Reframe: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

As a rule, I do not like conventional musicals. If a character sings their every move on stage, it’s probably safe to count me out. Generally, I break from the story when they break out into song.

There are a few exceptions. I love the decadence of Cabaret and the nostalgia of Grease. But even then, I’m not all the way in. I still feel somewhat removed. There are more organic kinds of musicals – like Purple Rain or A Star is Born – those I can absolutely get down with.

Then there’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, based on the 1998 off-Broadway stage production of the same name. The movie is mostly an organic musical with Hedwig leading her rock band (the Angry Inch) through multiple numbers. The notable non-organic exception is “Wig in a Box”, performed in the traditional break-into-song style.

I’ve always believed a song from a musical isn’t truly great unless it can stand on its own, minus the visuals that accompany them onscreen or onstage. It’s pretty damn challenging to do that — by their very nature a number in a musical must speak not only to the story, but to the specific scene in which it occurs. And on top of that, to manage to be catchy and singalongable outside of the show they’re connected to? Hard.

In really good musicals there are usually 2 or 3 songs that can live on with some success outside the show; “I Am Telling You That I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls; “You Must Love Me” from Evita. But Hedwig? Hedwig is so remarkable because each and every song in the musical can stand alone. Any of these songs, if they came pouring out of your car radio, could have you pumping your fist and singing at the top of your lungs – scaring your fellow motorists on the freeway as they pass you by.

Every. Single. Song.

In my book it didn’t hurt that the songs are rollicking, glammed-up, Bowie-esque anthems (I’m a sucker for anything that reminds me of the Thin White Duke).

When I first saw Hedwig in theaters in 2001 I sat in my seat electrified. I was shocked by its utter failure at the box office and on the Billboard charts. Sure, I knew that a star-free movie about a trans chanteuse in a Farrah Fawcett wig singing ferociously and unapologetically queer songs whose botched sex change leaves him with a “Barbie Doll crotch” wasn’t going to challenge Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings for the 2001 box office crown. But surely something this great – both cinematically and musically – would become an art house hit, right?

Wrong.

When it left movie houses shortly after its late June release, it didn’t even make enough money to cover its $6 million budget – grossing just $3.6 million. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was on the way to oblivion.

But then a funny thing happened. Over time, the movie got discovered – through video, cable, word of mouth. Who knows, maybe my loud mouth had something to do with it. Whenever the opportunity arose I spoke in its favor. “Do you like musicals,” I’d be asked from time to time. “I like Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” was my standard reply (and still is). Any poor fool who breached the subject of musicals had to suffer through my twenty-minute verbal screed “you must see Hedwig and the Angry Inch or your life will be incomplete!”

I was a rabid dog on the topic of Hedwig, barking about the brilliance of Stephen Trask’s songs, John Cameron-Mitchell’s direction and performance, the industrious set pieces and production. Some may have seen Hedwig solely to avoid my wrath if they didn’t.

I suppose I should mention now that these great musical numbers don’t hang on some stale story lacking humor or pathos. What at first seems to be a small (albeit odd) story about Hedwig, the Berlin immigrant come to Kansas City in the hopes of becoming a rock star, transforms into something greater; bigger, and eminently relatable. As Hedwig, Mitchell is frequently hilarious as a diva so certain of her own brilliance that she becomes unstoppable. At times it plays like a ribald comedy.

There’s a whole soliloquy about Gummy Bears tied into Hedwig’s “meet cute” with her sugar daddy, Luther – an American soldier stationed in Berlin who becomes Hedwig’s first love.

I’ve never asked myself what an Elvis Presley movie would look like if it were directed by John Waters or Greg Araki, but I imagine it would turn out something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

As bizarre as all that may sound, it’s a deeply moving film. Hedwig is lost in America in ways that Albert Brooks could have never imagined – stuck somewhere between the man she was and the woman she longs to be. She’s a should-be rock star, whose career is stolen by her first American love, the callow Tommy Gnosis (played perfectly by Michael Pitt).

In the movie’s final moments Hegwig somehow lands on what I can only describe as a higher plane of existence, walking naked down a dark alley after singing the epic ballad “Midnight Radio,” without her wig, wearing only a pair of shorts and some disheveled eye-liner.

The stature of Hedwig and the Angry Inch has only grown since its brief run in theaters, and the stage version was revived in 2014 for American audiences. Only this time it came to Broadway, with Neil Patrick-Harris as the lead. It was a triumph, winning four Tonys, including “best revival” and “best lead actor.” Such luminaries as Michael C. Hall, Andrew Rannells, Darren Criss, and Taye Diggs have played Hedwig since. Cameron-Mitchell even returned to the role for a four-month stint in 2015.

On June 25, 2019 Criterion will release a special edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on DVD and Blu-Ray.

It’s perhaps an unlikely outcome for a queer rock opera about a trans character with a one-inch post-surgery member (“six inches forward, five inches back!”) that flopped at the cinema nearly twenty years ago. But in life you like to believe that if something is truly great and unique, it will find the success it deserves – eventually. Hedwig’s “comeback” is the kind of thing that restores your faith in that belief.

Because while Hedwig works simply as a great rock and roll movie told from a queer perspective, the film is more than just spectacular entertainment.

Hedwig’s background as a citizen on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall speaks subtly but eloquently about personal liberty, freedom of movement, restriction of expression, identification and sexuality in ways a guy like me can’t easily articulate, but can feel.

The best song in the musical is the jaw-dropping “Origin of Love,” which my wife tells me is derived from “the-stuck-together myth” from Plato’s Symposium. The lyrics tell the story that there were once three sexes:

“One that looked like two men

Glued up back to back

Called the children of the sun

And similar in shape and girth

Was the children of the earth

They looked like two girls rolled up in one

And the children of the moon

Were like a fork stuck on a spoon

… and they never knew nothing of love.”

These primordial humans knew nothing of desire or love because they were complete – the origin of love comes when an angry god splits them all in two, right down the middle, and scatters them to opposite ends of the earth.

It’s a beautiful and inclusive story, because it connects everyone. Whether your other half in another life was a man, or a woman, we’re all looking for the same thing: to become whole again through love.

That’s one hell of a message.

You can pre-order the Criterion special edition here.

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