Head over Heels for Hedwig

Hedwig and the Angry Inch : Theater Review / NY / Broadway / Time : 2014 Spring

Neil Patrick Harris / Photograph Joan Marcus

Neil Patrick Harris / Photograph Joan Marcus

By Rory Winston

What would I be writing if Hedwig and the Angry Inch was the name of a real band rather than the fictitious one in the play of that title? Since suspension of disbelief rarely gets easier than when one is under the spell of Neil Patrick Harris, let’s begin with our very own mock-rock concert review:

Born of the rubble that had once been the Berlin Wall, the heavily underpublicized glam-meets-punk rock band Hedwig and the Angry Inch hijacked the Belasco Theatre last night in an once-in-a-lifetime performance that showed New Yorkers that tearing down the walls of gender and musical genre alike is still one of the best ways to ‘bring down the house.’ But how did a spin-off project that had recently been no more than the supporting band for rock legend Tommy Gnosis get booked in one of the most prestigious houses on the Great White way? The story seems as twisted as the transgender East German lead singer of the band.

Shortly after the untimely death of Hurt Locker: the musical – a stillborn play that had everyone clamoring for their coats by first intermission – Bob Wankel, President of the Shubert Organization, did the unimaginable. He decided to leave Julian Crouch’s brilliant war-torn city (mid-explosion, no less) set intact, and gave Hedwig and Co. a carte blanche to get on stage and do as they please for the duration of one night. That a philosopher-cum-punk crooner could whip her Croatian band into the wig-tossing, eye-popping, heel stomping ‘Stooges-meets-Blondie with Bowie excess’ band that they have become speaks tomes about Hedwig’s ability as a songstress and as a consummate entertainer.

With a flourish of rude to lewd costumes by the remarkably gifted Arianne Phillips of Madonna-renown to the elegantly brash-gone-trash makeup of Mike Potter, Hedwig crawls, dives, whitesnakes and jumps spread eagle while giving a heartfelt rendition of her entire oeuvre. The fact that she is able to do so while recounting both her life’s history and the parallels it bears to global politics is a testament to Hedwig’s ambitions. From the very onset, Hedwig hurtles us into what can only be described as a philosophical dialectic brimming with socio-political metaphor and replete in psychosexual turmoil. In Tear Me Down Hedwig first compares her part-male part-female attributes to Berlin – with its irreconcilable East and West German chasm. Not being one for facile comparisons, Hedwig soon builds on the earlier reference describing – with evocative images like “decorate me with blood, graffiti and spit” – how his persona has become a battlefield where conqueror and victim find solace and revulsion in equal measure. Having gone through a poorly executed sex reassignment surgery, the young man once known as Hansel had been transformed into Hedwig, a woman with a dysfunctional one-inch mound of flesh between her legs – one that is eloquently described as a sideways grimace on an eyeless face.

From there, it’s onto songs like The Origin of Love which takes a speech Aristophanes in which the playwright explains that the reason we are always looking for our better halves is because we had at one time been dual back-to-back beings: men, women and androgynous life forms that were half-male, half-female. As punishment for ambition, an angry Zeus split all of us into two and this is why men still seek their male counterparts, women – their female counterparts, and the formerly androgynous – the heterosexuals of today – still seek partners of the opposite sex. Besides presenting us with the historically reassuring fact that Ancient Greece was far more tolerant than our own society just a few decades back, withholding judgment on what does or does not constitutes normal, Hedwig’s rendition of this speech in song form gives us an insight into her own hopes for finding a perfect soul mate. Accompanied by Benjamin Pearcy’s mischievous projections, the song is more in the way of erudite fun adorned in risqué regalia.

Harris as Hedwig/Photograph: Joan Marcus

Harris as Hedwig/Photograph: Joan Marcus

Okay, enough with the literary contrivance; even my faux music review has regularly steered me back to the beckoning figure of Hedwig – an authentic creature – part siren, part stone – whose turbulent beginnings have shaped her just as her uncertainties and ambitions will, no doubt, morph her anew. It is Hedwig’s evolution that holds our attention. As must be clear by now, Neil Patrick Harris (of Sondheim’s Company and TV’s How I met your Mother) is Hedwig, and more than that, she is verb incarnate. She splutters, fumes, bellows, croons, convulses, consumes, rages then broods; she pauses, resumes, howls (still in tune), revolts and revolts (sic) and, finally, blooms. Sorry about that; but Harris’s performance is more than inspired; it is inspiring. As for Lena Hall’s portrayal of Hedwig’s diehard sidekick, Yitzhak, it is pure harmony – both in terms of acting and in the more literal musical sense as is evident in songs such as Wicked Little Town. Lena’s interpretation of a self-effacing boyfriend in the throes of love shows not a cowering lover who silently suffers all forms of degradation so long as it brings her near the object of her affection, but rather a complicated and boundlessly empathetic soul who understands the depth of Hedwig’s hurt.

The brunt of the story is much the same as when John Cameron Mitchell had written it back when it first premiered in 1998, at a time when he himself was in the lead role. We meet Hedwig, the perpetually jilted lover, after two devastating relationships – the first being with the American soldier who left him for another man on their wedding night (this, after Hedwig underwent the botched surgery, left East Berlin and moved to Kansas for him), and the second being Tommy Gnosis who – after being transformed into a singer and receiving a repertoire’s worth of songs written by Hedwig – summarily dumps Hedwig and builds a career on the former’s compositions. Rife with philosophical observations, political associations and psycho-sexual insight, the all-encompassing vision behind this play stands the test of time. As for the music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, they are as acerbically witty and emotive as the day they were written – scratch that; more so now that Indie bands have familiarized us with the legitimacy of crossing genres, telling personal stories, and altering musical and performance styles in the middle of a single set. It has become par for the course that many of today’s most embraced artists are ironic, nihilistic, passionate and hopeful all in one gig.

Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig & Justin Craig on guitar/ photograph: Joan Marcus

Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig & Justin Craig on guitar/ photograph: Joan Marcus

One has to wonder just how many of today’s contemporary bands were secretly motivated by the bold humor and scope of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. While it is relatively common for musicians to cull forth both obscure and legendary names from the past when being asked about influences, it is rare that one hears musicians citing musicals like Hedwig or, for that matter, films like Velvet Goldmine as stylistic imprints. Whether such oversights are a result of PR companies and managers obsessed with keeping the image of their respective artists untarnished by non-populist facts, or the omissions are simply indicative of a form of myopia that strikes over-specialized fields, is not the issue; the issue is that there is no one (neither pop music reviewers nor educators) tasked with using an interdisciplinary approach when teaching the public about pop music history. This is evident in the fact that few Michael Jackson fans know that Bob Fosse was the source for the moonwalk while Adam and the Ants were the source of his elaborate costumes. Tellingly, both Velvet Goldmine and the off-Broadway production of Hedwig debuted in 1998, the very same year that spawned a renewed interest in Glam and Punk Rock – one that would catalyze many bands into rethinking their look and sound.

Magnificently directed by Michael Mayer (of Spring Awakening, and the film Home at the End of the World) – with poignant lighting by Kevin Adams and impeccable sound design by Tim O’Heir Hedwig and the Angry Inch is gripping, entertaining and thought-provoking from open to finish. As Broadway inches go, this musical protuberance is miles ahead of the rest.

Who would have thought that a story about a patient undergoing a flubbed operation could leave us with a better payoff than a malpractice suit? As bands go, Hedwig and the Inch had made a fan of me. I would happily attend their next gig or wait for an upcoming tour with new material. As revivals go, this one is mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for formulaic transgender-related plays. It will keep your heart beating, your eyes open in awe, and your ears bathed in a world that is touching and meaningful in equal measure.

Lena Hall as Yitzhak/Photograph: Joan Marcus

Lena Hall as Yitzhak/Photograph: Joan Marcus

Walking out of the packed theater, I noticed that many of my colleagues – often stoic creatures who had mastered the art of feigned indifference – were oddly animated that evening. One highly celebrated reviewer – let’s call him Tweeds (since he has an uncanny ability to match the color of his endless number of tweed jackets to his gradually graying beard) – distinctly appeared to be humming; while an equally laconic compare walking besides him was engaged in the act of strumming an air guitar. Spotting a renowned member of the New York Drama Critics Circle, I marveled at his uncanny ability to don his coat while executing a splendid pirouette that ended on a Bowie-like pose. With great panache, he strutted towards the exit as though leaving to the sound of ovations.

Once outside, it became apparent that – along many audience members – there was a discernible gathering of reviewers who seemed reluctant to go beyond the theater’s awning. Instead, they flocked by the exit, pen and pad in hand, in much the same way that teenage fans of a rock band would when waiting for autographs. Adults of all ages, genders, bents, and lifestyles circled aimlessly for up to a half hour.

A passing group of school kids touring the city brought abrupt relief. The moment was gone. We were older, we were professional, and we were certainly not autograph hounds; nor were we intent on being noticed for what we had become, fans. And so, with coy but resolute smiles, we all inconspicuously placed the once again respectable tools of our trade back into our respective bags, knapsacks, purses, attaché cases, and the inner pockets of our coats and departed.

But why had we been standing there? What had we been waiting for? The answer was likely to be as elusive as the reasons behind why many of us had at one time or another in our childhood waited around for a glimpse of our favorite artists. It had something to do with identifying the source of a transformational experience. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an adult’s version of just such an experience. I’m not saying that seeing the show would change my life. But it did reaffirm the notion that while life may be a given, living it fully belonged solely to those who were courageous enough to be unflinchingly honest with themselves – those capable of facing life’s choices with conviction, understanding and love.

Cast of Hedwig & the Angry Inch /Photograph: Joan Marcus

Cast of Hedwig & the Angry Inch /Photograph: Joan Marcus

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