Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
I can remember so well senior year of college when my friend Claudio came back from a trip to New York all abuzz over little drag rock show he'd seen Off-Broadway called Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I was grilling him for details on Audra and Marin in Ragtime and whether there was anything we could steal from Sam Mendes for our off-campus production of Cabaret, but Claudio only wanted to talk about Hedwig. The clincher for me was when he mentioned the star--and author--was John Cameron Mitchell. I was obsessed with John on the original cast albums of The Secret Garden and Hello Again. "Okay, okay," I agreed. I would see this Hedwig when I moved to New York four months later.
When I got to New York, I was happy to find Hedwig still running. It was getting a lot of good press even beyond the theater world and people were flocking down to the Jane Street Theatre in a beautiful, old, but seedy hotel on in the Meatpacking District, right the West Side Highway. There were some cool bars and clubs around there plus more and more restaurants and galleries and Hedwig seemed like a jewel in the crown of this newly chic and hip neighborhood. The hotel really was downtrodden with seemingly bulletproof glass around the registration desk, but that was part of the cool allure of the experience as celebrities filed through the entranceway past homeless guys smoking god knows what on the steps.
Not only was John Cameron Mitchell's performance and storytelling as funny and sharp as Claudio had promised, there was a spectactular score by Stephen Trask (who was also led the band Cheater, playing "The Angry Inch," accompanying Hedwig in the show). I had been a huge fan of several so-called rock musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, but I felt this was the first one to really qualify as both actual rock and actual musical theater since Hair. And of course, John sang it in that same sweet and strong folky tenor that I loved so much in his previous work. There wasn't a moment in the show I didn't laugh, cry or cheer.
I was thrilled that the producers then decided to make rush tickets available. There were two shows each on Friday and Saturday nights and to the later performances, you could get $20 tickets by lining up at the box office. The cult of "Hed-heads" was being born and you could see these self-professed freaks lining up hours early each week. I wasn't one of them in terms of dressing like the characters or stalking the performers at the stage door, but I did find myself coming back a second time and a third time, and so on until by the time the show closed in April 2000, I had seen it ten times.
Across all my ten visits to the original production of Hedwig--and my subsequent four to the 2014 Broadway production--no one was ever better than John Cameron Mitchell, but Michael Cerveris as the first Off-Broadway replacement was pretty damn close. Hedwig is a challenging assignment for an artist. Ideally, they should be a strong actor, a charismatic raconteur, a compelling musical theater performer and a legitimate rock and roll singer. Michael Cerveris is truly all of those things and he was stunning in the role, going on to open the show in LA and London as well.
My other favorite was Kevin Cahoon, who was maybe the funniest of all the Hedwigs, not quite in the same dry-as-Judy-Garland-after-the-perfect-martini way that John had been, almost more like Carol Burnett style slapstick--delicious--and Cahoon sang the shit out of the score.
It was fun to see all of them--including Ally Sheedy's controversial run. She worked very hard to sing it, but didn't seem able to relax... I definitely left feeling that a woman could make a very powerful Hedwig and longed to see the woman they had wanted before Sheedy, Sandra Bernhard, take it on. (Incidentally, Mitchell has stated that Berhard's film adaption of her solo show Without You I'm Nothing was an inspiration for Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)
As has recently been mentioned, Patti LuPone was offered a replacement run in the Broadway production and my mouth waters at the idea of a LuPone Hedwig.
If the Broadway production lost some the intimate warmth and the feeling of impromptu that had pervaded the original, there was something hearteningly thrilling about watching Neil Patrick Harris--America's LGBT superstar--fly in (by Foy?) to the electric guitar solo of "America The Beautiful."
It reminded me of the lyric in Rent, "Dorothy and Toto went over the rainbow to blow up Auntie Em." We have arrived. (Don't forget, this was pre-Trump... my capitalist delight in gay white male musical theater making it to the mainstream hasn't proven to be evidence we won the revolution after all...)
The best thing about the Broadway production was Lena Hall as Yitzhak, who deservedly won a Tony for the ROCK solid support she gave. I'm still kicking myself for missing the chance to catch her as Hedwig on Darren Criss's nights off from the national tour. Thank goddess for Lena Hall's album of songs from Hedwig ("Obsessed: Hedwig and the Angry Inch"), at least several of which could be argued to be definitive renditions. If you haven't listened, you MUST.
One of the strangest experiences of Hedwig was seeing John Cameron Mitchell as the penultimate replacement in the Broadway run. I remember one time when he played a short return engagement Off-Broadway and the house was filled with Hed-heads. Almost the entire audience knew the book and score by heart and could recite whole monologues along with him. It worked well enough because the story of the show is that Hedwig is enjoying a big PR boost after the Tommy Gnosis accident scandal. (This is made especially clear in the movie, which by the way, is the best movie musical of the Millennium and will be re-released by the Criterion Collection June 25.) But of course, Hedwig is about an "internationally ignored song stylist" and too many raging fans don't really support the authenticity of the storytelling. Anyway, this wasn't a problem for Mitchell on Broadway, where nobody but Bette Midler is TOO big of a star. What was fascinating was when Mitchell injured his leg and had to integrate his recovery into the story, calling for Yitzhak to bring him a footstool, for example. I believe that he continued to utilize this stage business after his leg had healed. As well he should have. It created a whole new layer to the Hedwig-Yitzhak relationship that made the whole show more moving and the ending even more tear-jerking. (Shout-out to Rebecca Naomi Jones who dazzled as Lena Hall's replacement Yitzhak.)
Watching John Cameron Mitchell, now in his 50s, reclining in full diva regalia, belting out the score in his inimitable style, including new alternate low notes to save his voice on the occasional throwaway line here and there (as OF COURSE, we allow our aging divas, to make possible their celebrate money notes) I couldn't help but think I finally had, essentially, my Patti LuPone Hedwig. Still I continue to dream of her actually doing, but in the meantime, I will relish my Original Cast Recording, plus the Broadway Cast Recording for Lena Hall's Yitzhak, and Lena Hall's "Obsessed: Hedwig and the Angry Inch" for her singing everything else. And of course, I will relish them digitally because I'm throwing out my CDs.