Awhile back I was at Marie’s Crisis with a few friends when they started playing a song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Everyone happily began to sing along. Everyone except me, that is. To be honest I didn’t even recognize the song. Somehow Hedwig had passed me by: I’d seen the original production, I believe (with Michael Cerveris) as well as the movie, but I barely remembered either. I’m most certainly not OK with being the only person who’s unfamiliar with a modern classic of the musical theater, so right there and then at Marie’s Crisis I decided I needed some good quality bonding time with the original cast recording.
I listened to it a bit, but am not sure I ever really got it. And I wasn’t planning to see this new production, mostly because tickets are so pricey. But then a journalist friend (thank you Jada!) came to the rescue, and I got a last-minute ticket for this past Thursday. (When I found out I’d be able to see Hedwig, I’d just bought a sewing machine and ended up having to lug it to the theater with me. A friend wondered if I may have been the first person in the history of the Belasco Theatre to drop a sewing machine off at the bag check?)
But enough of my story. Want to hear about the show? Hedwig is, of course, an East German emigrant to the United States, and a victim of a botched male to female sex change operation. (Hence the “Angry Inch”.) She’s arrived on Broadway for one night only, to perform in protest to the massive Times Square concert her ex, superstar Tommy Gnosis, is putting on just outside the theater. There’s an elaborate backstory to justify how Hedwig ended up at the Belasco, complete with fake Playbill. This sort of falls apart, however, when you see the outstanding projections (Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions), fancy costumes (by Arianne Phillips), and uberprofessional physical design (by Julian Crouch). This show (directed by Michael Mayer) feels like a big Broadway production; all this razzle-dazzle is probably antithetical to the spirit of the show.
Oh well. I’m not complaining. That’s because of what we get in return: Neil Patrick Harris‘s performance. He yet again proves himself to be the consummate entertainer: outstanding energy, terrific rapport with the audience, unwavering commitment, and wonderful comic timing. Lena Hall was another real stunner as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband. Goodness what a voice. Could both of them have dug a little deeper into their characters, in terms of pathos? Possibly. But given the sparkly tone of the production, both are just about perfect.
As a piece, Hedwig really stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of contemporary musical theater. It feels brave, clever, and best of all unapologetically individual. And still edgy even 16 years after the original production. Geez Louise, even the rock sound of the piece is rarely matched all these years later. (Come back, Stephen Trask!) I can’t imagine ever seeing another musical quite like it. Which is why I’m so glad I really got to experience it properly this time around. Third time lucky, eh?
However, I don’t think it will ever be an absolute favorite of mine, because I could use a bit more clarity in terms of storytelling. (Sorry. I get like that sometimes. I need to have things spelled out for me. I’m not being sarcastic or cutesy. In grad school my theater criticism professor used to tease me about this.) Wait, so why did Tommy reject Hedwig: is he a closeted gay guy, or was he under the impression that Hedwig was born a woman and he got grossed out by the dangly bits? If Yitzhak is a drag queen, why is he performed by a woman? Is he transgender too? Why exactly does Hedwig show herself to be so… male at the end of the show? In fact, that muddle is probably what this show is all about — here, gender isn’t clear, answers aren’t obvious, and you have to do a little thinking for yourself.