BWW Review: RIVERDALE Seeks to do justice to Hedwig, and Fails, with “Wicked Little Town”
Riverdale is a teenaged drama series, loosely based on the Archie Comics, and headlines The CW's prime time spot on Wednesday nights. It's touted its fair share of musical episodes, having previously tackled Carrie and Heathers, two female-character-driven cult-classic musicals. And as of the April 15th episode, titled "Wicked Little Town", they've now taken on another female icon- Hedwig.
Hedwig is, of course, the one and only Hedwig Robinson, frontwoman of The Angry Inch, and certainly not to be confused with any magical owls. Together the femme fatale and her band make up the entire story of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's 1998 off-Broadway/ gay club/drag bar Gender-Queer rock musical.
Riverdale hyped this episode for months. I had never watched the show before I saw an article in late January, while sitting in a Mexican restaurant with my family in Orlando, Florida of all places. My how things have changed. I made a mental note, and added an event on my phone calendar to remind myself to watch this particular episode. Three months later, who would've known we'd have no theatre to go to, would not have left our houses for months, and I would not be anywhere near too busy to forget to watch. I even jumped to it a little early, and attempted to record the episode last week, but it was delayed until the 15th, a move I'm questioning even still. Was this a pass at dragging out the hype by the network? I didn't see anything announcing it had been pushed back. I re-read the article and confirmed it had been announced to air on April 8th. Who knows, really, COVID is messing with everything.
I'm no stranger to teenaged shows. My entire tween and teen years are filled with a narrative of girl power television like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, and Dawson's Creek. I'm also well-versed in anything musical, and still count Glee as one of my favorite television shows of all time. Glee helped me discover many Broadway performers who I never would've had a chance to experience. Without it, I would've gone into Frozen completely unfamiliar with Idina Menzel or Jonathan Groff. One of Glee's standout stars, Darren Criss, performed a run as Hedwig in the Broadway revival and on the tour in Vegas in 2017.
I'll admit I didn't know the characters or even the slightest premise of this series, but anyone who brings attention to Hedwig is going to get a chance from me, albeit a tight lipped one. One minute in, and I'm suddenly affronted by singing. Okay, this is good singing. But what are we talking about? This episode has been on for fifteen seconds and the cast is singing, in choppy edited portions, individually, "Wicked Little Town".
Suddenly this feels less like an homage to a musical theatre icon and a lot like those "Broadway singers pop up on Zoom and sing into their earphones, who will appear in the next bar!?" videos that have all gone inexplicably viral during the quarantine. You know the ones. Was this just REALLY intuitive foresight in the minds of the editors? I'm also baffled as to why they're ALREADY singing a song that is well past the halfway point in the stage production of Hedwig. It's already apparent that this episode is not following the plot of the stage production or movie.
Seven minutes in, and the principal has rejected Kevin's idea of doing Hedwig for the variety show. "She's not niche!" he exclaims. Hold on.... Yes, she is... but I see you, Kevin. You're right. Hedwig is both niche and universal. She's representative of an entire generation, like you say here, but she is also a solo-figure, with a story so unique that NOBODY can truly understand her. So far, the episode has already skipped over a large portion of what makes Hedwig and the Angry Inch so powerful. Her backstory, how she came to America, WHY her band is named The Angry Inch.
Now everyone is singing a song I don't recognize at first. After a few bars, I catch on. It's "Random Number Generation". Kudos, Riverdale!! "Random Number Generation" is a deep-cut from the workshop years of Hedwig. I have never even heard it until this moment and here it is, in the middle of an American living room on a Wednesday night. Good on them. I feel a swell of pride. Maybe I'm going to be okay and make it through this, after all.
Now Kevin is protesting the principal's censorship of Hedwig. Yes, Kevin!! He dresses as Hedwig in a beautifully done ensemble and sings "Tear Me Down" in the... library? The fellow students join in, and a raucous celebration ensues. Kevin kisses Archie! I think I'm getting these names right. I'm enjoying this! Wait... they didn't mention the part about the Berlin Wall in "Tear Me Down". It's been entirely cut from the song.
Kevin's cape is painted crudely, and when fanned out spells "Honey Go Home with Me". The original costume from John Cameron Mitchell's off-Broadway performance, and subsequent movie and Broadway revival, features this cape, and the fanning of her arms during this usual opening number is an iconic Hedwig maneuver. But, the original costume says "Yankee", not "Honey". I learn later that Honey is the name of their principal.
Now you've just insulted Hedwig fans everywhere.
This is the problem. Right here. The sterilization of this character.
Hedwig has ALREADY been sterilized. If you only watch Riverdale, and don't know the story, you're clearly not going to learn it from this episode, so allow me.
Hedwig begins life as Hansel, in communist East Berlin, Germany. The "changed for TV" attire and lyrics will not tell you that she meets an American G.I., who convinces her to undergo a sex change operation (which is botched, leaving her horribly mutilated), and move with him to the United States, exactly one year before the Berlin Wall falls. Now THAT'S foresight Hedwig could've used. Why is this being glossed over?
Now there's a group of five girls sitting on a bed, matching pajamas, they're silky and pink. The girls. And the pajamas. They're all make-upped. There's a bowl of gummy bears sitting in the middle of this cloud of cis-gendered females, and they're nibbling away cutely. Kevin is also here. They sing "Wig in a Box" to cheer Kevin up from his previous error of singing to the principal in the library.
This apparently backfired and Principal Honey is only digging his non-platformed heels in. "Wig in a Box" is, in the traditional sense, a song that Hedwig sings to herself, and she really gets into it. It's also the midway point of the stage show, which doesn't have an intermission, and runs for 100 minutes. Hedwig is a challenging hour and forty minute one-person monologue, with songs, stories, voices, and wig and costume changes throughout. Only one performer has a speaking role- the one playing Hedwig. This is her story. And it's a HEFTY and complex stage show.
What do these girls, these Sandra Dees, know. Okay, let's move on. Quickly, please.
Now I'm seeing these same girls in a diner, with Principal Honey. What does he do all day? Why are they in a diner? Really, the editing on this production is terrible. It's also blatantly interrupted by commercials. I use these breaks to text my other Hedwig fanatic friends. They're all sensible and not answering me because I'm having a meltdown.
Where is her STORY? Where is the DEPTH? Where is the LGBTQ+ representation? Why are these cis-gendered teenagers singing this music, that has such pain and longing, and is filled with "ancient clarity", in a sped-up, juxebox style, Top 40, glossy rendition?
Now the females are singing "Sugar Daddy", which is confusing because the previous number, "Wig in a Box", contained a visual homage to "Sugar Daddy", with the gummy bears. This is the quintessential "Yay America" tune for the stage show. It also makes fun of gender norms, and all those stereotypes that are fully on display here. One girl, honest to goodness, drops a cherry into her mouth before beginning the performance, which is in essence a seduction of their principal, thinly veiled as an attempt to convince him to put the variety show back on.
At this point I've lost the plot, I'm not sure what's happening because the choppy editing is passing by so quickly, I can't even get a good visual on what I'm looking at, much less what I'm hearing. Is that a MARCHING BAND? In "Sugar Daddy"?
This is white-washed- did anyone else catch the black man in the soda jerk outfit start the jukebox? It's horribly cis-gendered, overtly sexualized, Gay and Transgendered erasure, and it's everything that Hedwig is NOT.
Now Cheryl is being reprimanded by the Principal, and she mispronounces "blitzkrieg".
They continue performing the beloved musical numbers from Hedwig, without any context. There may be some, but it's loosely wedged into the show and doesn't flow with any storyline. Much like the "random pattern" described in "Exquisite Corpse"- an aching, grungy, rock-out tune in which Hedwig rips off her clothes and destroys instruments on stage- the songs are plugged into the story with absolutely no regard for where they fit into the original production.
"Origin of Love", a power ballad upon which Hedwig's entire journey and life-long search for love is hinged, is turned into a duet, and at the end, the two characters kiss. A straight couple, of course.
"Wicked Little Town (Reprise)" is in there, towards the end, with names and lyrics changed and cut. Tommy Gnosis and Yitzhak don't even exist in this retelling.
"Midnight Radio" is an anthem celebrating female rockers and strange rock 'n rollers everywhere. It's featured appropriately at the end of the episode, as it is also the last song of the stage show and movie. So, they got one in the right spot.
Of course, the names mentioned - Patti, Tina, Yoko, Aretha, Nona, Niko, and me (Hedwig), are cut and replaced with the Riverdale characters' names. And the final, all-encompassing charge to the audience, "All you strange rock 'n rollers", to "Hold onto to each other" and the reassurance that we're all "doing alright" is completely removed. It's an emotional scene, but of course this one has no glorious Drag Queen in full regalia to sing us out, wiping our tears and wishing we could rewind the last hour and experience it for the first time all over again, like everyone, everywhere, who has ever truly experienced Hedwig has done.
The cut lyrics and message of this song is something that those of us, sitting in quarantine, missing our friends, missing "holding on to each other", missing the performing arts, really could've heard.
The cast sways for a beat, and now they're on a rooftop, shouting "Lift up your hands". The edit cuts hard and the episode ends, and we see a preview for the next episode.
I made it, somehow, all the way through.
If you are seeking a genuine, honest, and truly representative nod to Hedwig, go to Netflix and stream "Sex Education" season 1. This show, also touted to teens, actually features LGBTQ+ youth characters and their personal connections to Hedwig in a particular Hedwig themed episode.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch changed the narrative for musical theatre. She was the first trans figure truly represented in American musical theatre, and the show remains the only trans story to have won a Tony Award. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask have spent their entire twenty-plus year careers developing and reinventing her- Mitchell has been on tour with an older, gray haired Hedwig just this year. She's a nuanced, complicated, broken, and beautiful character. Stop erasing her, and others like her. She's been tortured enough already.