Above: Lena Hall as Yitzhak, Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig. Photo credit © Joan Marcus, 2014. Courtesy of Belasco Theatre
Hedwig and the Angry Inch debuted Off-Broadway — far Off-Broadway — 16 years ago. So much has changed in the meantime that most of what happened in 1998 now seems as esoteric as Plato’s Symposium, which partially serves as Hedwig’s source material. Still, there is something shocking about this queer rock musical finally debuting on Broadway. Its fringe premise — misfit East Berliner Hansel gets a faulty sex change after falling in love with a GI, becomes Hedwig, gets abandoned in the Midwest, influences a general’s son named Tommy Gnosis who runs away with her songs, eventually finds herself — philosophical in-jokes (“You, Kant, always get what you want”), and score of uncompromising glam rock tunes seem designed to cast an expression of alienation over the usual Broadway show bound tourist’s face.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s opening night took place on April 22nd, 2014, and already it’s drawing capacity crowds and garnering Tony nominations left and right. That the musical is claiming so much success without losing its more challenging aspects and picking up “quadruple threat” Neil Patrick Harris in the process is nothing short of a miracle. Much has changed in 16 years, but the underdog can still rise to the occasion, or, in the words of Hedwig number “Wig in a Box”, become this punk rock star of stage and screen.
John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask — the conceiver and the composer of Hedwig respectively — first bonded on a plane ride. What better ice breaker than being the only two passengers not watching When Harry Met Sally? They went their separate ways but reconnected when Mitchell sought out an “authentically rock ‘n’ roll” composer for a performance piece about his upbringing as the son of a general. Trask, who served as a house band member for the drag club Squeezebox!, where he performed with the likes of Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone, seemed like a fitting recruit. Trask proved himself more than worthy by making a vital suggestion on Mitchell’s piece: after Mitchell mentioned a baby sitter from his childhood named Helga, Trask urged him to investigate and develop her character rather than one based on his own. Helga became Hedwig, and Mitchell brought a primitive version of his creation to the Squeezebox!’s stage for a glittering epiphany.
Ensuing years saw a cult following attach itself to Hedwig, which had moved on to the Jane Street Theatre, a 280-seat venue that was in previous incarnations both a sex club and a punk club. Productions began sprouting up across the country, and a particularly successful run in New York saw Ally Sheedy take on the lead role. Its adaptation into a feature film in 2001 can be looked to as an example of a hybrid — queer, rock ‘n’ roll, self-love story, musical — done right and a milestone in queer cinema. At the very least, its subversion of classic movie tropes, like the big screen kiss, is groundbreaking. Hedwig version is filmed in epic Gone with the Wind style, but it concerns two men, one playing a character in between genders:
Small cultural shifts began to happen. As Mitchell says in an interview with the site TheaterMania, drag and rock ‘n’ roll were starting to become “de rigeur” for Broadway. Last year saw the debuts of Kinky Boots and Matilda, both of which feature men dressed as women in significant roles. Yet, as long as the talent and creativity to manipulate form is present, it is still possible to make an impact even in a time where anything seems acceptable.
Even with Hedwig retaining its original score and acquiring a director — Michael Mayer — who has been a supporter from the very beginning, the production had such a risk of losing its oddness, introspection, and bald power under the megawatt lights of Broadway, the Disneyfied vapors of Times Square drifting down the block. Fortunately, as of 2 May, when I caught a performance, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has shown little sign of abandoning its downtown roots.
Could gentrification have something to do with acceptance? Thanks to it, downtown and uptown are becoming more and more alike. If something like a punk exhibit — however poorly executed — can make it to the Met, then a musical about a transgender character performing passionate glam rock anthems about Plato and self-discovery can find itself on the Great White Way, and even make a network TV star into an electrifying diva in killer platform glitter boots in the process.
Belasco Theater’s crowd skewed toward young, female, and highly enthusiastic — maybe for Broadway, maybe just for Hedwig — at the show I attended. Even halfway into the balcony, fans were screaming and dancing in their seats. An especially enthusiastic Hed-head in front of me took it upon herself to fill a silent moment of the show with an intense shout of “I FUCKING love you!!!” While this would be a monumental distraction for many shows, it fit perfectly with Hedwig’s ordered chaos. Harris’ big entrance — which involved being lowered on to the stage while clad in a bodysuit inspired by one created for David Bowie in the ‘70’s and a helmet modeled after Hedwig’s signature ‘do — hinted at pomp, but the spit and fury of opening number “Tear Me Down” brought it all back to the gutter, or it almost did; Harris’ voice, while formidable, doesn’t quite match Mitchell’s in authenticity on the harder songs.
Harris’ choreography, or “musical staging”, as the show’s choreographer Spencer Liff has dubbed it, was flawless in that it seemed rehearsed yet utterly unpredictable at the same time. Reference points ranged from Bowie to moves seen in Hedwig the film to something a bit raunchier, but any instance where Harris chose to interact with the band or emphasize Hedwig’s diva tendencies seemed virtually off the cuff. Likewise, any dialogue not directly related to advancing the story felt uncanned. Ranging from riffs on the influx of Broadway adaptations of films to the Belasco’s history, with double entendres and rim shots galore, Harris’ emcee skills were on full display. Still, this stayed truthful to the original role and Hedwig’s fairly cheesy and very baudy banter.
The advantages of a Broadway budget were most apparent in set design (although the junkyard set isn’t what one would call flashy) and a few special flourishes, such as the animations projected during “The Origin of Love”, courtesy of the visual design house Phosphene. “The Origin of Love” is the production’s biggest nod to Plato’s Symposium and as good an example as any of Trask’s songwriting power, although the soundtrack as a whole is a masterstroke in navigating rock styles — from glam to punk to slightly twangy — without attracting the kitschiness of showtunes.
The backing band, consisting of Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, and Peter Yanowitz, ably uphold the score’s melodic power (and if you’re also a fan of The Antlers, you will thrill at seeing touring guitarist Mislock in a far flashier light). Special praise should be given to Lena Hall, who plays Hedwig’s back up singer and husband, Yitzhak. Living in Hedwig’s shadow means that Hall’s own gender-bending role is unglamorous and small, thus causing the character’s moment in the spotlight to radiate all the more. As both a Broadway pro (most notably for Kinky Boots) and rock singer for the Deafening, Hall makes you believe there could not have been a better casting choice.
Any risk that was to be had by Harris assuming the role of Hedwig seems to have paid off greatly. The role has awarded him his first Tony nomination and consistent praise across the board. In the Playbill that accompanies Hedwig, Harris describes what taking on the role meant for him:
“I had seen (Mitchell) in the show twice, but I never, ever saw Hedwig as a role I needed to tackle… I was always seeking strength and masculinity earlier in my adult life, and I don’t care about that as much anymore. Hedwig’s rough around the edges, and I have no problem looking awkward, ugly, and spastic… John told me that he was profoundly moved by the freedom of performing Hedwig, and I was relieved to hear how every show is different…”
In the same interview, Harris also speaks of the desire to create something “from the ground up,” and the difficulty of doing this when offered roles in long-standing productions. The spontaneity and imperfection found in the role of Hedwig could grant Harris edgier roles in the future. Up to this point, “edgy” certainly isn’t a word that could be used to describe Harris’ filmography, which has been filled with largely commercial fare like Starship Troopers and the Harold and Kumar films, with kid-friendly flicks like The Smurfs thrown in here and there (I’ll admit that he was excellent in Undercover Brother though).
Given this and his run on CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, it’s easy to see why Hedwig’s producer, David Binder, touted Harris as someone who “could get a broad audience to go on a journey with a transgender character.” Harris serves as Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s affable, multi-talented Trojan Horse, but Harris could be using Hedwig in the same way, gaining credibility with every strut across the Belasco’s floorboards. There has been no comment on whether Harris would be prolonging his role as Hedwig beyond the production’s mid-August run. If he declines, it will be interesting to see where Harris sets his sights next.
One of Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s final musical numbers is “Exquisite Corpse”. Preceded by the melancholy “Hedwig’s Lament”, it’s a cacophonous number that sees the show at its most rock ‘n’ roll. Strobes flash chaotically and Harris — who has deftly undergone a series of changes into Arianne Phillips’ tacky-fabulous costumes by this point — strips himself of all adornments as he thrashes about the stage. The title “Exquisite Corpse” comes from a parlor game first made popular by the surrealists. A blank piece of paper is folded, drawn or written on, and circulated among party guests, the idea being that Guest C would only be able to see the bit of the drawing or writing that Guest B had done, Guest D only sees Guest C’s contribution, and so forth.
Whether an exquisite corpse is made from pictures or words, the result is still the same — something from the subconscious is given shape. The songs that succeed “Exquisite Corpse” in Hedwig are a reprisal of the ballad “Wicked Little Town” and “Midnight Radio”, an anthemic number in which it is revealed that Hedwig has found her other half inside herself, and has thus connected with an heretofore undiscovered part of her being. She sings a song of praise to those who consider themselves outcasts.
“Exquisite Corpse” could be seen as both Hedwig the musical and Hedwig the film’s epiphanic moment. In both mediums, that which follows is purely musical. The film discards its formula of musical number + spoken present day scenes intercut with recollection, much like Hedwig discards her costume, and turns to a purely musical form. In these final minutes, Hedwig’s finest elements come together: Hedwig’s quest is over, she is at one with her other half, her purest self, and her songs tell a story beyond her own. Even Yitzhak is given the blessing to become his true self, reemerging in glittery costume like a butterfly from a cocoon. The collage is complete.
Miriam Shor, who played the original and film versions of Yitzhak, has said of Hedwig, “It’s always been a dark horse, but I feel like that’s how it has to be. Because they chose to deal with a million subjects that people don’t always want to deal with…” In its 2014 incarnation, Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues to tell its story intellectually, uncompromisingly, and explosively. The “misfits and the losers” Hedwig serenades in “Midnight Radio” may or may not be the ones filling the seats at the Belasco, but Hedwig is singing their song all the same.