You don't have to go all the way to New York City to get a taste of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the flesh. Austin is home to The Sideways Grimace, a Hedwig Tribute Band.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Richard Weiss, lead vocalist (aka Hedwig) and guitarist for the band.
It all started last May, when Weiss went to New York with his wife to see Neil Patrick Harris play the titular role on Broadway for their nineteenth wedding anniversary. Weiss remembered loving the film's soundtrack, and had also seen Andrew Rannells reprise the role at the ZACH Theatre here in Austin in 2001. “I remembered how much fun he was having,” Weiss said.
“We decided to go see it [on Broadway] last minute,” Weiss said. “The only seats left were premium – literally in his face. I had that pins and needles feeling. It was so fun to watch. Then, my brain said, 'I know how to do that stuff.' I hadn't played in band in 20 years, but I turned to my wife and said, 'I want to do that.' I went home and started learning the songs.”
“I was not convinced I could pull it off,” Weiss admitted. “It's not just playing songs, it's inhabiting a character.” Weiss was the architect for the remodel of the Alamo S Lamar location, including designing the Highball stage. “I went to a construction meeting and made offhand comment about the project and they said, 'You have a place to play.' That made it real for me.”
Between Highball regulars and Hedwig fans, Weiss knew there would be enough of a built-in crowd for the show. So it was time to recruit. Mike Sherrill, Chief Creative Officer of Alamo Drafthouse, became the bass player. Steve Sanders, a Highball sound guy, came in on drums.
Now, Weiss only needed female vocals and keyboard. He and Carol Turner Johnson of Zero Gravity Institute had been close friend for decades – her band even played at his wedding. Though she had always played more mellow folksy music, she said she'd give it a shot.
“From first rehearsal I knew it was going to work,” Weiss said. “Thanks to the Broadway cultural revival, I knew if we did it well a core audience would like it.”
The Sideways Grimace performs once a month or so to an audience of around 200 at the Highball, usually after the Alamo screening of the Hedwig and the Angry Inch film. “We don't want to burn it out,” Weiss said. “We don't want to do too much. There are a finite number of songs.”
“There's no other purpose other than the love of getting onstage and an audience that wants to hear it,” Weiss continued. “The number of people is not as important as seeing people who know the words of every song and who wear costumes. A core group connecting to the content as much as I do.”
In early February, Weiss and his wife went back to New York to see John Cameron Mitchell, the original Hedwig, reprise the role on Broadway. “Neil Patrick Harris was polished, with killer dance moves,” Mitchell remembered. “Mitchell was a bit of a train wreck, which may have been intentional. It was a much more raw and honest performance. He is that character. He's enjoying what he's doing. It was obvious it was a room of core fans. Everyone was happy to be there –including us – just having a lot of fun.”
Speaking of his own interpretation of Hedwig, Weiss said, “It's something I look forward to. I love playing music again. Having that in the present tense is really fun. It's a family affair,” Weiss continued. “My wife's been totally cool about all this. My wife's mom and her boyfriend made my costume for the show – spray painting and sewing.”
“I never had wanted to act as a career,” Weiss said. “It's another creative muscle. When you do creative things it eleveates your overall creativity. It benefits my architecture to be in that creative headspace. After college, I dedicated a few years to doing music. Last year was the first time having the best of both worlds. It's been really good for me. I have an architectural practice I love and I am playing music for people who enjoy it.”
“The other thing is that it's really fun to do the character at the Highball,” Weiss said. “People come to see the movie and then the show. They want all new jokes.” Before Wig in a Box Weiss said he does an original monologue about the old S Lamar plaza. “That center was designed for the character,” Weiss said. The S Austin gym, BookWoman, Big Bertha's Bargain Basement.”
“I want to make sure I'm doing the character justice,” Weiss continued. “Not just the comedic notes, but the emotional notes, too. The core story is about bad timing. Hedwig was about this disenfranchised underground,” Weiss explained. “Now it's a big Broadway hit. From the time he wrote it to now, look at how much the world has changed. There are gender neutral restrooms in Austin. That kind of acceptance and sensitivity is a good sign. Austin is one of those towns. I don't think I could do this in a lot of other cities.”
Weiss also mentioned his gratitude for the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. “I'm glad to be part of that creative network,” he said. Nathan James, Entertainment Chair for Austin PRIDE, heard The Sideways Grimace perform at the employee party for the opening of the Alamo S Lamar. “Once he saw I was doing the material justice, he invited me to do the Flannel and Glitter show at the Romani Gallery,” Weiss remembered. “It's a big honor to get to participate in stuff like that.”
James, a former drag queen, also helped Weiss get into character as Hedwig. “I asked his advice about what to do with my hair,” Weiss remembered. “Shaving? Wax? He said, 'Once you shave you have to keep it up. Put on as many layers of pantyhose as will cover it.' Weiss said. “It takes me four. That was really valuable advice.”
Weiss said performing as Hedwig has also caused him to have more empathy for women. “Wearing high heels and putting on make-up and pantyhose...for men, this is annoying,” Weiss said. “For women? It's Tuesday.” Weiss recalled noticing the false eyelashes on the cashier at his pharmacy.
“I wouldn't have noticed that before Hedwig,” he admitted. “Now I'm thinking, 'How do you do the glitter?'”
The Sideways Grimace's next show will be March 8 at the Highball. Weiss said the Alamo S Lamar was unable to book the film for that night. “I will be interested how it will go without that safety net,” he said. “But give me any opportunity to play those songs and I'll do it. I love playing and I like playing the character.”
In March, The Sideways Grimace will also be joined once again by the Super Creeps, Austin's David Bowie Tribute band.
This article was originally published by The Horn on 02/26/15.