Stage Fright? Ally Sheedy Misses Heaps of Hedwig Shows

During the Off-Broadway glam-rock musical hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch , the main

character Hedwig Schmidt may have had a rough life-as a German man who, as a

result of a botched sex-change operation, was left with a “one-inch mound of

flesh where my penis used to be” and whose former lover is now a huge rock star

while Hedwig wobbles on heels singing in sleazy dives-but one thing is never in

question: Hedwig loves to perform. Singing, dancing, telling stories of his

cold East German mother, tossing his blond wig, there is no doubt that Hedwig

lives for the nights when the lights go down and the spotlight is on. The show,

which opened in February 1998 at the Jane Street Theater, has done well, with

critical raves and a solid downtown following. And when it was announced in

August that indie movie actress and former Brat Packer Ally Sheedy would be

taking over the title role on Oct. 13, advanced ticket sales increased by about

$50,000, according to Tom D’Ambrosio, the publicist for the show. Not only was

Ms. Sheedy famous, she was the first woman, after three men, to play the role.

There’s one problem: Ms. Sheedy does not seem to share her

character’s love for the spotlight, at least in this show. As of Oct. 13, after

35 preview performances, Ms. Sheedy had performed in only 17 of them, after

pushing back her preview debut by a week. The other 18 have featured her

understudy, rock singer and former Calvin Klein model Donovan Leitch. Although

Ms. Sheedy certainly intends to perform on opening night, Oct. 13, and

throughout her scheduled run through the end of January, the fact is that, if

the preview performances are any indication, audience members hoping to see Ms.

Sheedy may very well end up with Mr. Leitch. While Mr. Leitch, the son of 1960′s

folk singer Donovan, arguably turns in a better performance than Ms. Sheedy,

it’s not his picture that the producers have been using to sell tickets.

Newspaper ads for the show do indicate in small print, “Special appearance by

Donovan Leitch as Hedwig at certain performances.” Originally scheduled to do

the Wednesday evening 8 P.M. show, he is also doing the 11 P.M. show on

Fridays, as well as any performances Ms. Sheedy happens to miss. It seems Mr.

Leitch anticipates being on stage fairly often: he lives two hours upstate in Woodstock, N.Y., with his wife,

supermodel Kirsty Hume, and said, “I need to find my own place in the city,

because I keep crashing with friends.”

Ms. Sheedy was not available for a formal interview. “Ms.

Sheedy is not talking to the press,” said Mr. D’Ambrosio. “I talked to her

publicist, and when Ally found out that there was a journalist wanting to speak

to her, she freaked out. She’s in rehearsal mode right now, and she got so much

bad press from the Brat Pack days. And I can’t let you talk to the producers,

either, because then it could get really ugly.”

But the Brat Pack days, when Ms. Sheedy starred with Molly

Ringwald et al., in The Breakfast Club ,

would seem to be safely behind her. After a decade of dissing Hollywood and

battling the usual personal demons, Ms. Sheedy emerged in sure-footed comeback

mode with her role as Lucy Berliner, a heroin-addicted lesbian photographer, in

this year’s indie film hit, High Art .

She received best actress awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association

and the National Society of Film Critics. Her next film, a comedy titled I’ll Take You There , directed by

actress Adrienne Shelly, will be featured at the Hamptons International Film

Festival. Cozily ensconced with husband David Lindsay, an actor, and their

5-year-old daughter in their Upper West Side home, the 37-year-old Ms. Sheedy

has no shortage of fans in the city in which she grew up.

Then came Hedwig. Ms.

Sheedy was first introduced to the show in January at the Sundance Film

Festival, where she met John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote Hedwig (with composer Stephen Trask) and starred as the first

Hedwig. According to The New York Times ,

Mr. Mitchell showed Ms. Sheedy a videotape of the musical, and she replied,

“I’d really love to do a show like that.” Mr. Mitchell said, “You know I really

want a woman to do that show. Do you want to do it?” According to the show’s web site (Hedwig.com), Mr. Mitchell’s

first female choice, Sandra Bernhard, turned it down, and Martha Plimpton, whom

he also considered at Sundance, told him, “Oh, my God, I couldn’t!”

Ms. Sheedy accepted, but in early September there were signs

of trouble. She told The Times , “I feel like going out of my mind. I

don’t know whose idea this was. I can’t dance, can’t sing, and I can’t act. I’m

waiting for them to fire me.” At the time, it seemed like false modesty.

Ms. Sheedy missed the first night of previews. She missed

the next seven performances. Jennifer Phillips, an usher, told The Observer , “Ally was supposed to start

on Sept. 13, but she pushed it back a week. She said she wanted to save her

voice. In the beginning, she was shyer with the audience, and a lot of people

weren’t into her in the role. She was nervous.”

Mr. Leitch, lead singer of the downtown rock group Nancy

Boy, was originally scheduled to make a weekly special appearance on Wednesday

nights. “They came to me to do a couple of nights a week to take the pressure

off her,” he said. “The first week, I ended up doing all the shows.

Back-to-back shows are hard [for her], especially without a singing background.

She just wasn’t there yet, rehearsalwise.”

Mr. Leitch, who refers to himself as “the underdog,” was

optimistic about the leading lady. “She’s definitely going for it. She got the

vocal coach, and she’s working her ass off. I know there are a lot people going

to see her. She’s definitely selling the tickets. Maybe it’s a little easier on

me than it is on her.”

On Friday evening, Oct. 8, six nights before opening night,

a hip crowd milled toward the door of the Jane Street Theater for the 11 P.M.

show. Ms. Sheedy had done the 8 P.M. performance that night, but Mr. Leitch

would be doing the late show. There were several female couples in the crowd.

According to Ms. Phillips, the usher, “Ally has had a huge lesbian following.”

Danny Goldstein, a young Off-Broadway director, walked up

with his date, Michelle Franklin, a dark-haired woman in knee-high boots and

miniskirt. He said he had seen Hedwig before.

“I had seen it with the first guy,” he said, “and I specifically want to see it

with Ally Sheedy.” Told she wouldn’t be performing, he said, “Really? That’s so

sad. Seeing her play this role, that’s what I found so interesting.” Ms.

Franklin said she had called early that week about the late Friday show. “They

said nothing,” she said in a huff. “Which is sort of not cool,” said Mr.

Goldstein, adding he had “no idea” who Mr. Leitch is. “He’s Kirsty Hume’s

husband,” said an annoyed Ms. Franklin.

When Chris Ercole, an ad salesman in a black corduroy

jacket, discovered Ms. Sheedy would not be performing, he shook his head and

said, “Are you kidding me? I’ve seen Hedwig

three times before and wanted to see Ally Sheedy’s interpretation. I asked

when I called for tickets on Tuesday, and they said she would be doing it.”

A young woman who had come with three friends overheard Mr.

Ercole and angrily demanded a refund, which she was given. But most of the

ticket holders decided to take their seats. Jane Smitts, a public health worker

attending with a girlfriend, said, “I’m a little relieved it’s not Ally Sheedy.

Can she sing? Can she dance?”

Some, such as hotelier Andre Balazs, came specifically to

see Mr. Leitch. “Ally Sheedy?” said Mr. Balazs. “I just found out two weeks ago

that Donovan was doing it, so I tried to fit it into the schedule. I’m actually

really curious to see him. I think he’s hugely talented, so I’m dying to see

it.”

Although a sign by the

box office reads, “No Refunds. No Exchanges,” Anthony Zelig, the house manager,

said, “If anyone wants refunds or exchanges, we give it. If someone’s name is

above the title, people are entitled to a refund. It’s a rule, Actors’ Equity.”

Asked if the publicity for the show was misleading the public, he said,

“Donovan doing the late show was only official a week ago, last Friday.  If people call, we tell them.”

The four-piece rock band

that backs Hedwig on stage had made some adjustments for Ms. Sheedy. “She’s a

woman. He’s a man. It is kind of odd for us,” said Jon Weber, the drummer. “It

is definitely brand-new, and we never considered it until we were actually

doing it. There were some technical musical adjustments that we made. Other

than that, a few extra rehearsals, two or three, three or four.”

Chris Weilding, who

plays guitar and sings backup vocals, said, “Ally approaches it more as an

actor. That’s the biggest difference. It was a big adjustment. We tend to

change keys for some of the songs. Her voice is, it’s different, because it’s a

woman’s voice. She’s working with a vocal coach, a lot. Since she’s started rehearsals,

her voice has gotten a lot stronger. Donovan was used to singing, because he

was in a band, and I don’t think she’s used to singing, you know, a lot.”

On another night, nine

autograph seekers were in the lobby of the theater waiting for Ms. Sheedy. Six

of them hadn’t even seen the show. Nat Bloch, a 49-year-old self-described

“bum,” clutched a head shot from The

Breakfast Club in his hand. “I didn’t see the show, I don’t wake up early

enough,” he said. “Since St. Elmo’s Fire ,

I thought she was hot. Some friends mentioned that she was here. I’m not a

stalker, not obsessed. I just wanted to meet her and get her autograph.”

Sharon Owens, a 44-year-old Philadelphia insurance agent,

did attend the show. “I just love how she rises out of obscurity,” she said of

Ms. Sheedy. She added that while in the ladies’ room, she met an elderly woman

who asked, “Who was a man, and who was a woman in the show? Who is this Ally

Sheedy? Is she a man or a woman?”

Ms. Sheedy emerged, looking tiny in a baggy neon green sweater.

The fans pulled out programs and photos for her to sign. “I’ve seen St. Elmo’s Fire 20 times,” Mr. Bloch

told her. “You’re so beautiful.”

“Thank you,” said Ms. Sheedy.

The Observer asked Ms. Sheedy why she took the role of Hedwig. “Because it’s stimulating

and challenging in every single way,” she said. “It is the biggest thing I

could take on. And I love singing.” Asked if she was nervous about opening

night, she started walking quickly to the exit door. “I’m terrified,” she said.

“I’m just getting my footing.”