After making it through crammed subway rides and busy streets, you have finally found your seat. Bright neon pink lights interchanging with blue hues are coming from ahead and blind you, but as your eyes get used to the surrounding darkness, you make out the scenery of a pitiful-looking old-school car with what seems like broken bits and pieces levitating around it. Matching this state of destruction is the panoramic image of some torn down stone construction framing the stage.
Five figures appear on this relatively small elevated space: four starting to play instruments; one seemingly having no aim or relation to the ones around them. A heavy drum beat draws not only them together, but also the audience who keeps strolling in, stumbling really, as they find it hard to avert their heads away from the source of colour and sound. Exciting chatter fills the place, pair of eyes recognising each other through the dark because Oh, you’re here tonight, too? -Yes, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
The anticipation in the air is palpable. Screeching guitar chords make it harder to carry on with conversations over several rows and demand attention, even more so as the beat of the drum intensifies and the lonely figure approaches the microphone. The world outside stops, even in the city that never sleeps, and the only thing that matters to you is where you are now and will be for the next 90 minutes: the location is Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street New York, NY. And this is Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
When in 2013 it was announced that after playing the womaniser Barney Stinson in 10 seasons of the success comedy How I Met Your Mother, Neil Patrick Harris would go on to originate the role of Hedwig Robinson in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, the theatre and television world exploded. The latter because these two characters could not be more different from each other, and the former because a long-beloved, peripheral rock musical would finally get a chance to shine on the Great White Way. And shining like the brightest star it did: the New York Times celebrated it as “Shamelessly enjoyable! Electrically tuneful and furiously funny. An unqualified pleasure.” and the New York Magazine praised it to be “Furiously entertaining with a heartwarming message. A terrifically smart production!”
Rewarded was the long way from 1998’s first off-Broadway staging of the musical with a total of 5 Tony awards, Broadway’s equivalent of the Oscars. Both starring actors, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall, who opened the show to become a commercially and critically acclaimed hit in 2014, received Tonys for Best Leading Actor and Best Featured Actress in a Musical. In addition to that Hedwig scored Best Revival of a Musical and Best Lighting Design, and finally, after having created the role in the 90ies and reprised it in 2015, John Cameron Mitchell was awarded with the Special Tony Award for his lifetime achievement.
Hedwig, the main character the musical revolves around, is a force to be reckoned with. Her signature look consists of killer, gold high heels, fishnet tights wrapping around her muscular legs and provocative denim skirt and tops, always customised with aggressively showy writing and symbolism. Pink blush harshly contours her cheekbones; luscious red lipstick, blue-sparkly eyeshadow and dramatically over-drawn eyebrows conclude the look. But all of this almost fades into oblivion in light of her voluminous, icy blonde wig which makes you question the laws of physics, but even more so underlines the power that Hedwig holds. Who is this Hedwig, and why have we never heard of her, Jerry? one confused American theatre-goer might ask.
Once upon a time, Hedwig was called Hansel, a slip of a girlyboy, born in the depths of communist East Berlin, Germany. And she will share her story for you in a one night only special performance.
The musical is framed as a rock cabaret: a rock‘n‘roll concert, interspersed with monologues by the lead performer that come across as overly long rants interluding between songs with the aim of informing the audience about her life story. Essentially, it is a one (wo-)man show: if you go to see Hedwig, you go to see the actor underneath the heavy make-up and wigs. Thus you only have four participants in the play: the leading lady Hedwig, her husband Yitzhak (an East European former drag queen who provides background vocals), her band The Angry Inch and…you, the audience of her concert.
Hedwig will make sure you are aware of the house rules at any time. The show is known to be full of improvisation with scenes where the script actively demands audience participation and occasions in which the beauty of live theatre makes it possible for any quick-witted actor to showcase their humour. And since anything can happen at a rock concert, no boundaries are set for the reigning Hedwig. Be prepared to be called out for inappropriate behaviour or put on the spot for questionable outfit choices, and do not book seats in the first few rows unless you are a fan of bodily fluids.
THE WHO IS WHO
Broadway has seen six Hedwigs: Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Andrew Rannells (Girls, The Book of Mormon), Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Cabaret) John Cameron Mitchell (co-creator of Hedwig), Darren Criss (Glee, A Very Potter Musical) and Taye Diggs (Rent). Rebecca Naomi Jones (American Idiot) is the current Yitzhak, who took over the role from the fantastic Lena Hall (Kinky Boots), who scored a Tony for her portrayal of the brooding, tight-lipped backup singer and probably went down in Broadway history as the first performer to thank her own rock band upon receiving the award. The musical’s orchestra a.k.a. a four-headed rock ensemble consists of Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock and Peter Yanowitz, who in real life form a band as well and call themselves Tits of Clay, a nod to the material that fills Hedwig’s bralette.
THE WHAT AND WHY
So far, we have danced around the actual plot of the musical. That is because one of the main thrills of experiencing Hedwig is to take part on the journey she takes her audience through song and sarcasm. Even explaining the title addition “Angry Inch” would reveal a
traumatising event in young Hedwig’s life that has most impact if found out eventually from the rock artist herself.
This much should be said: Hedwig is not a transsexual woman, neither is she a drag performer. But he did grow up as Hansel Schmidt during the 70ies/80ies and unknowingly suffered from sexual abuse by his father who soon abandoned his son and wife. Struggling to support herself and her son, Hansel’s mothers took on a job of teaching sculpture to limbless children (this level of irony is heavily featured throughout the play) but soon the relationship between mother and child turned cold. Never fitting quite in, Hansel did find comfort in the at-the-time uprising glam rock movement – a spark that would set off her future career aspiration. After being kicked out of university, Hansel meets an American GI who shows interest in him and soon turns out to be a one-way ticket out of East Berlin over to America, the land of dreams and opportunity (…or so they claim, Hedwig would remind you). After years of struggle, disappointment and exploitation, the public does suddenly show interest in the German former military wife, however, not for her musical talent but for her mysterious connections to the latest rock giant Tommy Gnosis. Enraged by the misplaced interest in her, she delivers a one night only special performance, where Hedwig will make sure to shed light and justice on her former dark path.
From inches to feet and miles – Hedwig’s Journey
At the show’s centre, if you were to pick out one of the many themes, is the notion of duality – with all its bonuses and hardships. Without a doubt this also stems from the show having two creators who in their collaboration had distinct roles. John Cameron Mitchell, in the 90ies a Broadway actor, wrote the book and gave Hedwig’s characters her signature dark, sarcastic personality. Stephen Trask, musical director at the nightclub Squeezebox in NYC, was looking for someone to bring a character-based rock show on stage that he could write the music for. On a flight from Los Angeles to New York City, these two creative minds met, bonded over the same interests and formed a text-book friendship that would tread the path of Hedwig’s success.
Trask’s Squeezebox frequented drag performers who covered songs backed by a live band, meaning that when Mitchell on July 29, 1994 made his first appearance as Hedwig there, he faced an audience critical to everything that tried something different. And Hedwig was different. Hedwig also was strikingly different to the look and presence she has on today’s stages, mainly because Mitchell’s and Trask’s first attempts at the show resembled a rough series of songs and one-liner jokes without scenes as guidance throughout the performance. The creators took the time to workshop a character in front of an audience with the firm believe to breath life into something that from the outside looks like a man entertaining in drag, but is in fact a character with a backstory that anyone can relate to. At the Squeezebox, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was not a final product, it was a beginning.
On February 14, 1998 Hedwig officially opened as an off-Broadway production (meaning it played in houses that seated less than 500 people) at Hotel River View located on Jane Street in NYC. Finding a fitting location for an ambitious rock musical would be responsible for either the rise or fall of the new show. Trask and Mitchell had to face the question of who the audience for their theatrical rock extravaganza would be: the songs were too rock’n’roll for classical theatre fans, and the acting was too theatrical for rock’n’rollers. Initially, the show was deemed as too experimental, too progressive for the time, with people even leaving the theatre before it ended. Nevertheless, the Jane Street Hotel embodied a combination of punk rock flair (leaking pipes, worn-down condition) and necessary theatre atmosphere (a redesigned ballroom, old-school charm) which Hedwig’s creative team put faith into attracting the right audience. A decision that would eventually turn out to be spot on. Influential names in the music industry came to see Hedwig: Pete Townshend (The Who), Lou Reed or David Bowie. Names, which could then later be used for a few strategically placed advertisements in local print media like the New York Times or Time Out. David Bowie was even so impressed by the show that he produced Hedwig and the Angry Inch for Los Angeles. Later the show would be staged internationally at the West End and tour internationally with e.g. stops in Brazil, Italy and Germany.
THE WHERE AND WHEN
If you missed Hedwig’s run on Broadway, fear not. Adapting their story into a movie was always on the horizon for creators Mitchell and Trask. Despite facing numerous scepticism, they were eventually able to convince the moving picture production company Killer Films to bring Hedwig onto the big screen. Luckily Killer Films wanted John Cameron Mitchell himself to star as Hedwig after seeing him perform in the role life and naturally he also ended up directing the movie: a challenging double task that guaranteed Hedwig’s authenticity. In the movie, Hedwig’s monologues are acted out, which gives each character a face and voice, and makes for an engaging story world. Musical performances are still prominent and were even recorded live each take. Speaking of which, the music comes in three different versions accompanying each theatrical installment: the first off-broadway run (1998), the film (2001) and the latest Broadway cast recording with Neil Patrick Harris (2014). On stage the songs are the pure punk rock concert experience that you would expect from The Hives, Jet or Jack White. Not only live, but always too loud, raw and imperfect for musical theatre standard. Hedwig cuts the vibrato, clear diction and gravity defying tunes of Oklahoma! or Wicked. Yet exactly this rough, and honest delivery is what makes Hedwig’s story feel real, sucks you in and leaves you in awe and the soundtracks don’t fail to deliver this into every living room.
After more than 500 performances, Hedwig and the Angry Inch concluded its first Broadway run on September 13, 2015. But fear not! As announced on March 2, 2015, our favourite and soon-no-longer internationally ignored song stylist is tearing down all walls around her: Hedwig will be conquering stages all around the States in an American tour that is planned for the coming year. It will kick off west coast-style in San Francisco on October 4, 2016, and will bring the house down for a limited run until October 30 before heading east.
But wait, there’s less! Both Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell have voiced their strong interest in bringing the show back to the West End in London. And when the power-duo Trask-Mitchell set their minds on something, you can be sure to catch it soon…on the Midnight Radio.
„Hedwig was the only live show that completely tore me down and re-built me emotionally, and also made me a very different and emotionally drained
person when I left the theater“
„I saw Darren Criss as Hedwig and it was incredible. Darren’s abilities as a musician is evident from the very first moment. He knows how to work a crowd – and does so splendidly“
„The show was captivating and emotional, and even my brother who didn‘t want to see the show in the first place was in love with hedwig by curtain call“ (Michaela 18)
Shana Lee has seen Hedwig a total of 30 times: Neil Patrick Harris (1), Andrew Rannells (2), Michael C Hall (3), John Cameron Mitchell (13), Darren Criss (11)
„The first time I left theatre in shock but the second time I left in tears. I feel like I was too excited that Neil was in front of me to understand the show but Andrew Rannells blew me away and I finally got what Hedwig was trying to say.“
„Hedwig is a show that you should approach with caution. It is a energetic love filled show with a lot of spit and even more sex puns.“(Shana Lee, 17)
„Hedwigs performance leaves you speechless, stunned, breathless. I was expecting to see Darren Criss playing a role. Instead I saw Hedwig and only Hedwig, her struggles, her journey, her raw self. I hadn‘t known that a show could touch you this way.“ (Tina, 23)