Euan Morton may not be a household name, but for those of us lucky enough to have seen him in his star-making, Tony-nominated turn as Boy George in Taboo, he’s impossible to forget.
Taboo may have only lasted 100 performances, but the Rosie O’Donnell-produced, Boy George-scored musical spawned scores of loyal fans that stuck by the show until the bitter end.
The show may have not been a commercial success, but it did spur the stateside career of Scotland-born Morton, who has been working in the US ever since.
Now, in his biggest role yet, he’s been touring the country in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s cult 1998 rock musical about the ferocious, endearing, unforgettable transgender rock ’n’ roller from East Berlin.
It is one kind of thrill for Boston to finally be making her acquaintance, but it is a thrill of an entirely different caliber that it should happen with an actor as brilliant as Euan Morton underneath that wig.
Here, Morton reflects on his Taboo days, the challenges of the role, and how the world still hasn’t caught up with Hedwig.
This role is famously demanding. Of all the people who have played Hedwig on Broadway, they had pretty short two- to three-month runs. And you’re on this giant tour, so you’re playing the role longer than anybody else did.
Yeah, I think so. I’ve really been pushing myself as far as I can physically go, both in the body but in the voice, too. It’s a big sing, but it’s nice to be challenged in this way. I’m about to be 40, so I’m very proud of myself that I can even walk in the daytime. And it is difficult, really difficult, but I love my job and it’s really a pleasure to play her. I never want to take a second off if I can help it, so you just sort of push beyond what were previously your limits. I have new limits now, thanks to Hedwig.
How did this all come about for you? Were you encouraged to audition or were you approached separately?
I did the traditional audition path. I sat in a corridor with nine other actors hoping to get the job, as you do, and did quite well that day and they asked me back for a callback, which was actually a dance call. I danced, and for some unknown reason they gave me the job. [laughs] I can’t dance to save my life, but it went really well, and it’s just one of those things that either happens or it doesn’t, and this time it happened.
I’m so glad that it did. When I heard the news, I couldn’t believe it because I’ve loved you for a long time.
Oh, thank you!
I’m one of those freaks that went to see Taboo almost 20 times.
Hey, good for you! You’re one of those people that kept us alive!
I did my best, as did a few friends who went religiously with me. It’s funny, it feels like Hedwig is a very natural progression for you after playing George, but the roles are very, very different. The comparisons are not necessarily warranted.
They’re not, really. There are remarkable similarities between them in that both of these characters are characters that the audience knows, that the audience is aware of. So you have the sort of added pressure of making sure that you’re filling their idea of the characters. But what’s good about that is that once you put the makeup and the hair and the costumes on, both for George and Hedwig, you kind of automatically become that person in their eyes. Sixty percent of your job is done because they see your character so they believe everything else you put on top of it, so that’s a similarity, definitely, which makes them slightly easier to play. But other than that, they’re very different people. Hedwig’s personal story is very different from George’s, and they’re from a very different world even though it’s actually quite similar in [that] it’s trying to escape from something and the musical genres of the artists. She’s from East Berlin, George is from Ireland; their experiences are singularly different despite obvious similarities.
Can you talk a little bit about what those Taboo days were like for you? As an outsider, it seemed chaotic. It was your first Broadway show—
It was my first show in New York; it was my first time in the US.
That’s what I was going to ask you. Was it just a crazy time?
It did seem chaotic, and in many ways, I suppose it was chaotic because it was Rosie’s first big show as a producer; the press were gunning for her, and therefore the end of the show, so we were fighting external forces that perhaps other shows of this ilk don’t necessarily go through. It’s a show that I think if it ran today, even with Rosie O’Donnell in charge, wouldn’t be surrounded by the same controversy. It just came at the wrong time in her life and at the wrong time for the critics of theater. For me, it wasn’t chaotic; I’d already done it for two years, on and off, in Britain. It wasn’t difficult for me to continue in the role of George; it was just a unique experience doing it in the US where everything’s bigger, doing it on Broadway where everything has more meaning and it’s more expensive and more important. So, yeah, there were unique challenges, but it wasn’t as mad for me personally as it seemed on the outside.
That’s good to hear.
I loved it. I had a great time. It was the opening of a whole new world for me.
I don’t mean to downplay fate or anything like that, but do you credit Rosie and perhaps George with the career that you’ve had here in the states?
Yes, I do. Yes. Absolutely. Rosie changed my life, really. When the show didn’t work out, when things went wrong, Rosie gave me a check for $25,000 and continued to pay my rent for six more months so that I wouldn’t be immediately flung out of the country and be forced to give up this exciting period of my life. She was extremely supporting. And George was, too. I mean, look, it hurt George, it hurt George a lot. George had a lot to deal with personally at [that] time so we weren’t hanging on each other’s every word like we used to because he had to go home, he had to go back to his life. I was staying in the US, but from afar, George was very supportive and was there as much as he could be, but he had his own shit to deal with.
Rosie is such a good person. I have always adored her.
She really is. I understand why there is a representation of her publically, sometimes, that she’s aggressive or too demanding or whatever, because, you know what, she’s a strong, powerful, wealthy woman who’s been in television for years and those kind of women have to be aggressive and demanding, that’s how they keep their position. If it was being done by a man there wouldn’t even be a question as to the validity of that behavior.
I think that’s an unfair standard that not every man would be held to. She’s as aggressive as she needs to be and at the same time, she’s as kind and as generous and as connecting and loving as she can be. I love her.
What do you make of the fact that you are sort of the ambassador who is introducing the country to Hedwig?
I’m probably one of the luckier actors to get to play Hedwig because I’m getting to do it at places where she has more importance. People who came to New York and wanted to see Hedwig generally knew what they were coming to see and were in a safe place. New York is the safe place to be different or to want to learn or to have your mind open. Here, on the tour, Hedwig—the show, as well as the person—she is the safe space. She’s bringing that safe space to these places that don’t necessarily have one, like North Carolina. There are a few places I can think of that really needed a safe space. I feel like the work is important, I feel like it’s not just some march through the towns dressed as Hedwig demanding equality. In fact, that’s not what she’s talking about at all. She’s talking about love and respect and what love is and who deserves it and all the rest of it. It’s really about the joy of being yourself, the joy of sharing your personal story without fear or reprisals or fear of someone else’s judgement on you, so I feel like I’m getting to be a place where people hopefully come away from the evening feeling really good about themselves and slightly more willing to be themselves.
What’s so remarkable about this show is that it was written almost 20 years ago and yet it still seems ahead of its time even now.
Well, yes, I suppose that’s because everything takes so long in the real world. In the world of the theater, you can write the future, you can write the past; you can write the immediate future, or you can write the future 100 years down the line. If you have an imagination and a pen and some paper, you can change the world. It’s all well and good, all the things you can do, but it doesn’t mean that the world is moving at the same speed, certainly sociologically speaking, and I think Hedwig is probably another 20 years ahead of her time. Nothing changes overnight and eventually the world will catch up with Hedwig. But she is ahead of her time.
Have you had any conversations John Cameron Mitchell?
Yes, we spoke for ages. God, we did a three-hour Skype chat. We talked about the character and all the rest of it. He was wonderful. He was very similar to George, he said something almost exactly the same. He said, “Look, it’s not an impersonation. I don’t want you to just play my version of Hedwig; I want you to let her make use of your body, your being.” We chatted about the characters and about the relationships but not about how I should play the role. That was left up to me, basically, which was great.
Do you find that when you put that wig on and you get up on stage that she kind of possesses you, in a way?
Yes, I do. I’ve been saying that it’s more her taking my body than me interpreting Hedwig. She interprets me, and I think you’ll probably find a lot of the guys who have played her—and the girls—would say the same. This is not a character that you interpret and that you sort of “do”—she just uses whichever actor is playing her, she uses their physical being to create herself anew every time, and I love that. I love that you can step away from yourself much easier in this role because she’s so demanding.
What has been the biggest challenge in taking her on?
The biggest challenge is the physical aspect of the singing, the big acrobatics of the voice. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone from the rock numbers to the punk numbers to the ballads, and it took a while to settle into the routine of it. I wake up in the morning and I think, “Oh, God, not again.” Having an interview is great because I can talk, I can warm up my voice. When I can’t sing, when I can’t wake up in the morning and practice some Karen Carpenter, I feel like someone has sawed my arms off. I really do. I love to sing and I will admit that there’s nothing like the sound of my own voice. It’s not that think it’s an amazing sound, it’s because it’s a feeling inside that it creates for me and I love that feeling.
Well, I will tell you that it is an amazing sound, and I still remember the first time I ever heard it, in September of 2003 at the Broadway on Broadway concert. I remember saying, “What is that and who is that and what song is that?!” And that was it.
[laughs] And that was it. I mean, you’re not the only one. Taboo changed as many lives as Hedwig does.
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. 5.30–6.11 AT BOCH CENTER’S SHUBERT THEATRE, 265 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. BOCHCENTER.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.