The fall of the Berlin Wall inspires one of the most striking images from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The stage goes black following the searing, heavy metal song “Angry Inch,” and when the lights fade in, Hedwig stares straight into space. And the audience laughs—not out of cruelty, but because, as Hedwig says, “I laugh, because I would cry if I don’t.”
Hedwig’s shock reflects that her great sacrifice to escape East Berlin was for naught. Her path out of oppressive Communism involved marrying a GI names Luther, but the marriage in East Berlin required a full body examination. Luther told Hedwig: “If you want to walk away, you need to leave something behind.” The botched operation combined with the circumstance that the Berlin Wall fell just months later drives much of the anger that sits just below the surface of Hedwig’s personality.
Hedwig is, in its simplest form, a dramatized rock concert. An ignored rock star with an oddly-named band (The Angry Inch) is given an opportunity to perform a one-night concert. She sings, tells jokes (mostly sexual in nature), and explains the story of her life. Meanwhile, down the street another rock star named Tommy Gnosis is performing at Soldier Field using songs that Hedwig wrote but was not credited for.
In the traveling tour, Euan Morton steps into Hedwig’s high-heeled boots with Hannah Corneau playing the suffering husband Yitzhak. Morton is well-suited for the challenges of Hedwig. Among Morton’s Broadway credits is creating the role of Boy George in Taboo, and his performance as Hedwig again made me regret not seeing that short-lived music when I had the chance. Any actor stepping into the role must be able to sing a variety of rock songs, ad-lib sexual provocations with the audience, and find the balance between Hedwig’s angry outbursts and the joy she feels in pushing boundaries in front of an audience. Hedwig’s relationship with Yitzhak is another dramatic highlight, for Hedwig is dependent not only on the adoration she receives from Yitzhak but also from Yitzhak’s willingness to accept her cruelty.
Much of the brilliance of Hedwig is due to creator and original performer John Cameron Mitchell, whose book aligns perfectly with the songs from Stephen Trask. Hedwig’s aforementioned Berlin Wall realization is followed by the most joyous song in the musical—“Wig in a Box.” This number, which even includes a quick sing along (“Put on some makeup. Turn on the tape deck. And put the wig back on my head.”), represents the freedom Hedwig experiences only when she fully embraces her new gender.
As rock soundtracks go, Hedwig is a marvel. Each song fits emotionally into the construct of the show by exploring a different phase of Hedwig’s life, yet each also could stand alone as a rock hit on the radio. In particular, “Wicked Little Town” and “The Long Grift” have melodies that will linger in your mind for days—possibly until you see Hedwig again.
Special thanks to my work friends who agreed to make this an outing despite my insufficient recommendation based on the vague statements “the show is hard to describe” and “it has a great rock songs.”* On my third viewing, I am still not fully certain how to describe Hedwig (particularly its intriguing ending), but I know that each time I find myself more and more entrenched in Hedwig’s story, not to mention the rock ballads that are essential for Hedwig’s transcendence from “Mystery woman of the tabloids” to the rock idol that inspires us to “raise up our hands.”
*It turned out two of my co-workers are dedicated fans of the movie—one of whom credits an early bond with her now-fiancé based on his knowledge of the soundtrack. The cult of Hedwig is alive and well at Bartlett High School.