Glitter In the Gutter: Broadway’s ‘Hedwig & The Angry Inch’

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Josh and I wait with jittery anticipation outside the Belasco Theater in the cool of a New York evening, as joyous bulbs dance around the outline of Broadway’s sign for ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’, and an experience that will prove to be one of a kind. We’ve been huge fans of the film for years, and the fact that we happened to be in New York at exactly this time when this show was playing feels almost fated. If Heaven is a place of reliving chosen memories, I’d relive this one. The line begins to shuffle forward, and I reflect on what the film means to me and what this show might have in store. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask wrote something which speaks to everyone differently, and personally resonates within me and the idea of an identity crisis. I hand my ticket to the usher, thank her, and move to find my seat.

Hedwig is a pop-rock diva and lyrical genius at war with the world, and within herself. Originally Hansel, an effeminate boy from East Berlin, a botched sex operation leaves Hedwig with neither male nor female genitals, rather an “angry inch” that places her in neither category and leaves her in constant sexual frustration. The operation allows Hedwig to marry Sgt. Luther, a true sugar daddy, and move to America, but their relationship ends as quickly as it began. Hedwig’s primary motivation is to find her other half, her soul mate, and perhaps finally be at peace. From under an immense golden wig does she recollect her past through her lyrics, opening with grand indifference to the judging of others, moving into the depths of despair, and finally to an acceptance of her somewhat ambiguous identity. This is a story which resonates within those who have ever felt lost within themselves, or who don’t belong. Outcasts, odd balls, and freaks.

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Josh excitedly waiting in the second row.

The first time Josh and I saw the Broadway performance, we were sitting in the balcony cheap seats. Even from there we were utterly moved and astonished by the seamless adaptation of film to stage. Other than Yitzhak, played by the phenomenal and unforgettable Lena Hall, and the band members, there are no other characters. No Tommy Gnosis, no Sgt. Luther, no major or minor characters who in the film help drive the story of Hedwig forward. There is only Neil Patrick Harris, and we, the audience.

But as it turns out, we’re key players. Hedwig addresses us as if she were playing this particular venue (the Belasco Theater) for the first time; a fusion of theatre and concert. But the script and dialogue have been altered to fit with this contemporary audience: jokes are hilarious because they’ve been tuned to a 2014 audience, not 2001 when the film debuted. Harris plays not only Hedwig, but Tommy Gnosis, Sgt. Luther, and Hedwig’s mother, doing so by first “acting” out their interactions. I won’t spoil what happens in the end with the reprise of “Wicked Little Town”, but in my opinion, it is easily a performance worthy of a Tony nomination, if not win.

Hedwig uses music to characterize the traumatic events of her stony East Berlin past, with each one playing a key role in her characters progression. “Angry Inch” chronicles the ill-fated sex operation; “Wicked Little Town” sees her first meeting Tommy Gnosis. But with “The Long Grift” we’re suddenly brought into the present, and as we move into “Hedwig’s Lament” and “Exquisite Corpse” Hedwig’s story is no longer a recollection: it’s happening before us.

Lena Hall and I!
Lena Hall and I!

“Long Grift” was my favorite song of the show, occurring as Hedwig’s on stage rivalry with the equally ambiguous Yitzhak (Lena Hall) reaches a boiling point. I’m moved as Hedwig attempts to sing “Long Grift”, only to break down and move away further down stage, allowing Yitzhak to take the helm. This song particularly struck me due to it’s female vocalization (as opposed to the male Tommy Gnosis of the film) and the emotion within Lena Hall’s voice. They are both lost and wounded creatures merely looking to find their true selves, and the hurt at having been betrayed by a loved one is palpable.

Elements of the film are tied in as well in wonderfully cinematic ways. As Hedwig leads into “The Origin of Love”, a semi-translucent screen lowers and fills the stage. We can still make out Hedwig and the band in detail, the screen adding only a slight haziness. But as the song begins, like in the movie, animation is projected that mirrors the lyrics. “When the earth was still flat, and the clouds made of fire, and the mountains stretched up to the sky, sometimes higher…” Fiery clouds expand in a giant half halo around Hedwig, morphing into different creatures and scenes as the song continues. It’s a truly magical experience, and I find words don’t do it justice. They didn’t merely adapt the story for the stage, they re-invigorated what worked and made it relevant to today’s audience, rather than completely re-imagine it into something unrecognizable.

Neil Patrick Harris is on par with John Cameron Mitchell in the role, though both experiences and iterations are different. It’s impossible to call one better than the other — both bring elements to the character of Hedwig that inspire in their own right. Harris’s is far more sexual and domineering, while Mitchell’s is believably human. Part of the fun of seeing the Broadway show twice, however, was the ad-libbing done by Harris on the fly. Jokes were adapted to fit that particular night’s audience, random errors and happenings on stage, and Harris’s own mood.

Merch from the show including the "Shroud of Hedwig" which I got signed by Lena Hall
Merch from the show including the “Shroud of Hedwig” signed by Lena Hall

The second time through, Josh and I sat in the second row, and the experience was very different from sitting in the balcony.

I describe it to Josh later that night, walking in the glow of Times Square, under more cinematic terms: sitting in the balcony was like watching a film at normal 24 fps, with a certain motion blur that requires your brain to fill in the blanks through imagination. In that way, the first show seemed more powerful emotionally (perhaps, because it was the first time we were seeing it) as I attributed details that may or may not have been there. Sitting in the second row, on the other hand, was like seeing a film in 48 fps — there’s a whole lot of clarity, but part of the illusion is lost as well. I admire the details of Hedwig’s costume while at once noticing the fatigue on Harris’s face following certain songs. He’s sweating profusely; there’s his mic; I hear him stumble over a line. But I also catch more of the subtle acting: the static between Hedwig and Yitzhak; the wry smiles during “Sugar Daddy”; the tear that leaves a glittering streak down his face during “Hedwig’s Lament”. Hedwig looks me in the eye and winks during a song, and my heart skips a beat.

The lighting and stage design were incredible in their own right. Flashing images of giant gummy bears are projected in different hues during “Sugar Daddy”, while a single green spotlight slowly envelopes Hedwig during “Hedwig’s Lament”. Body parts rotate in three sections while being projected onto the back wall during “Exquisite Corpse”, and the destroyed car lying center stage becomes more than a mere set piece, as Hedwig stands atop it, lays over it, and descends into the hood for an invisible costume change during “Wig in a Box”.

Everything is so well executed that it becomes cinematic in its own right: light cues and set changes never allow an air of comfortability (and thus, boredom) to set in. Rather they evolve along with Hedwig, finally climaxing in a heavenly glow as Lena Hall and Harris implore the audience to, “Life up your hands!” during the finale of “Midnight Radio”.

We all raise our hands and sway with the song, and the audience erupts into a standing ovation.

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