As Darren Criss prepared to take the mantle — or Farah Fawcett wig, as it were — of Hedwig in a three-month engagement of Hedwig & the Angry Inch on Broadway last year, John Cameron Mitchell, the show's co-creator and the role's originator, expressed his excitement to Out magazine. “[Darren] grew up in the gayest city in the world, and it’s rubbed off,” he said of Criss, a native of San Francisco and an alumnus of ACT's Young Conservatory. Fame first came to Criss for his role as a gay prep schooler on Glee (he himself attended St. Ignatius) and continued as he took over the lead in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying from Daniel Radcliffe. But Criss, who can clearly strut the strut as Hedwig, is in fact straight-identified. “He’s the sweetest, hippest straight queer boy on the block.” Cameron Mitchell added. Now he's a "slip of a girly boy from communist East Berlin," as the genderqueer Hedwig refers to herself, and SFist caught up with Criss to discuss the role and his return to San Francisco following opening night this past Wednesday.
SFist: Hedwig's character is obsessed with music, absorbing all these influences. Was there any musical homework you felt you had to do for the role?
Criss: I'm pretty hip to the rock and roll stuff the show references just by way of whatever I was into as a kid. My brother and I grew up with this ravenous appetite for music, and we just listened to everything. The one pocket that I would have missed wouldn't have been the rock but the '70s female pop, like Debby Boone. I knew names but I couldn't rattle off the hits as easily as [director] Michael Mayer, so that was the education I had to do to become "miss Midwest midnight checkout queen."
SFist: There are some SF jokes and flourishes you made as Hedwig — references to places and neighborhoods, a jab at Marin County. This is your doing, I suspect?
Criss: Those jokes just kind of come out! It helps that I know what might hit with people here. John [Cameron Mitchell] and Michael [Mayer] and I huddled and talked about some local jokes and local flavor. Everyone who plays Hedwig becomes a part of the narrative — When I was on broadway, Neil [Patrick Harris] added his thing before me, and there's a whole hodgepodge of things to collect from. The idea is that this show Hedwig is doing is only happening this one time in front of you, and this is all before your very eyes. So, whether you're doing that here or in South Korea, the idea is to maintain a sense of local urgency.
SFist: What's been your experience coming back to San Francisco so far?
Darren: It's been lovely for obvious reasons. I don't often get to spend an extended period of time here, so to know that I'm going to be here for longer than a weekend is nice enough. And, of course, San Francisco Indian summer is great. And hearing the Blue Angels flying around, too — it's very much attached to my childhood, but all my New York friends who are here, they're terrified!
SFist: Not your co-star, Lena Hall, another San Francisco native. What's it been like to work with her?
Criss: So she ended her run as Yitzhak right when I began my run as Hedwig in New York. She'd done it for a while, and we were ships passing in the night. We were very friendly, and we had a lot of fun nights out together, and it blew my mind when I learned she was also from San Francisco. There's a lot of ties that we share. Like, I was like, "wait, you're part Filipino? I'm part Filipino!" She's really the best singer ever — it's such a joy, and a real privilege to be singing with her. Doing "Origin of Love" with her, I have her singing in my monitor, and it's so great.
SFist: And for weekly performances, Hall will take over the role as Hedwig, correct?
Criss: I can't wait to see her do it. The cool thing is the way Hedwig is constructed, especially the gender fluidity, makes a woman playing that role so complex. What I love about the show is it's so strong dramaturgically: It starts and you meet Hedwig, guns blazing. When I first started doing the show for the first night or two on Broadway, we had a joke about my age — at the time I was the youngest person to do Hedwig, at least on Broadway, and we had a line about it that we thought might get a laugh. But it quickly became apparent it didn't matter.
In fact, it didn't matter that you're short or tall or black or white or gay or straight, or even a man or a woman. The audience is invested in whoever is playing Hedwig, whoever is carrying the torch. Actors, no matter who they are, will gravitate toward this role. You know it's a damn good part — It's one of the greatest roles I may ever play.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through October 30 at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street. Find tickets here.