Since winning a handful of Tony awards, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has become a well-deserved topic of conversation, even amongst people who may feel uncomfortable at the notion of seeing a show about…a transgender glam rocker who sings about having a botched sex change operation?
Yes, that is the plot as it would be described in writing. But experiencing the genius of Hedwig — the music, the character, the story — is not something that can be easily summed up in words. Besides being entertaining, Hedwig in its various forms is an important work of art that is a pillar of LGBT culture. Here is a tutorial about the show, for anyone who has not yet seen it and doesn’t understand what the fuss is about.
1. First it was an Off-Broadway show. The show Hedwig And The Angry Inch was created by friends Steven Trask and John Cameron Mitchell in the mid-1990’s, when Mitchell wanted to write a show based on Plato’s Symposium and asked Trask to write some songs. Trask was in a band that performed at punk rock clubs in NYC, including the infamous CBGB, and he was also a manager for Squeezebox, a drag club where the queens sang live with a punk rock band instead of lip syncing. As Trask wrote the songs, Mitchell asked to perform them at Squeezebox, which meant he had to dress in drag to do it. As a result, the character of Hedwig was created as the center of the story.
The show was pieced together in Off-Broadway (translation: small and “artsy”) theaters, and eventually ran in its complete form for two years. At first audiences did not understand the show; gays didn’t like the punk rock score, mainstream audiences squirmed at Hedwig’s tragic history — we’ll get to that later — but Mitchell’s wild portrayal of Hedwig found her niche thanks to interest in rock musicals generated by the success of Rent.
2. Then it was a movie. The era of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s was a golden age for LGBT movies, with releases such as Beautiful Thing, Trick, Go Fish and Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert becoming film festival marquee attractions. Hedwig was turned into a movie by Killer Films, the studio that also produced shockers Happiness and I Shot Andy Warhol. (After Hedwig, Killer Films produced trandgender-themed Oscar-winner Boys Don’t Cry). An undeniably brilliant screen adaptation of the stage show, Hedwig won the Audience Award at Sundance, and it is now widely regarded as one of best LGBT-themed movies ever made.
3. Now it is on stage again, this time starring Neil Patrick Harris. After the success of the movie, talk shifted to bringing the show back to New York, but this time as a full-scale Broadway production. The producers waited several years for Harris to finish filming “How I Met Your Mother” so he could take the title role. Harris subsequently dropped 20 pounds from his already-lithe frame to properly embody the pan-gender character of Hedwig.
Harris performed “Sugar Daddy” during the Tony Awards, but the big song from the show is the rock ballad “The Origin Of Love.” This was the first song Trask wrote, and is the center of the Hedwig/Tommy story of love and heartbreak that runs through the entire show.
4. The character Hedwig is based on Mitchell’s babysitter, a German woman (not transgendered) named Helga who also worked as a prostitute in Junction City, Kan., where Mitchell lived on an army base and his father was a commander.
5. So about that “angry inch”… As the story goes, Hedwig was first a boy named Hansel who lived in East Germany and fell in love with an American soldier. To escape the Communist regime, Hansel took his mother’s passport and endured a back-alley sex change operation, all to marry the soldier and escape the country. The sex change, and the relationship, went horribly awry. It is this backstory that generates Hedwig’s despair and rage that is so important to the music, including the blatant references to her “angry inch” of scar tissue between her legs. By forcing the audience to acknowledge her physical mutilation, as well as her emotional devastation, Hedwig connects the music to her personal turmoil.
But that all happens at the beginning of the show. The real drama happens when she tells the story about how she fell in love with a small-town punk named Tommy, and he really broke her heart. If it is worse than getting your penis cut off and your surgically-created vagina sealing shut, you know that Tommy kid really did her wrong. But to explain any more about Tommy would spoil the plot, so in case you haven’t seen the musical or the movie yet, that’s enough about him. Go see the Broadway show or watch the movie and find out what happens for yourself.