Seventeen years ago, Over-the-Rhine resembled a battle zone. There was a curfew in place because of riots that followed the April 2001 shooting death of unarmed Timothy Thomas in the neighborhood. Police vigilantly patrolled the streets. And Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati on Vine Street felt like it was teetering on the brink of existence. D. Lynn Meyers has said, more than once, “It couldn’t get worse. But it got worse.”
Then, something miraculous happened. The show that pulled Ensemble back from dire straits was John Cameron Mitchell’s throbbing Rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which opened in June of that year.
Meyers knew she had to do something daring and extraordinary to get people back to her urban theater space. Hedwig was the ticket — it was new and risky, having debuted Off Broadway in 1998.
It sold a lot of tickets here, largely due to an extraordinary performance by lanky Todd Almond, who graduated from UC’s College-Conservatory of Music in 1999. He played a transgender East German singer who fronted a Rock band named in honor of the singer’s botched gender confirmation surgery.
That might sound like an unlikely savior for a small Cincinnati theater, but it sold tickets night after night, and Almond’s performance with a band comprised of some of the city’s best rockers was acclaimed and recognized by the 2001 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, sponsored by CityBeat. (In fact, Almond and the band were the featured act at the raucous awards ceremony at Old St. George, adjacent to the UC campus.)
Meyers brought the show back for another shot of celebration (and income) in 2003, and it did very well again. Over the intervening years, Meyers and Almond stayed in touch and kept speculating if or when it might be time to resurrect it once more. Once more is now, as ETC marks the end of its first season in its renovated and expanded venue, now in the heart of the flourishing Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Unlikely though the thought might be, Hedwig is a legitimate candidate for the neighborhood’s patron saint.
Almond, now a respected composer, lyricist, actor and playwright in New York City, is back to recreate the role he filled so vividly that audiences were compelled to pay a visit to ETC. When asked why he would return, Almond says, “In making a career in the theater, I have found that you make relationships with theaters and artistic directors and other artists. I’ve always had such a great connection to this theater. I knew at some point that I wanted to come back to Hedwig. The first time I wasn’t exactly the age I wanted to be; I wanted to be a little bit older. Now is the time that I am. It just felt right.”
In New York these days, he writes and works routinely with high-profile stars, including rocker Courtney Love and Tony Award winner Laura Benanti, a wildly creative singer and actress. Nevertheless, “I just had this great longing to be in someone else’s show, not something that I’ve written,” he says. “I find myself returning often to artistic institutions and collaborators that I have a great history with. It seemed very natural to have a conversation with Lynn, and we agreed to do this again.”
In fact, most of Hedwig’s original cast will be onstage with Almond, including Beth Harris as Yitzhak, plus three of the five musicians — Billy Alletzhauser, Sam Womelsdorf and Andrew Smithson — who lit the fuse on the show’s memorable score, with its elements of the Glam and Punk of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop channeled through a late ’90s filter.
Almond attributes some of his current success to relationships made with those band members and the 2001 production’s sound designer, John Curley, whose Ultrasuede Studio was the birthplace of some of Cincinnati’s best Indie Rock in the 1990s. Almond was able to further work with Curley (also a member of The Afghan Whigs) and the band members on his own compositions.
“Those guys put some wind in my sails about my songwriting, which I had been sort of quiet about,” Almond says.
Of course, Hedwig itself has a pulsing Rock score, composed by Stephen Trask. “Every single song is fantastic,” Almond says of the show’s music. “It’s one of those pieces that feels relevant every time you do it. It doesn’t feel dated. It always feels like it’s happening right now and has something to say about today.”
To be sure, Almond says, it means different things in 2018, since transgender issues are now better understood.
“It’s a smart piece, because there’s more to it than that,” he says. “So maybe people will now (look) beyond that part of it and see the universal part — this person that feels neither here nor there, isolated and angry and betrayed and having to face her own culpability. Having a trans person onstage isn’t so radical today — we’re beyond all that and we can see deeper.”
Hedwig, Almond maintains, is truly an amazing character. She bitterly resents the lot that life has handed her, but her performance is “like seeing an actual Rock star,” he says. “It’s a thrilling, late-night burlesque with a naughty, over-the-top quality to it. It’s one of those shows that allows people to let go of their inhibitions because there’s this character right in front of you who’s just larger than life and going through it for you.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Todd Almond in the title role is indeed the show that saved Ensemble Theatre. Almond loves how Hedwig’s story of “an outsider who doesn’t feel like (they have) a home and is struggling to find an identity” was such a catalyst for the theater to find its place in a downtown neighborhood that was likewise struggling for identity. This production is truly a celebration of survival. That will be happening nightly at ETC as the Angry Inch fires. Are you ready?
Hedwig And The Angry Inch opens Tuesday at Ensemble Theatre and continues through July 1. Tickets/more info: ensemblecincinnati.org