Why don’t you love me?
This question throbs as the subtext of so many Broadway musicals, but few pose it as blatantly and disturbingly as the current revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now playing at the Belasco Theater in New York City.
John Cameron Mitchell’s mind-sucking book brings to life the story of Hedwig, “an internationally ignored song-stylist from East Berlin.” As an effeminate boy growing up in East Germany, the rock music-loving Hansel meets an American soldier who offers him a chance to escape through marriage. Because the only legally valid form of marriage was the one between a man and a woman, Hansel’s mother tells him: “To walk away, one must leave something behind.”
Five out of six inches, to be exact.
One botched gender reconstructive surgery and much heartbreak later, Hedwig and her band –called the Angry Inch– hijack the Belasco Theater for a one-night-only performance. Hedwig explains that, to get this gig, she gave a blowjob to the producer of “Hurt Locker,” a Broadway show that closed during the intermission of its opening night (Playbills of the fictional failure are scattered across the floor as proof.)
What happens after that point can only be described as theatrical vomit – in the best possible way. Too punk rock for intermissions and too tragic for side-splitting laughter, Hedwig and the Angry Inch asserts itself as a fourth wall-breaking, punk-rock-infused, water-guzzling monologue, and that’s about the entire show. This confessional nature troubles us – it makes one sit there, catatonic rather than mesmerized, listening to what is (at least to my queer eye) the most lovelorn character on Broadway since the Phantom himself.
Beneath that heaving rage lies a central metaphor – Aristophanes’ argument about the origins of love in Plato’s Symposium. In the show’s most subdued number, a ballad titled Origins of Love, the otherwise glam-rock score reveals that Hedwig believes what Aristophanes argues in The Symposium: that we once used to be unified with our other half, but are now condemned to scour the earth alone, looking for them.
Hedwig, a legendary role Andrew Rannells inherited from Tony winner Neil Patrick Harris, imprints a particular kind of experience on the observer. She is what we at Stanford so lovingly call “a lot.” She changes multiple outfits, switches multiple wigs, and spits a lot of water at the audience. Hedwig’s “lot-ness” is the cracking façade behind which we see someone devastated by the life that lived her, and not the other way around. Rannells implodes onstage carrying out this performance, showcasing the talents of a true entertainer, commanding crowds with the blink of a sequined eyelash. Though his intentionally raspy voice might concern his vocal coach, it gives musical life to a role that might feel cliched just because it is built around the idea of love.
The only other character is Yitzhak, played by Tony-winning actress Lena Hall dressed as a man. A gay Croat Hedwig picked up somewhere, Yitzhak is the victim of all of Hedwig’s anger. The most life-effacing punishment that Hedwig exacts on him occurs when she forbids that he do drag. This restriction is lifted at the end of the show, and Yitzhak ascends to the stage in his full feminine glory, glitter-clad and bewigged, singing the bridge to Midnight Radio. Hall carries Yitzhak with a low center of gravity – she interprets him as quiet, ashamed, and deeply hateful of Hedwig. In her sublimated anger, Hall flings her character across the stage as Hedwig hogs the spotlight. Vocally, it would appear that Hall can sing anything, from trash metal to Whitney Houston, and pull it off with the same believability as she does with her character.
Hedwig believes her other half is closer than we think. Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s ex-lover, never appears onstage, but is rumored to be playing a sold-out concert venue just next door, having stolen all her songs and become world-famous. Hedwig’s hatred for Tommy is almost Valkyriean in nature – she is gigantic, glorious, and blonde, willing to stop at nothing to get her revenge. In the monologue, she reveals that she has followed Tommy across the country, playing at shitty venues next to his sold out arenas so that she could set the record straight. She never succeeds, and eventually admits defeat, her raging monologue of a show never even heard by Tommy. This outcome opens up a larger dialogue about the oftentimes not-so-silent war between gay men and transwomen.
Matters of gender identity is where this production of Hedwig seems to falter. The libretto very clearly reveals that there are multiple spectra on which the character of Hedwig stands. One such spectrum is that of gender. Hedwig never wanted to be a woman – she never felt the need or desire to change her gender. Is she intersex? Is she transgender? I don’t know, but I do know that, when Andrew Rannells stands onstage dressed to the nines in glam-rock drag and has his character call herself “transgendered,” I cringe because I am not sure that the men (Mitchell and Trask) who chose to categorize her knew exactly what the ramifications of Hedwig’s identity would look like were she non-fictional and alive today. Maybe she didn’t have the language to say she was intersex, or to say she was gender-fluid. Maybe she wouldn’t have had any prefered gender pronouns. Maybe she would have self-identified as ‘tranny’ or ‘faggot’ and forced us of the Politically Correct ilk to deal with it. The tragedy of taking a show to Broadway (and recouping a $5 million dollar capitalization cost in just 15 weeks) is that it annihilates the possibility of making the story entirely countercultural. In a huge theatre down the street from Times Square, the most radical thing Rannells can call himself on that stage is trans, which, while a tremendous feat, somehow still shuts the door on many other conversations about fluidity in gender and sex.
Even with its flaws, Hedwig is a regenerative experience. It blasts open old, cluttered conversations about love, demanding a suspense of jadedness and some thought about about the kind of romance I would normally shudder at the sight of – the type that celebrates the whole “there’s only one person for everyone” dogma. This makes Hedwig, even in its funniest moments, a tragedy, and that is a flooring realization.
Photo credit 1: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Photo credit 2: Joan Marcus