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INTERVIEW: Tyler Michaels on Becoming Hedwig and Trademarking Theater

Tyler Michaels rehearsing for Theater Latté Da’s upcoming production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo by Emilee Elofson.

21 years ago, on Valentine’s Day, an unlikely success called Hedwig and the Angry Inch opened Off Broadway. An in-your face, mostly solo punk rock musical, Hedwig dives straight into the physical and emotional prelude and aftermath of what was then termed sex change surgery.

Many people weren’t quite sure what to make of it – the New York Times’ Peter Marks went to review Hedwig twice – but audiences flocked to it in droves. The show ran Off Broadway for more than two years and 857 performances, and has since returned John Cameron Mitchell, who premiered the title role, returned in 2001 to star in a film adaptation. A celebrated Broadway production starring Neil Patrick Harris in 2014, followed by a national tour and numerous regional productions.

Reading through early and newer reviews of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a younger reader might be astonished at the different vocabularies used to describe the same things – some of which, depending on leanings, might be considered normative or offensive today. Whatever the terminology, though, it’s clear that the show continues to have great force and gravitas, for reasons that are both material and musical. In its season announcement, Theater Latté Da described its upcoming production as telling “the story of one of the most unique characters to ever hit the stage”, which is very true.

Latté Da’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (playing March 27-May 5 at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis) stars just two named characters: Hedwig, played by Tyler Michaels, and Yitzhak, played by Jay Owen Eisenberg. Hedwig the character dominates the show, rarely leaving the stage, and drives both the in-show concert and narrative. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine caught up with Tyler Michaels earlier this week to talk about delving into this demanding role.

Tyler Michaels King in Theater Latté Da’s 2018 production of Assassins. Photo by Dan Norman.

Where am I catching you?

In my apartment at the Carleton Artist Lofts.

Where are you in the rehearsal process for Hedwig and the Angry Inch?

About 2 weeks in, heading into the third; we’ve already started doing runs.

Do you recall when and how you first encountered Hedwig and the Angry Inch?

Tyler Michaels (Emcee) and Krysti Witta (Texas) in Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust’s 2014 production of
Cabaret. Photo by Michal Daniel.

It was actually quite a while back – after I did Cabaret with Theater Latté Da in 2014, and [Theater Latté Da Artistic Director] Peter Rothstein mentioned wanting to do Hedwig. It didn’t pan out then, but we reconnected about it last spring; Peter really wanted to do the show, so we lined things up to make it happen.

I didn’t really get to know Hedwig until the season announcement was made. From that point on, I played the cast album in my car on the way to other shows, soaking up as much as I could before we jumped into rehearsals. By the time we got to this last Christmas, all of those songs were kind of “in my body” already.

What’s a favorite song in the show?

I think it changes for me daily. I think “Origin of Love” is one of the most beautiful songs out there – so complex, so beautiful. “Sugar Daddy” is also super fun, in your face.

Hedwig isn’t exactly a large-cast show. Who’s at most of the rehearsals? How often do you have the whole band?

It’s mostly me, Jay Owen Eisenberg (as Yitzhak), Annie Enneking and Peter Rothstein (the co-directors), and then Jason Hansen (the music director) on keys, our assistant director, and then our stage managers.

When we’re just singing through songs, it’s just Jason, Jay, and myself – but every weekend, we’ve had the whole band come in to get used to that punk rock sound. We’re going to try and push the boundaries of that sound in the space, so rehearsing with everything is super helpful to play with that in the room.

We’ve spoken before about the different vocal technique demanded by different roles. The last time it was about the more operatic style for West Side StoryHedwig, by contrast, is a very different idiom. How have you modified your technique for this role?

I would say that it’s a completely different technique – I think I caught myself earlier saying “you can do away with technique”, but that’s not quite true with this. You want to capture the elements of rock and roll on-stage, but the risk is to overdue it by thrashing into it every night – which, obviously, you can’t do if you’re doing 6-8 shows a week.

I think that the trick with the presentation of the songs is that it really is a rock-and-roll concert…the songs kind of allude to the themes in the show, but the character isn’t in a new place at the end of the song, It’s a combination of rock-and-roll, some monologues, and smashing the character…it’s a challenge to have maybe 10 minutes of monologue, and then rock out hardcore. That’s been the most exciting and challenging part of the show, musically speaking.

Have you done a show before that puts you front and center so much and without break?

I don’t think so – at least not in this capacity. Maybe something like Cabaret where the Emcee is so omnipresent, but there were certainly times there to catch your breath and watch…which is not the case with Hedwig. It’s 90-100 minutes of going with it, so at the end you’re exhausted and wiped out, which I is the goal. Certainly not a lot of time to catch your breath, and the next few weeks will involve pacing myself while still having that vitality.

So would you say that this demands more of you than a normal show run?

Yes – she’s a completely fierce character, and I think there’s something to giving yourself over to capture that. You can’t really half-ass a rock-and-roll show.

Has it completely taken over your life?

I’m still doing a little here and there for Trademark Theater – we’re announcing our season soon, so it’s administrative, not artistic – but most of March and April is going to be this show. This was pretty intentional, because it will take every ounce of energy.

You haven’t used this “I’m 110% invested in this show” excuse to get out of any household chores, have you?

I’m trying to maintain my good relationship – clean my dishes and fold my socks, etc. A benefit of having a partner in the industry is that you both understand the trials and tribulations that we have to go through to make the show happen. We definitely support each other through our processes, which is great.

You’re not having to miss any of her shows to do Hedwig, are you?

No, thankfully – I’m not missing out on any of her big career steps. Her next big thing is that she got into the Minnesota Fringe, so that’s where a lot of her energy is going into that.

You’re juggling your career as an artistic director with your work as an actor. What factors into your planning calculus for a year?

It’s a balancing act. My two passions are performing and creating/leading new works, so they’re my two priorities in my artistic life. I don’t think one thing is always weighing out another – by my own personal desires to continue to be a performer are at the top of the list, which means pursuing roles that really excite me and push me and challenge me – like Hedwig. At Trademark, we do 2 workshops and 1 production a year, but how much I’m involved fluctuates. (As Artistic Director, I’m always still involved to some extent.)

As Trademark continues to grow, I think that balancing act will become harder and harder…but that’s a challenge that I’m excited about.

Do you find yourself saying “No” a lot these days?

I do say “no” to people – but I think it’s rare for me to do so outright. I’ve developed relationships with companies that I work with a lot, so if something doesn’t work out, it’s usually a scheduling thing…not “I don’t want to be part of your silly little project”, but because I’ve already committed to something else.

I have pretty strong loyalties when I’ve committed to a contract.

Kind of like a “Hollywood ‘No'” being “Not now”?

Yes. Being an arts leader myself and understanding how long it takes for some things to happen. Five years is such a short timeline, especially in the new works world.

A reading of The Gest of Robin Hood, developed by Trademark Theater at the Illusion Theater’s Fresh Ink Series in 2016. Photo by Emily King.

Do you have a process at Trademark Theater for determining when a work goes from active development to the back burner?

We have some projects that have first been workshopped 3 years ago and haven’t fully been produced yet, because they needed that time. We pride ourselves on that and being very considerate about what we make into full projects.

As we continue forward, we hope that the process will be clearer. We’re trying to expand our scope by bringing in new works and artists to what has mostly been an internal creative structure. The dialogue becomes more about what’s ready for workshop and what’s ready for more development time.

What’s the archive/records process for these works under development

We do a pretty good job of photo/video documentation to reflect on. I normally have a physical notebook that I throw into a drawer and pull out for each project, and a Google Drive filled with all sorts of projects, working notes, inspiration boards, image ideas, technical specs, etc.

I also have a giant stack of notecards of cool ideas for shows, half of which will hopefully happen some day.

It sounds like you like writing things down.

It helps me stay more present in the rehearsal room – there’s something about digital that doesn’t quite “click” for me materially. When generating a show, a computer works for me, but when taking notes in a show…a solid legal pad is the way to go.

Any favorite writing instruments?

I like those yellow mechanical pencils with a twist point, but other than that I’m not particular.

When the earth was still flat and the clouds made of fire
and the mountains stretched up to the sky, sometimes higher
folks roamed the earth like big rolling kegs
they had two sets of arms
they had two sets of legs
they had two faces peering out of one giant head
so they could watch all around them as they talked while they read
and they never knew nothing of love
it was before the origin of love

–Stephen Trask, “Origin of Love”

Let’s go back to Hedwig. “Origin of Love” is a very unusual song in that it sets a story from Plato’s Symposium, and as a result has introduced a large number of fans of the musical to Greek philosophy. Were you familiar with The Symposium from before?

I didn’t know about The Symposium at all before, so “Origin of Love” was my first encounter with it. There’s a lovely little addendum to the script (3-4 pages long) that includes the Aristophanes speech from The Symposium; it’s really stunning, and I’m fascinated with it.

You mentioned listening to the show in your car. There are several options available – is a particular album your go-to?

John Cameron Mitchell’s original Off-Broadway cast recording is my go-to. You can’t really do it better than the person who created the role. That said, I probably fall somewhere in-between the vocal qualities of Mitchell and Neil Patrick Harris, so I’ve listened to those two.

A playbill from the original 1998 Off-Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

A lot of things have changed (and continue to change) about how Americans talk about sexuality and gender since this show premiered. There’s a lot of disagreement in U.S. society about what certain terms mean and how people identify now versus then, and how people today “claim” people (fictional and historical) with their vocabulary. If Hedwig were written today, it probably would use a very different terminology – so what sort of setting has been chosen for this production?

We’ve made a very conscious choice to set it in the late ’90s. I don’t want to speak for Peter Rothstein, but I think it was very important for the production team to set this show in its original context. Gender orientation, sexual identity, and how Hedwig would choose to identify now versus 1997 is drastically different.

I think that moving this show back to the late ’90s will bring a completely different conversation to part of the audience, and I’m very excited to offer that up to them. I think it shows how far we’ve come since the identity politics of that period, but also how far we haven’t come, and how complicated it is.

What kinds of things do you do to get into Hedwig’s head?

I like to read books that seem appropriate to the show or the character’s experience. Two that I’ve been reading are Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, an autobiography by Laura Jane Grace, and Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by Kate Borstein.

I also watched documentaries on the Berlin Wall as my pre-rehearsal work, and then it’s about finding the character in rehearsal. I made it a point of coming in off-book as much as possible, because Hedwig is a complete rehearsal and that transformation is hard with a script in hand. We’re still exploring that in our rehearsal process.

What kind of footwear are you wearing in rehearsal?

I’m wearing 4-inch heels – hot red stilettos, which is just awesome. It’s so fun to perform in footwear like that! It makes you think that those ’80s glam rockers had something figured out…it changes how you stand and how you present to the audience, and I think there’s something totally right about it.

How did you get these shoes? I presume you didn’t just borrow them from your partner…

Latté Da provided them to me, so I was able to walk around my apartment with them while I was trying to get off book.

Tyler Michaels (left) rehearsing Hedwig and the Angry Inch in heels and with the full band. Photo by Emilee Elofson.

Given how much you are onstage and engaged the whole time, did this show take more time than normal to memorize?

It definitely took longer. I started memorizing two weeks before, and I got off-book the first week, so it took a solid two weeks of working a couple hours a day.

The music was kind of already in my body, thankfully, but, specifically, the script memorization was probably the most challenging in my life. And I’m still calling for lines.

I was taking recently with an actor who opined that opening nights are for the press, and that the real peek for them was 2-3 shows in. 

There’s always those things in the 4-8 week runs where you hit closing night and think, “Oh, that’s how I should have been doing it”…and the curtain goes down and you’re, like, “Next time!”

The first weekend is always just trying to remember all the notes – acting notes and crossings and such, just downloading all the information. That’s part of the biz. But there’s also something electrifying about previews and opening night, so they’re often my favorites because it’s present but vulnerable in a good way.

Speaking of which, I’m really excited about how this show is so present…an iota of a 4th wall, but we’re out in the house and picking on people and such. Not many shows have you literally in the room with the audience, which is totally intoxicating as a performer.

What sort(s) of intimacies are you pursuing in this production?

There are some design choices that are bringing us closer to the audience than perhaps anything else in the Ritz (that’s teaser language, I’m sorry), but within 30 seconds I’m in the audience and singing with/to them. That proximity and intimacy are really important – without it, it becomes a different show.

There are also surprises in the show throughout the evening, in terms of where I am and asking people to sing things and sitting in someone’s lap and connecting with the audience.

What do you have coming up after Hedwig?

I’d love a break, but I’m diving into the next one. I’m staying with Latté Da for Harrison Rivers’ new play, To Let Go and Fall, and then go into 42nd Street at the Ordway. Then I have a break, and then the fall hits, and we’re hopefully doing something with Trademark (look for the season announcement on April 1st).

42nd Street? How long has it been since your tap shoes came out?

I had to wear them for my auditions and I got my butt kicked! The last time I tapped onstage was Gypsy in 2016, during “All I Need is the Girl”.

Theater Latté Da’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs March 27-May 5 at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis.

Basil Considine