In the mid-1990s, Christopher Blair saw the original Off–Broadway production of the tragicomic rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring its creator, John Cameron Mitchell.
“I was totally mesmerized by it,” he recalls. “It was like nothing that I’d ever seen.”
Beginning Sept. 17, Blair will assume the role in Bay Street Theatre’s second annual production of Hedwig. His performance in the 2009 version is generally considered a high–water mark in recent Savannah theater.
“This year is a little different than last year,” Blair says. “It’s not the same exact show. We’re taking everything that was good, and that we liked about the other show, but this year we’re actually able to do more. Because we have more resources this year, quite frankly. More people involved.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is part rock ‘n’ roll concert, part standup comedy, and part drag show. The title character – usually, but not always, played by a man – wears a party dress, high heels, an elaborate wig and considerable makeup.
For Blair, it’s that blend of elements that makes the show work. “A drag queen is something that people usually just laugh at because it’s funny – a man in a dress is a funny thing, and they make off–color jokes,” he explains. “But you don’t really get a back story. You don’t see them as a full–fledged human being that was a child once, and was raised up.
“And in rock shows, you just get the songs. You don’t get the stories behind the songs.”
That first time he watched Hedwig in New York, he says, “It was like all these stars lined up and created this beautiful piece of theater.”
The 37–year–old Blair is a native of Asheville, N.C. who’s lived in Savannah since 1993. His is a familiar face on the local theater scene. He’s a versatile actor/singer. Most recently, he brought down the house as Pharaoh in the Savannah Children’s Theatre’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
During rehearsals for that show, Blair says, he was getting ready to reprise Hedwig. To the other adults backstage, he would explain it this way:
“Well, it’s the story of an East German young man who, in order to escape communist East Berlin, has a sex change to marry an American man. And it goes horribly wrong.
“And a year after that happens, the Berlin Wall comes down, and she’s left in America. In a trailer in the Midwest. She’s divorced and penniless.”
A ‘“slip of a girlyboy,” Hansel – now known as Hedwig – falls for an innocent young songwriter named Tommy Gnosis, who takes the songs they wrote together and becomes a huge rock star, much to Hedwig’s consternation. “She had this little bright moment of life in her life,” Blair would tell his friends at the Children’s Theatre, “and then that walked out the door as well ....
“Then they go ‘That just sounds horrible!’ And I go ‘I know, but it’s hilariously funny.’
“And out of that struggle and strife came this amazing music. That’s kind of the way I look at it – sometimes it takes great suffering to come up with the best music, art and humor. If her life hadn’t been so tragic, I don’t think the music – and the jokes – would have so much weight. Sometimes the best way to deal with tragedy is just to laugh at it.
“It makes it OK for everybody to experience this together with her: ‘If she can come through all this, and still have a sense of humor, then it’s OK.’”
It takes nearly two hours for Blair to apply his makeup. Getting in character, he says, is a layering process.
“Obviously, you have to wear the shoes. That helps a lot, and that’s true of just about everything I play. Once I know what kind of shoes they wear it helps me get in physical character.
“There’s a lot of grooming that I don’t normally have to do; I have to shave various parts of myself.”
Hedwig is onstage for pretty much the whole show, along with a live five–member rock band.
“The band is killin’ it this year,” Blair enthuses. “We’re on cloud nine with the band.”
Tom Hoffman is the drummer, Chris Normand plays bass, Christopher Stanley is on the piano, and the guitarists are John Turner and George Moser.
“We feel like a band. Last year, we felt like actors. Last year most of the musicians onstage were actors who just happened to play instruments. And this year, some of these guys are musicians who are kind of having to learn to be actors.”
Blair will also be onstage as Frank N. Furter in Bay Street’s October production of The Rocky Horror Show. That’s a fun gig, he says, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch is by far his favorite show to do.
“I never thought I’d get the chance to do it,” Blair says, “especially in Savannah. Because I was remembering Savannah from before, which was very traditional musicals – we did a lot of Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, all those things. And then Bay Street Theatre came along.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Where: Bay Street Theatre at Club One, 1 Jefferson St.
When: At 8 p.m. Sept. 17–26