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
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.”