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Arts & Entertainment

How trans politics changed who 'Hedwig's' audience is

Darren Criss stars as Hedwig in
Darren Criss stars as Hedwig in "Hedwig & the Angry Inch," at the Pantages Theatre.
Rebecca Naomi Jones

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The rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is now at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre, and Darren Criss dons a blond wig to star as Hedwig, a genderqueer East German rock star.

"It's us meeting her and listening to all the heartbreak she's gone through," says Criss.

Hedwig began her life as Hansel in East Berlin, but sings about losing pieces of herself throughout the years – her mother, her man, her manhood ("My sex change operation got botched / My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch/ Now all I've got is a Barbie doll crotch / I've got an angry inch!").

Darren Criss stars as Hedwig in
Darren Criss stars as Hedwig in "Hedwig & the Angry Inch," at the Pantages Theatre.
Rebecca Naomi Jones

"Could this show have had a Broadway run 15, 20 years ago?" wonders Criss. "It was inherently subversive, and I think the reason it's gained such a wide cult following and why I liked it as a teenager is it was talking about things you weren't seeing in mainstream culture."

The show first debuted off-Broadway in 1998 at a small hotel ballroom in New York that sat just a few hundred people.

It was punk and edgy, and Hedwig was described as a "transsexual," "tranny," and "shemale" – innocuous terms at the time but ones that are considered offensive today.

The show became a huge hit that spawned a 2001 film, countless local productions around the nation and a Broadway revival in 2014.

Now in 2016, Hedwig is able to take the stage in front of an America that has a new understanding and sensitivity about gender, sexuality and identity.

"It's cool that it took this long for a mainstream audience to catch up with it," says Criss, "and I think it's been a blessing in the past few years how much there is a dialogue about some of the things in the show and an awareness that we've never had before."

"One of the lasting things about it isn't necessarily the gender topics," he adds. "It's only one of the elements of the show. The show deals with a lot of dualities: man and woman, East and West, top and bottom."

It's still not without controversy.

Transgender activists have questioned the show for a number of reasons: is it transphobic? Should Hedwig only be played by trans or genderqueer actors?

Criss would be excited if more trans actors found work in Hollywood and on stage.

"I'm rooting for you, and I hope that happens," he says. "For me, the play's the thing and one must be willing to play the part regardless of who you are and where you're from."

Darren Criss stars as Hedwig in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Pantages Theatre now through November 27.