Hedwig and the Angry Inch at 20
One of the problems about the term “rock musical” is that it’s applied rather too freely. Wikipedia’s listing of “rock musicals,” for example, lists such questionable entries as Evita and Miss Saigon. No, just using an electric guitar doesn’t automatically make it a “rock musical.”
Ah, but there’s no doubt about the bona fides of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The original cast album (much preferable to the eventual film soundtrack) opens with the spoken introduction “Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not — Hedwig!,” then a propulsive piano kicks in, and Hedwig (a superb John Cameron Mitchell) takes center stage to lay it on the line:
Don’t you know me?
I’m the new Berlin Wall, baby!
Try and tear me down!
And then we’re off to the races in a song (“Tear Me Down”) that jets right back to glam-era London, circa 1972 or 73. It’s a fantastic way to begin a record (and a show), with a terrific number that’s steeped in the full-throated roar of freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll. And yes, it’s just a four-piece band making that mighty sound.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock ‘n’ roll fable, developed in rock clubs, rather than theaters, which helped it hang on to its gritty, urban edge. At the show’s beginning, the luckless Hedwig is a German immigrant, left at a midway point between male and female when his sex change operation left him with an “angry inch” on a “Barbie Doll crotch.” Hedwig’s poised straddling two worlds: “East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom” — and failure and success. For Hedwig dreams of stardom, and never gives up hope that the higher power of rock ‘n’ roll will eventually deliver salvation.
The great thing about the show’s score is that you don’t need to know the plot to appreciate the songs. Along with “Tear Me Down,” there’s some terrifically potent rockers. The invigorating “Angry Inch” is Hedwig’s description of the fateful surgery. “Exquisite Corpse” is a pounding, pulsating number that doesn’t let up from start to finish.
There’s also time for some fun. “Sugar Daddy” is cheeky, sweet fun, a country & western flavored tune about the joys of having someone on hand who will always pay the bills for you, with campy lines like “So you think only a woman can truly love a man/Then you buy me the dress/I’ll be more woman than a man like you can stand.” “The Origin of Love” is a lovely song about how humans were once literally joined at the hip to their soulmates, until the gods split us in two, thus condemning us to a lifelong search for our other half. “Wig in a Box” is like a mini opera in itself, an ode to anyone stuck in a mind-numbing job who yearns for greater glories, transforming from a convenience store drone to Miss Beehive 1953…Miss Farrah Fawcett from TV…this punk rock star of stage and screen…”and I ain’t never turning back!” Hedwig concludes with defiance.
Then there are the ballads. “The Long Grift” is an updated “Just a Gigolo” for a new era. “Wicked Little Town” is a beautiful aural depiction of the ache of loneliness. Mitchell can move from crooning to a rock ‘n’ roll shout with ease, and the tight band is with him every step of the way. The concluding “Midnight Radio” is the kind of number much beloved of theatrically inclined vocalists, steadily rising in intensity from its low-key beginnings, finally becoming a raise-your-hands-in-the-air anthem, offering both performer and audience a delirious redemption.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an album that lets you kick out the jams, then kick back and chill. It lives and breathes with the vibrant spirit of the purest rock ‘n’ roll through revivals starring the likes of Andrew Rannells and Neil Patrick Harris. There’s never been another show like it. Miss it at your peril.