Nearly a month has passed, and the show has not left my mind. Not even close.
Thanks to my incredible constant, my generous wife Ophilia, I was able to see John Cameron Mitchell perform the titular role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. I was able to share a moment with a precious few. Share an adventure with my wife. Share space with an amazingly talented performer. From the front row. This has brought a tremendous gift full circle. A feeling of acceptance and community. A connection.
I've seen this show in multiple incarnations, from bootleg videos of the original Off-Broadway run, to a tiny two row box theater in Chicago (with a dead ringer for JCM as the lead), to the fabulous 2001 New Line Cinema film. I've listened to every cast album I've come across, as well as the Wig In a Box tribute album.
The songs resonate, the story resonates, Hedwig resonates.
I first became aware of the wonder that is Hedwig Robinson on DVD in 2002. “Because you liked The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Netflix had said upon offering the suggestion. I'd had vague recollections of the “Okay, everybody” bouncing wig singalong in the trailer, seen at an art house theater with a John Waters flick. Bringing together the queer world, that. Waters, Rocky, Hedwig.
I greatly enjoyed it upon first viewing, but wouldn't really understand until later. See I was monogamous then. I was straight laced. The word straight is apropos, I even thought I was straight. Amusingly, Hedwig as babysitter, flogging Tommy Gnosis' bishop threw up a prominent sonar ping along my road to bisexuality. The previous ping had come with the words “I'm afraid so, Brad, but isn't it nice?”
For those who don't know, and who haven't immediately rented or purchased the film to watch on Amazon, Hedwig is the story of a slip of a girly-boy's transformation into the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before us. A botched sex change leading to an Angry Inch of flesh between (now) her legs. Hedwig is a story of loss and regret. It's a story of desperately searching for completion in life, to find your other half, and having no idea where that other half resides. Or even IF it does.
Hedwig's journey takes her from East Berlin, through marriage and subsequent divorce from Luther Robinson, to a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas. As a mentor to little Tommy Speck, who, with Hedwig's musical tutelage moved from a Christian rock fan (“with a fish on his truck!”) to a phenom named Tommy Gnosis that callously left out the name Hedwig Robinson on his album and tour.
The Broadway show is a one night only event, across the street from Tommy's sold out concert, in the remains of a set from Hurt Locker: The Musical, which closed at intermission. (“We found love in The Hurt Locker.”) Hedwig tells us the story of her life thus far, working through her issues as she goes, with her put-upon husband Yitzhak (the spectacular Lena Hall, continuing the discordant glory that is a woman playing a man who longs to crossdress), and her band The Angry Inch (played here by band Tits of Clay, who take their name from a line from the song “Angry Inch.”)
Hedwig, the show, then the film, now the show again, has always been so subversive, in a way that sort of defiantly sneers at mainstream musical culture. For it to end up on Broadway is nothing short of a miracle. Especially with such amazing notices and a stellar parade of actors putting the wig on their heads. From the moment I heard that Neil Patrick Harris would be taking on the role for the Broadway bow, I knew this new incarnation of Hedwig would be something special, if something a bit different.
Neil's soundtrack album was great, if a bit more Broadway and polished than one expects when thinking of Hedwig. The announcement of Michael C. Hall was a surprise. I mean, he is Dexter. But then the word came down that John Cameron Mitchell, who quit acting due to the demands of playing Hedwig, would be doing a limited run. I resigned myself to missing out, after all, it was a Broadway show and it had a ticking clock on it.
One afternoon, while showing my darling Ophilia pictures of now 51 year old JCM as Hedwig, remarking how amazing he looks, O said: “Want to go?” A madcap scramble ensued resulting in front-row tickets. And then word of his injury came in. And his hiatus, with Michael C. Hall taking the role back up for a week. We had the talk, the “would you still be happy if JCM was absent?” talk. We both assured each other than we would, and how it would be cool to see MCH too…But secretly, we knew that there was only one Hedwig that would do it for us.
And he did.
Early in his run, JCM suffered a knee injury that took him out for the aforementioned week, as well as put him in a brace, gave him a crutch, and reinforced that whole “demands of playing the role” thing that really makes me believe this is the last time we will see his Hedwig on stage. The crutch and brace have been written into the script, allowing Hedwig to demand a crate to rest her foot upon from poor Yitzhak, commenting about how we're seeing the show with “the original cast,” and mentioning that she'd been kneecapped earlier in the day by someone in a Michael C. Hall mask. “At least I think it was a mask.”
A show that is largely monologue between songs simply becomes a seated monologue, with Hedwig unleashing her inner diva. That said, JCM still manages to slide his way off the stage and into the front row (not to our seats sadly) for a makeout session. Yitzhak gets “The Car Wash.”
So what is it about Hedwig that would convince Ophilia and I to spend hundreds on plane tickets and more hundreds on show tickets? It's a show that's quite special to us. When Ophilia came to Chicago to stay with me, a month after our first meeting, we watched Hedwig together. The Origin of Love, a song based on Plato's Symposium, tells the story of finding our other half, split way back on a cold dark evening such a long time ago. It clicked for us. We were long distance, you see, and the divide between scattered lovers may well have been written for us after that night.
Hedwig's story clicks for me so tremendously. Because it's about finding yourself. Finding the real self, despite all the shit life throws at you. Recognizing your value, and recognizing your agency. When Hedwig assumes the guise of Tommy Gnosis toward the end of the show, she's not becoming him, she's becoming herself. Because Tommy was never himself. With her words, and her style, and her performance, he was but a pale specter of the glory of Hedwig. She strips away the artifice, the massive wig, the affectations, the clothes even, and lays herself bare before us, showing us and herself who she truly is.
This is a show that, on its surface, can be the kinky rock opera the likes of which we haven't seen since the days of Tim Curry (who would've made an EPIC Hedwig), and once you start scraping off layers you see the beacon to those of us who are misunderstood, the misfits and the losers, the strange rock-and-rollers, to those who are unsure of their sexuality, their gender identity, for those trying to force themselves into a world in which they don't fit.
Hedwig is our patron saint.
Hedwig shows us all that the true value is within ourselves, that when we find ourselves unwilling to believe in our worth, we often project it onto those undeserving of our adoration. Looking inward is so hard to do, and looking inward with love and compassion is even harder.
And at the end, during my favorite song in the show, “Midnight Radio,” when Hedwig asks us to lift up our hands, we do. We in the audience show her the support and love with our upraised hands, the love she's craved, the love she's always deserved. The love we deserve too.
Hedwig shows us that we deserve it.