He was born a boy named Hansel around 1962, on the wrong side of the Berlin wall. When the opportunity to escape presented itself 26 years later, in the form of a GI who wanted to marry him, Hansel had sex-change surgery and became Hedwig. The surgery was a botch — hence the “angry inch” — and so was the marriage; the GI dumped the partly transgender émigré a year later in a Kansas trailer park as the wall came down in 1989. Bad timing, Hedwig! And yet these disappointments started her on the path to becoming the “internationally ignored song stylist” she is today.
Or was, when she first emerged around 1994 at the Friday-night party in Soho called SqueezeBox and in the long-running West Village production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that opened in 1998. More recently, in a surprising twist, she has arrived on Broadway, where her sobriquet may no longer apply. How ignored can she be when, in the person of Neil Patrick Harris and to the strains of “America the Beautiful” on ringing electric guitar, she appears, apotheosized, the Goddess of Alienation, in midair above the bombed-out Belasco stage, wearing a Valkyrie helmet, beat-up fishnets, gold boots, and a triumphant wig as the audience goes wild? You might call it irony, and heaven knows Hedwig is ironic down to her genitals. At a certain point, though, even irony collapses under its own weight. If the current incarnation is a superb rendition of a furiously entertaining show with a heartwarming message — that last phrase being one the authors would surely despise — you understand as never before that Hedwig is built on a foundation of murk.
Stipulated: It’s still terrifically smart. The book, by John Cameron Mitchell, who starred in the show’s early incarnations, is basically a monologue in which Hedwig relates her life story in anecdote and song. That it’s never boring is a tribute, in part, to Mitchell’s wit, which hones every self-loathing (or just plain loathing) remark into a perfect zinger. For Hedwig’s hostility is generous. She shares it with the audience in the form of insults, threats, and an endless succession of sour double entendres. (“I do love a warm hand on my entrance,” she says, after the applause from her first number dies down.) But she offers the same treatment to her band of four, called the Angry Inch, and to her supposed husband Yitzhak, a Croatian-Jewish drag queen who used to perform under the name Krystal Nacht. (Yitzhak is played by a woman, Lena Hall.) And Hedwig is just as nasty to herself, on the theory that someone has to do it so why not her?
All of this anger is justified within the story, and Mitchell even manages, in his rewrites of the book, to rationalize the use of a venue that otherwise seems to contradict Hedwig’s premise. (“On bended knee did I beg Bob” — Robert Wankel of the Shubert Organization — “for my Broadway debut,” Hedwig explains. “He told me not to talk with my mouth full.”) But rationalized or not, the enormous scale and professionalism of Michael Mayer’s production cuts two ways. You appreciate Julian Crouch’s gorgeously decrepit scenic design (the stage looks like an exploded Anselm Kiefer), the mindbending lighting of Kevin Adams, and the endless tacky invention of the costumes and wigs by Arianne Phillips and Mike Potter. Yet all these excellences seem to suggest something very important is going on, inviting a level of scrutiny that Hedwig and Hedwig were, until now, wise to avoid.
Parts of the show, like the deluded songstress herself, are not in fact very important. It seems to think it’s a work of glam philosophy: part Rocky Horror, part Plato’s Symposium. But musicals do better to bury their abstractions, not animate and project them on scrims, however beautifully. It’s a problem of scale: Holes in logic look awfully big up there. The story of Hedwig’s creation of and abandonment by a young rocker called Tommy Gnosis — the name is a giveaway to the authors’ intentions — is, for instance, neither credible nor clear. Similarly, the treatment of the theme of sexual restoration, the idea that humans were cleft from their other halves and that lust is the drive to repair the damage, has approximately the gravitas of a bong-fuelled bull session. It does produce a touching song, “The Origin of Love,” which at least makes the ideas pretty. (The nine other songs, by Stephen Trask, are also excellent, whether glam-rock screamers or gorgeous post-Beatles ballads.) But how much more touching might Hedwig be without the tarty intellectual maquillage?
Happily, Hedwig is plenty touching — and fun — most of the time. A lot of the credit obviously belongs to Harris, who has completely embraced the extreme challenges of the role in a career-redefining (and fat-burning) performance. His Hedwig is more in control of her attitude and effects than some previous Hedwigs have been; her hostility and pathos are, as he plays her, part of her shtick, not so much a sign of pathology. It’s as if she’s her own emcee, hosting her feelings rather than having them: a role for which Harris’s Tony and Emmy Award gigs have prepared him well. For one thing, he’s expert at making scripted rejoinders sound like ad libs. And as America’s Most Relatable Homosexual, he ensures there is always something ingratiating within Hedwig’s ungraciousness. If this makes him a bit more winky than downtown Hedwigs, he’s got an uptown house to fill.
I hope he succeeds. Despite the muddle of the Hedwig-Yitzhak-Tommy cosmology, whose conclusion is almost impossible to decipher, the story is absolutely clear in shaping its most important theme, the one that ties together its plot and milieu. Which is: No matter how far the tide of tolerance rises, there are always those, the Hedwigs of this world, too landlocked to benefit by it. It will thus remain the job of music (and the theater) to extend its revolutionary love and energy to them. And so, to “all the strange rock-and-rollers” and “misfits and losers” (as Trask’s lyric for “Midnight Radio” puts it) Hedwig offers now-Broadway-size hope. It’s that story — the “story that mother once whispered to me in the dark, and later retracted” — that Hedwig begs (no doubt on bended knee) the chance to keep telling.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is at the Belasco through August 17.
*This article appears in the May 5, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.