways that I can't describe.
The other rotating actors have said similar things about this part.
TRASK That’s gratifying to hear. People like Taye and Neil and Michael have real careers behind them, and to have people who are not kids saying that — after they've already put in a number of decades! — it feels big to me that it can stand out, even in a long and successful career. It's been an unbelievable gift to have this string from Neil to Taye of lead actors coming in, bringing depth and humor and singing the shit out of it, showing different sides of themselves.
DIGGS I want to see them back-to-back. A week of Hedwigs! That would be cool.
TRASK I'm just sad I didn't get to play the role once. I would've loved to have done it. When they were first trying out keys and you weren't there, I was observing and they asked me to stand in. I knew all the choreography and everything!
DIGGS You should do it! You should work on that for the marathon! Everyone should do one night. Wait a little while, maybe do it somewhere else …
TRASK And I'd get us to seven shows! Six Hedwigs, and me.
What do you admire about Hedwig most?
DIGGS Fearlessness, on every level. How she throws herself at Luther, when she puts Tommy's hand between her legs, blowing the producer to get on a stage, for an audience she's never been in front of, and just kicking ass. And then losing it and making that transformation — doing that in therapy is one thing, but she does that in front of everybody! And then setting Yitzhak free is like cutting a certain cord, that's crazy.
TRASK Tommy Gnosis sings to Hedwig, "When everything starts breaking down, you take the pieces off the ground, show this wicked town something beautiful and new." It's like her life. Shit keeps hitting the fan for her, but “suddenly I’m Miss punk rock star of stage and screen" after Luther leaves; she finds Luther after getting thrown out of university. And she does this show after Tommy leaves her. Every time she's at the bottom, she finds a way of remaking things.
Stephen, what have you learned from this revival?
TRASK Artistically, be yourself — I mean, go out and write my next thing as my authentic self.
DIGGS Do you know who that is?
TRASK No, but if I trust that my authentic self is there, that that's who will be doing the writing. I feel like I was that here [with Hedwig]. … Sometimes I'll work on a musical, and people will say, “I want this and that number,” and you start thinking, “I guess I should look at the rules.” No, f— the rules. Just write as yourself. At the very least, it'll be true to you. And then, just do your best.
Going forward, the piece has a certain profile it didn't have before. Maybe our next Hedwig in a big space is someone people haven't all heard of. Not like casting someone out of nowhere, but theatergoers knew Alan Cumming was known for Shakespeare and getting rave reviews, but then he did Cabaret. … I don’t think theater has produced a male celebrity of that level since, who came out as a well-respected actor who’s suddenly in film and TV and had a fragrance, right? I think this show could do that for somebody, for the right person.