Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Photo: Yoshi Kametani
The original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which ran Off Broadway at the Jane Street Theater from February 1998 to April 2000, was a show I followed more closely than any other I can think of. Hedwig opened at around the time I began work on my dissertation, which was on rock musicals (and which later became my book, The Theatre Will Rock). Because I happened to be friendly with the show's press agents, I saw the show a whole bunch of times with a bunch of different people in the title role. I also interviewed people involved with the show, crashed the album release party and an MTV promo shoot, and, in the process, grew very fond of the production, which I thought about, troubled over, and wrote about a lot.
When news broke that Hedwig was being revived on Broadway--with Neil Patrick Harris in the title role, no less--my immediate reaction was to decide not to see it. This was not only because I felt way too connected to the original production to be kind or patient with the revival, but because the original production was sixteen fucking years ago--when, as Hedwig would say, I was in my early late twenties--and I have a long history of falling prey to nostalgia. Where did the time go, and all that. It didn't help matters that, frankly, I can be an oppositional, overly-critical asshole for no good reason. But friends, colleagues, and my grad students all gently told me that my refusal to see the show was absolute bullshit, so I relented and bought tickets. 

As usual, I was wrong and they were right. Of course the show was worth seeing again, not only because the revival is a very good production that has changed (matured?) for the better in some significant ways, but also because seeing Hedwig after all these years was less traumatic than I'd imagined. Yes, the revival made me wistful and a little sad, but then again, I expected that. In the end, even though I've heard all his jokes before, it sure was nice to catch up with such a dear old friend after so many years. Especially since he's grown up to be Neil Patrick Harris.

My love of Hedwig doesn't extend to all aspects of it. Its base assumption that the botched removal of a penis somehow transforms Hedwig into a (admittedly self-identified) woman has never sat well with me. Also, its supporting character, Yitzhak, a male drag queen played by a woman dressed for most of the show in male drag, is presumably meant to complicate Hedwig's take on gender. But in the original production, Yitzhak was never treated as more than a backup singer--a very traditional role for women in rock, after all--and his presence thus always struck me as much less provocative than the show fancied it to be. 

Now, however, Yitzhak (Lena Hall) is more of an active presence. The character has been given more songs, more physical interaction with Hedwig, more stage-work, and as a result, has more depth. The insertion of a brief number from Hurt Locker: The Musical (a new bit that has been added to the show to justify Hedwig's presence on Broadway) allows Hall to show off her soaring vocal range, and her rendition of "The Long Grift" (performed the first time around by the composer Stephen Trask, as Skszp), was great.

So, of course, was Neil Patrick Harris. He was also the edgiest Hedwig I've ever watched. I've seen three others--John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Cerveris, and Ally Sheedy--but Harris's interpretation made me realize that I had never before encountered a Hedwig who truly embraces the anger implied in the show's title. Mitchell's Hedwig was distant, charmingly self-deprecating and resigned, only revealing his enormous despair to the audience at the very end of the show. Cerveris's Hedwig was broken, drunk, and disoriented from the minute he stepped onstage. And Sheedy, game if thoroughly dramaturgically unjustified, played up the character's anxieties and neuroses.

Harris's Hedwig, on the other hand, is bitter, snide and angry. This should not have surprised me, I guess: Part of Harris's appeal lies in the persona he's cultivated. He's a friendly, approachable, level-headed dude...with a cavernous, terrifying dark side that might take over at any moment. This undercurrent infuses many of the roles he plays: the maniacally unhinged version of himself in the Harold and Kumar movies, a moody and conflicted Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins, the free-spirited dog Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, the tortured title character in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. 

Harris's Hedwig, then, is appropriate to Harris: funny, but also angry enough to be downright scary. He keeps a bright smile on his face through much of the show, but it's clearly not meant to be genuine. His back-and-forth with the audience--something Mitchell frequently engaged in, too--was enormously entertaining, but partly because it was tinged with sneering resentment. Hedwig's breakdown, late in the show, always struck me as a sudden response to Yitzhak's rejection--a final straw breaking the camel's back. But Harris's Hedwig--endlessly abused, violated, abandoned, and ignored--is about to blow from the start. Somehow, this interpretation makes the show even sadder, its trajectory more heartbreaking than I remember it. Or maybe I am just too familiar with the comic asides at this point.

It doesn't matter, though: the revival is loud, rocking, and solid, and I'm glad I saw it. I may have to see it again once Harris leaves and Andrew Rannells--who, I am sure, will come up with his own interpretation of Hedwig--dons the wig. Why shouldn't he be just as good, and also radically different?  Part of the appeal of Hedwig is that in some way or another, we are, all of us, the title character. It was good to remember that, good to see Hedwig again, and good to learn that sixteen years later, the show still has legs. Shapely ones. In very shiny high-heeled boots.   

1 comment:

Mick Jeffries said...

I really enjoyed your reflections on this. Thanks for sharing your preconceptions and prejudices alongside your appreciations and accolades. That duality is what makes your essay so edifying. Hedwig can be hard to get one's head around. I think you do it great justice by grappling with exactly this.