And I am definitely one of those new fans. I watched the movie version of “Hedwig” in college but wasn’t really paying attention so I didn’t get it and didn’t even realize what amazingness I was watching. But then Neil Patrick Harris brought Hedwig back to life last spring and it won lots of Tonys and it was the hardest ticket to get. Since I like to see everything every season, this was very difficult for me to accept. Luckily I did not have to learn a lesson in not getting everything I want, Broadway edition, because my super awesome friend at Ever the Wayfarer got me ungettable tickets to NPH’s final weekend! Best ever! It was his beautiful performance that made me an obsessive fan of all things Hedwig.
“Hedwig & The Angry Inch” tells the story of a young man named Hansel, a ‘slip of a girly boy’ living with his austere mother in East Berlin before the wall came down. NB, that was the really shitty side. Hansel met Luther, an American soldier, who lured him with lots of candy like he was driving a white van, and made Hansel an offer he couldn’t refuse: to marry him, and thus get out of East Berlin. Obviously, this was happening before gay marriage was allowed anywhere, even in Europe, and so Hansel would have to undergo a sex change operation to pass the physical examination. Hansel’s mother gives him her passport and tells him he can go by her name, Hedwig. And so the new Hedwig goes to surgery, and as you probably can guess from the title, it is botched, to say the least, and he’s “left with a one-inch mound of flesh where my penis used to be, where my vagina never was. It was a one-inch mound of flesh, with a scar running down it like a sideways grimace on an eyeless face.” I freaking love that line and had to share.
So he, now she, Hedwig, is moved to Junction City, Kansas to live with her new husband Luther, who soon leaves her alone, living in a motor home, working a checkout counter, left to watch the fall of the Berlin wall on television too soon after all she went through to escape.
It’s pretty damn depressing. But it gets better like they all say! Because here she is, for her ‘one night only’ Broadway performance (as the show is billed as), made possible by the previous night’s mid-show closing of the first performance of the fictitious “Hurt Locker: The Musical”. To play up this backstory, fake “Hurt Locker” playbills are strewn about the auditorium before every performance, so if you are lucky enough to find one, you should frame it. These fake playbills are HILARIOUS, from the list of songs in the fake musical (including gems like “Won’t you buy my porn DVD” and “Hot Desert Nights!”) to the castlist (including Bobby Cannavale, Taye Diggs, and D’Bree Dazeem (Adele’s sister)) to the standard Playbill “How many have you seen” section all full of made-up and hysterical shows (including “Streep No More”, “SoulCycle On Broadway”, and, my favorite, “Tyler Perry is Madea is Medea”). Whoever made this fake playbill deserved a huge raise if not his or her own Tony. I still can’t get over how incredible it is.
Anyway, Hedwig is here in her one-night only concert, using the Hurt Locker set (a blown up car, lots of pipes and dinginess) and singing her glorious songs for a huge NYC crowd while telling us the rest of her history. After Luther left her, she started babysitting for a kid named Tommy, and together they wrote unbelievable music as they fell in love, a love that has both sustained and plagued Hedwig since. See, as a young boy, Hedwig was enamored with the story of the Origin of Love, based on Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, which tells how humans used to be of three sexes in forms about double what we are now. When the gods got angry and scared of our strength, they split everyone into two, making us the size and shape we are now while simultaneously creating the idea of our ‘other halves’, our soulmates. This is considered the origin of love, as the two people, the two parts, form one whole, and the search for that other half is what will make you complete. It’s really a lovely story, and the performance of this song is my favorite part of the whole show, with superb simple animation projected on a screen.
But Hedwig takes this story a little too seriously, and has been searching for her other half her whole life. She believed she found it in Tommy, but he was reviled by her situation downstairs, and things fell apart. To add insult to injury, Tommy became a famous rock star stealing all the songs they wrote together, which crushed Hedwig. Despite Hedwig’s now marriage to one of her musicians, a male Jewish drag queen named Yitzhak (played to perfection by Lena Hall), and all the time that has passed, she is still heartbroken yearning for Tommy. In addition to Hedwig’s words, the show itself demonstrates her feelings for Tommy, as it begins with the highest energy, like a rock concert. It’s loud and energetic and totally awesome, with “Tear Me Down” and “Sugar Daddy”. But once we hear Hedwig’s anthem, “Wig In A Box”, the dynamic changes and the songs become more personal, more sensitive, more sad.
The fantastic, clever, and intriguing aspect of the story is the ambiguity of the relationship between the characters of Tommy and Hedwig. The set up is that Tommy, a huge rock star, is playing an enormous venue just behind the Belasco, where Hedwig is singing. The venues share a door that repeatedly gets opened by Hedwig or Yitzhak during the show, when we can hear Tommy’s Midwestern voice addressing his adoring fans. Because the actor playing Hedwig also plays Tommy, some people think they are the same person, and that Hedwig’s struggle that she’s been telling us about has really just been within herself. While the latter is definitely true, it seems more widely accepted that they are indeed two different people, but that they are so similar in many ways that they both need to go through this journey, and rather than becoming complete by joining together, they become complete by, in Hedwig’s case, letting the other go and, in Tommy’s case, recognizing how much their relationship meant to him and apologizing for the past. I love how the "Wicked Little Town Reprise", after Hedwig's stripping down and/or transformation into Tommy, is sung clearly in Tommy's voice. I love how much this show plays with gender boundaries and how nebulous the whole ending is because it allows everyone to come to their own conclusions at the end. There are also people who think Hedwig is fictitious, and that it's Tommy the whole time, and that the whole German persona is a way for Tommy to deal with some emotional issues. This is actually closer to the story of its creator, John Cameron Mitchell, whose childhood mirrors Tommy’s and who indeed created Hedwig as a means of expression, as all art is. It’s such a compelling story no matter what your interpretation of the whole thing is. The most important part, regardless of which interpretation you form, is that the ending has Hedwig, or Tommy, or both, finally accepting who he/she is and finding inner peace.
All of this analysis is as fascinating as it is because Stephen Trask wrote the most magnificent music to tell this story. Before I saw this revival, I only knew “Wig In A Box”, but I’m now obsessed with the entire score, which has become one of my favorites. Every song captures so much emotion in a different way. Also, it seems like there’s really no supporting cast, because it’s just Hedwig up there with her band, but Yitzhak is a crucial role. I didn’t appreciate Lena Hall’s performance much the first time. I thought, okay, she has an amazing voice and talks like a man pretty convincingly, but a Tony? But on second viewing, I was stunned. Her interplay with Hedwig is everything. Every look that passes between them, all the times she (well he, Yitzhak, but easier to say she because Lena) jumps up to help Hedwig and all the times she purposefully pisses him off. Hedwig’s treatment of Yitzhak is despicable, not only because she’s always saying how Tommy was her soulmate, in front of her husband! So the ending, when Hedwig lets Yitzhak get back in drag and shine as perhaps an even stronger performer than Hedwig, is as much about Yitzhak’s journey and growth as about Hedwig’s.
And a hugely enjoyable part of the show is how much can change depending on the lead actor’s interpretation. NPH was funny, so charming, and often sad. His Hedwig seemed wistful more than stuck. He was also really pretty as a woman! He was at least believable as a 'slip of a girly boy'. And his jokes were hysterical, especially my favorite “what’s an eight track” line in “Wig”. His energy was unbounded, his “Sugar Daddy” was insanely fun and unparalleled, and his “Origin of Love” was also beautiful. While NPH’s Hedwig seemed a downcast victim of ill fortune, Michael C. Hall’s was graver, darker, with more edge to his jokes and his singing. MCH’s much more masculine physical appearance made a difference as well, as his butch and kind of garish Hedwig made it more obvious that the path Hedwig’s life took – becoming a woman, a wife, an ex-wife, leaving home – was not exactly the product of free will. His “Midnight Radio” was incredibly powerful and his “Wicked Little Town” so wrenching and lovely. Both performances are worthy of acclaim (and were given it), but Michael’s deeper misery made a huge impact on me and showed how many layers there are to this seemingly simple story. I’m insanely jealous of the people who have seen all of the actors in this revival, especially John Cameron Mitchell, who should be back next week (but will finish before I’m back in NYC. Time to learn that lesson.). If you have the chance this week to see Michael, it’s definitely worth it. And if you have the chance to see John Cameron Mitchell, then I hate you.