HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
background and analysis by Scott Miller
She makes her entrance like a star dying to be born – goose-stepping through the audience with the arrogant aplomb of Marlene Dietrich and Jim Morrison; decked out like a trailer-park tart’s idea of a glam-rock fox, in stone-washed denim, an Aryan-yellow, blow-dried mane and red-glitter lipstick; accompanied by the refried-Queen strains of "America the Beautiful" and marvelously surly introduction by her crusty Serbian valet boy toy Yitzhak: "Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not – Hedwig!"
That’s how Rolling Stone described the first moments of the monumentally innovative rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This was a show that changed everything. Real rock and roll – glam, heavy metal, a little punk – had come to the American musical theatre. For the first time, many people believed.
Glam rock was invented as a rejection of the now false sincerity and simplicity of folk and protest rock, a world in which "authenticity" was the (false) hallmark of quality, the measure of art. Glam admitted its falseness; it spit on authenticity and borrowed from everything, including hard rock, guitar rock, folk rock, heavy metal, and progressive rock. Glam rock admitted the artifice and artistic cannibalism that its predecessors tried to hide. It embraced the elevation of form over content. Glam celebrated the mask, the playing of a role, and in admitting its artificiality, it was really the most honest of all. Some compared the glam rockers to Oscar Wilde, the most truthful and sexually ambiguous wit in Western history (until Quenten Crisp came along). And of course, glam also erased the line (some would call it an arbitrary line) between the sexes. Hedwig uses the language of glam because it was the only genre and the only time in rock and roll history in which gender lines were erased; there was no male and female in glam. It was the only language really made for Hedwig’s story.
Punk rock emerged from glam in the mid-1970s as the yang to glam’s yin, as a conscious rejection of the excesses of commercial rock and roll, as well as those of glam (which is why the punk-inspired "Exquisite Corpse" in Hedwig, literally explodes out of the more glam-inspired introspection of "Hedwig’s Lament"). Mainstream rock had become so commercial, so manufactured, so middle class, so tied to money, and it had been taken away from the real artists by multi-national corporations. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of the most innovative, most shocking, most brilliant new musicals in years, was created for similar reasons. It rejected the spectacle of Phantom of the Opera, the over-earnestness of Jekyll & Hyde, the pretentious self-awareness of The Lion King, the mind-numbing emptiness of Beauty and the Beast, and the boy-gets-girl myth of old-fashioned musical comedy.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch was born at the same time that Rent was being developed. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s rock musical began its life in January 1994 at a new drag rock club in Manhattan called Squeeze Box. Mitchell and Trask had met not long before and talked about working on a piece together. Trask was a gay songwriter and front man for the alternative rock band Cheater. Mitchell was a gay actor, a veteran of shows like The Secret Garden, Big River, and many non-musicals. Mitchell told Trask he wanted to create a theatre piece that used a real rock band playing real rock music. Trask was interested, so they started talking. And though Trask knew the rock and roll idiom intimately, he also wrote a theatre score of unusual sophistication. As an example, several of the key songs in the score are based on chords that are missing the third degree of the scale, the note the defines a chord as major or minor. Without that third in these chords, they are impossible to hear as major (happy) or minor (sad), and the resulting musical ambiguity parallels the gender ambiguity at the heart of the story. Few composers on Broadway today are skilled enough to use a device this skillfully and this subtly. It’s not a device that registers consciously on the audience’s ears, but it does affect how they hear and react to the show.
At first, talk centered on an autobiographical character Mitchell had been working on, Tommy Speck, the son of a general (as was Mitchell). But Trask was more fascinated by a transsexual character appropriately named Hedwig (Head + Wig), inspired by an East German immigrant woman named Helga who used to baby-sit for Mitchell while turning tricks in a Junction City, Kansas, trailer park. Rolling Stone called her "a way off Broadway hybrid of Sandra Bernhard, Nina Hagen, and Courtney Love." Eventually Tommy and Hedwig would come together. As the two writers began work, Mitchell bought Trask a copy of Plato’s Symposium, showed him the central story which explained the origins of gay, lesbian, and heterosexual love, and asked him to write a song based on that story. Trask came back with the moving, fiercely multi-cultural, fairy tale-like song-story "The Origin of Love."
Part Ziggy Stardust, part Frank N. Furter, and part Marlene Dietrich, Hedwig made her first appearance in January 1994 at a New York club called Squeeze Box, where Trask was the music director and his band, Cheater, was the house band. The club was unique because drag performers did not lip synch there; they actually sang. And Hedwig was unique because she was quickly becoming a fully formed, fully emotional, fully human character with backstory, not just a drag creation with a funny name. Mitchell would bring Hedwig back every six months or so, to develop the material and to try out new songs. Mitchell and Trask had created their own Broadway musical workshop, in the tradition of Michael Bennett. And luckily the show was conceived as a concert at which Hedwig tells her life story, so no traditional set was necessary, just a stage for the band and Hedwig. Its minimalism was, perhaps unconsciously, an echo of the very first productions of Rocky Horror.
Soon, Peter Askin came on board as director. He said in an interview, "It was a mess, but it was a wonderful mess" – the same thing people said about Rent. With producers on board, they planned to mount a first full production, on the tiny budget of $29,000.
Looking back, Askin said, "Hedwig is really divided into three things. It’s standup comedy with some hoary, cheap jokes. It’s Stephen’s wonderful music. And then it’s also this unexpectedly poignant love story. And it was a question of first recognizing that, and then shaping it so that the comedy came in certain sections, and whatever happened between the comedy and the music, it never took us away from Hedwig’s journey." By now, Hedwig’s story had a clear through-line. She began life as Hansel, a boy in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down. An American soldier meets Hansel and they fall in love, but for the soldier to bring him back to America, Hansel has to go through a physical exam and be proved a woman. So the soldier takes him to a back alley surgeon for a sex change operation, but it was horribly botched, leaving Hansel with just a stub of a penis – an angry inch.
Back in America, the soldier abandons Hansel – now Hedwig – and she is left in a trailer park in Kansas. There she meets Tommy Speck, the general’s son, they fall in love, and Hedwig transforms him into the rock star Tommy Gnosis (a word meaning mystical or spiritual knowledge). But Tommy also abandons Hedwig, and she is left playing small tacky venues, as Tommy plays major stadiums. Now, with her band, The Angry Inch, and her eastern bloc husband Yitzak (played by a woman), Hedwig tells us her story in the context of a concert.
Hedwig was unusual in so many ways, not the least of which is that the entire show, every note of music, is diegetic. It is a fully naturalistic musical because Hedwig always has a fully naturalistic reason for singing – she’s performing a concert for us. It was also unusual because it used real hard rock, a little punk, some guitar rock, some piano power ballads. Trask said, "Most rock musicals are just silly because they’re made by people who don’t know anything about rock music." That was not the case here. Trask could write in any style and he knew the rock idiom intimately. It was also the first musical to treat a transgendered character seriously. And true to Mitchell’s Broadway background, the show’s structure mirrored other Broadway musicals, offering its audience a first half full of comedy and a second half full of tragedy, just like Camelot, Into the Woods, The Fantasticks, and many others.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch first opened off off Broadway at the Westbeth Theatre Center in February 1997. But they wanted a special space for the show, not just a typical theatre. Mitchell heard about an old hotel down by the river that might have a theatre. He visited the Hotel Riverview in Manhattan’s meat packing district (where the Titanic’s surviving crew had been taken), and found it had an old, rarely used ballroom. It was there that the new Hedwig family decided to set up housekeeping. The show opened at the newly christened Jane Street Theatre on Valentine’s Day 1998. But the show didn’t catch on right away. "People weren’t coming. It was really slow," Mitchell said. "It was too rock and roll for some of the uptown theatre people. It was too rock and roll for maybe the gay audience. And it was too ‘theatre’ for the rock audience." But soon, things picked up and the show picked up steamed.
It ran for 857 performances and won the Obie Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for best off Broadway musical. The New York Times said, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch brings theatre alive with the pounding sounds of rock and the funny sad voicing of a painful past. It is also an adult, thought-provoking musical about the quest for individuality." Time magazine called the music "the most exciting hard rock score written for the theatre since, oh, ever," and called the show itself "a poignant mediation on loneliness, gender confusion, and the Platonic notion that sex is the effort to reconnect two halves of one ideal being." The Village Voice called it "the absolutely fabulous glam rock musical." Mitchell was succeeded in the lead by Michael Cerveris (of Tommy and Titanic, who also took it to London), Kevin Cahoon, Donovan Leitch, Ally Sheedy, Asa Somers, and Matt McGrath. A rabid fan base rose up around the show, dubbed Hed Heads. David Bowie and Madonna came to see it. New Line Cinema bought the screen rights and released it in July 2001, the midst of the movie musical rebirth. The film won the Audience Award and the Directing Award at Sundance.
Whether You Like It or Not…Hedwig!!
Hedwig Schmidt is one of the most interesting, most complex characters ever to assault the musical stage. She is not a drag queen. She is not a man, though she was born a gay boy named Hansel. Hedwig is a woman, even if the plumbing is not be there. But unlike most transsexuals, Hedwig was never "a woman trapped in a man’s body." She got her sex change operation in order to escape Communist East Berlin. In fact, she only gets the operation because she feels the "absolute power" (her words) she holds over Luther and his desires. But absolute power corrupts, as her mother tells her early, and this feeling of power over Luther will ruin her life in many ways. Absolute power does indeed corrupt, maybe even more so when it comes to love and lust.
The proof of her gender confusion is in a throw-away line before the song "Wicked Little Town." As the song begins, Hedwig says, "This is the first song I’ve ever written. And it’s written for a guy to sing." Hedwig has written this extremely autobiographical song and, quite interestingly, it’s from a man’s point of view; and yet, Hedwig feels she owes the audience an explanation for singing it herself. In her mind, it’s not written for her to sing, even though it’s about her life.
Hedwig’s journey – and the thing that gives the show its unexpected unity and dramatic punch – is the search for her "other half." She subscribes to the Platonic idea that humans were once double-creatures that came in three sexes – one was what we’d perceive as two males, one was two females, and one was both male and female. The gods were jealous of our happiness, so they cut us in two, and forever after, humans have searched for their other halves. Hedwig believes this search is for another person to complete her, first, in the person of Luther, then Tommy Speck. Tommy, in his desperate attempt to understand Christianity, points out a similar story in Genesis, when Eve is literally pulled out of Adam’s body, fashioned out of his rib, a story that clearly parallels the older story.
But the Genesis story plays an even bigger part in the show. It begins with Tommy’s re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. He tells Hedwig that God should not have forbidden Adam and Eve to eat from the "tree of knowledge" (for most Christians, a metaphor for sexual intercourse, or "original sin"). As Tommy sees it, "Eve just wanted to know shit. She took a bite of the apple and found out what was good and what was evil. And she gave it to Adam so he would know. Because they were in love. And that was good, they now knew…" He then asks Hedwig to give him "the apple." This is Tommy’s way of telling Hedwig he loves her, even though he may not be ready to say the words. But what kind of knowledge is Tommy asking for? Literal knowledge or sexual knowledge? And later when Hedwig bestows Tommy’s new name upon him – the Greek word for knowledge – is it because Tommy has gained literal knowledge or have they made love?
In a way, Hedwig is making two journeys, one a search for her spiritual "other half," but also a search for the physical maleness she lost back in East Berlin in her botched sex change operation. What she eventually discovers is that she must find both halves within herself, that one does not need a physical penis to be a man. Maleness – as well as femaleness – comes from within.
Of course the Berlin Wall, violently cutting the once world famous arts center of Berlin into two parts, mirrors the story of "The Origin of Love," and also Hedwig’s own life. In the song "Sugar Daddy," Hedwig even makes a reference to Erich Honecker, the leader of East Berlin, and Helmut Kohl, the leader of West Berlin, as a metaphor for the gods who split humans in half. Of course, Hedwig doesn’t know at that point in the story that Berlin will reunify in 1989, that in fact, healing is coming. But in 1988, before reunification, Hedwig has to escape. And her escape from this town cut in two can only happen if she cuts herself in two as well. The opening number "Tear Me Down," positions the Wall as a metaphor for Hedwig herself. Her first words in the show are, "Don’t you know me? I’m the new Berlin Wall. Try and tear me down!" In the song, Yitzhak says, "The world was divided by a cold war and the Berlin Wall was the most hated symbol of that divide." The show is extending the metaphor – now, the Wall doesn’t just represent Hedwig; it represents all of us. We are all divided, the show says, both within ourselves and across the world. Now, in the midst of the neverending War on Terror, that idea is more potent than ever. Yitzhak says, "Hedwig is like that wall, standing before you in the divide between East and West, Slavery and Freedom." And interestingly, Hedwig and Yitzhak also represent Berlin – a German and a Jew, the two halves of another infamous split in Berlin’s history. Ironically, Berlin is reunified shortly after her escape, making her sacrifice unnecessary, but also making her own splitting in two that much more tragic. She even refers to her wig (representing her femaleness) as her own personal hell.
The emotional center of the show, the song "Wicked Little Town," is the first song Hedwig ever wrote, she tells us, and it is also the most autobiographical. It describes Hedwig’s life in Junction City, Kansas, but it does so in very philosophical terms. In keeping with the central metaphors of the show, it is also about pairs of opposites. The lyric begins:
You know the sun is in your eyes
And hurricanes and rains
And black and cloudy skies.
You’re running up and down that hill.
You turn it on and off at will.
There’s nothing here to thrill
Or bring you down.
The first image sees both sun and "black and cloudy skies" coexisting in the same place. Then follows "up and down;" "on and off;" and finally "thrill" and "bring you down." Later in the song the lyric speaks of "wind so cold it burns." All these opposites have come (presumably) unconsciously from Hedwig’s mind as she wrote about herself. This split personality is so much apart of her, it even comes out in her metaphors.
Another pair of opposites can be found in the songs "Tear Me Down" and "Hedwig’s Lament," which is actually a much altered reprise of "Tear Me Down." The first version of the song is defiant, the second defeatist. The first is powerful, the second powerless. They form the perfect bookends to Hedwig’s story. The only songs laying outside these bookends are "Exquisite Corpse" (a nervous breakdown); the reprise of "Wicked Little Town" (which actually happens at Tommy’s concert, not here at Hedwig’s); and "Midnight Radio," Hedwig’s final healing and her offer of healing to us. None of these three songs works inside the show’s autobiographical framework; they lie outside of it. While the rest of the show exists in the past, telling a story that has already happened, the last three songs happen in the present. We actually witness Hedwig’s breakdown, we hear Tommy’s rendition of "Wicked Little Town" as it happens, and we see before us Hedwig’s healing. It’s interesting that the film could not maintain the show’s flashback structure, and it tells the story in chronological order.
The Gods Would Be Terrified.
But we can also see Hedwig as a god figure herself, paralleling the gods discussed in "The Origin of Love." She even sees the parallel herself. But those classical Gods were destroyers, and Hedwig is a creator. She can’t find her other half, and so, like a God, like Dr. Frankenstein (and the back alley surgeon?), she must create him. And like a God, she creates Tommy in her own image. She tells us in the show that their eyes are the same color. In the original off Broadway production, John Cameron Mitchell played Hedwig and recorded the sounds of Tommy’s concert, so Hedwig and Tommy had literally the same voice. She puts her words and her music into his mouth and she puts her philosophy into his persona.
Hedwig takes the blank slate that is Tommy Speck and, like Pygmalion and Henry Higgins, she remakes him into the international rock star Tommy Gnosis. She creates his look, his persona, even his songs, and like her literary forebears, she falls in love with her own creation, a creature in her own image, the most dangerous kind of narcissism. In fact, both Tommy and (at the end of the show) Hedwig wear a silver cross on their foreheads, the universal symbol of death and rebirth, or to take it even further, persecution, crucifixion, and divine resurrection. The climactic song is called "Exquisite Corpse" for a reason. The film’s last image also strongly suggests a rebirth. Biblical parallels are also referenced in "Wicked Little Town" with a line about "Mrs. Lot." Hedwig is being persecuted in Junction City, Kansas, just as the angels were persecuted in Sodom, further reinforcing the suggestion that Hedwig is somehow divine.
And there is the implied connection between Hedwig and Tommy – through Tommy’s name – and the early Christian Gnostic sects. The Gnostics believed that a secret knowledge (gnosis) of God was what would bring salvation, that the Old Testament God was evil and the New Testament God would save us, and they believed in most of the teachings of Jesus. There are many Gnostic gospels that were widely read and studied before the current Bible was codified, excluding much of what was once considered legitimate religious texts. Those excluded gospels include the Gospels of Mary, Peter, Thomas, James, and many others. Some were excluded because they contradicted the teachings of those in power at the time. Some were excluded because their authorship couldn’t be authenticated. Some were lost; others were among the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered centuries later. To connect Hedwig’s characters with the Gnostics is to imply that Hedwig and Tommy need only to understand themselves and their world in order to be saved. In fact, Mitchell and Trask include an excerpt from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas in their published Hedwig script. They quote the following:
Jesus said to them," When you make the two one, and the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and the male and the female into one and the same, so that the male be not male nor the female female; and when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, and an image in place of an image; then you will enter the kingdom."
In a very telling detail, Hedwig tells us that Tommy wore two contact lenses, one blue and one pink, again referencing the maleness and femaleness in all of us, the two-sided nature Hedwig is searching for. Tommy is literally Hedwig’s words made flesh. Everything about Tommy comes from Hedwig. He is a character more than a real person (as many of the famous glam rockers were). Tommy himself contributes nothing but raw materials. Of course, in the context of the show, this creates so many levels of reality: an actor playing Hansel who has become Hedwig who is in turn portraying Tommy Speck who has become Tommy Gnosis.
Hedwig’s transformation of Tommy brings us back to Plato’s Symposium in which the philosophers discuss the idea that in true love, one lover will make the ultimate sacrifice to make the other lover happy, even if the other lover is unworthy of that sacrifice. Here, Hedwig sacrifices her own career and instead expends all her energy on making Tommy a star. What Hedwig doesn’t see until much later is that if everything Tommy is came from Hedwig, then she already has that other half she seeks inside her. The Gospel of Thomas also says:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
The whole show is about the relation of the part to the whole and of one part to its compliment: man and woman, male and female, gay and straight, spiritual and physical, East and West Berlin, sacred and profane, creator and creation, God and mortal.
Throughout her adult life, Hedwig has found healing, even salvation, in the act of turning her many tragedies into art (not unlike Eugene O’Neill, William Finn, and other theatre artists). Her songs are the tale of her life. But she doesn’t see at first that the creation of songs from her pain mirrors the creation of Tommy from her need.
She also doesn’t see until late in the show that her relationship with Tommy is very close to her relationship with Yitzhak. As many people, she’s repeating her mistakes without knowing it. Hedwig married Yitzhak to get him out of Croatia, just as Luther married Hansel to get him out of East Berlin. Tommy started out singing back-up for Hedwig, then became the star himself and left her behind. In "The Long Gift" and in other moments throughout the show, we see that Yitzhak is actually a strong performer himself. And he also has begun as Hedwig’s lover and back-up singer. Might Yitzhak break out like Tommy did, or is Hedwig determined to prevent that? Hedwig does finally realize that all the heartache may happen to her again, if she doesn’t change course. But when she tries to suck up to Yitzhak and suggest a more equal partnership, Yitzhak spits in her face. He knows why she’s worried, and he also knows he doesn’t need her anymore. He certainly doesn’t need her abuse. In the film version, Yitzhak sees an audition notice for Rent, and like Tulsa in Gypsy, decides to go off on his own.
Just as Frankenstein’s monster did, Tommy turns on Hedwig, in a way, "killing" her career. But finally Hedwig understands that she doesn’t really need Tommy, that in fact she is Tommy, as much as he ever was. (Earlier in the show, she remarks how his eyes are exactly like hers.) When Tommy at last offers an apology in the form of a reprise of "Wicked Little Town," Hedwig is finally able to let go of her anger and her hurt. He sings:
For I did not know,
‘Cause I was just a boy
And you were so much more
Than any god could ever plan,
More than a woman or a man.
And now I understand
How much I took from you
Now, for the first time in years, Hedwig can see clearly. She finally understands that she can be whole without another person. She makes peace with her past tragedies, with her gender deformity, with her place in the world, creating art and sharing it with an audience. Interestingly, when Tommy sings this musical apology, he introduces it as a song Hedwig wrote – the first time he’s ever publicly acknowledged her help – but that fact gives the song so many layers of meaning. If Hedwig wrote it, we have to read it in several contexts. Certainly, it applies to the Hedwig/Tommy relationship the way a pop song may seem to be written just for us at any given moment in life. But it could also be Hansel singing to his mother. Or it could be Hansel singing to Hedwig…
With all the changes
You’ve been through,
It seems the strangers always you,
Alone again in some new
Wicked little town.
The wicked little town that Hedwig must escape is inside, not outside. It’s not about running away; it’s about changing the way she sees the world. And of course, in Hedwig’s life the stranger, the person who causes pain, has always been Hedwig herself. Tommy was created by Hedwig in her own image; Tommy is Hedwig in many ways. Luther treated Hansel just as Hedwig treated Yitzhak, so again, Luther was Hedwig in certain ways. And when Hansel left East Berlin, he took on his mother’s identity and name; here again, Hedwig is her mother in certain ways.
But the reprise of "Wicked Little Town" could also be the older Hedwig singing to her younger self, telling her that Luther was not the "other half," that he was not worth the profound sacrifice:
You think that luck
Has left you there.
But maybe there’s nothing
Up in the sky but air.
And there’s no mystical design,
No cosmic lover preassigned.
There’s nothing you can find
That cannot be found.
Notably, the first time we hear "Wicked Little Town," it doesn’t really end. The music does stop, but it never comes to a satisfying close as most songs do. It is, in a sense, unfinished, perhaps because the journey it describes is still unfinished. In most musical theatre scores, we hear the full version of a song first, then later a shorter version as a reprise. But in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the first version we hear is the incomplete version, and only when we hear the reprise of "Wicked Little Town" do we finally get a full version, with a longer bridge in the middle, and a clearly delineated, extended ending. Are we to understand that one of Hedwig’s most deeply felt songs can only be finished – can only be whole – when Hedwig herself is finally whole?
Lift Up Your Hands!
The ending of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a source of great debate. Mitchell refuses to analyze it or define it, hoping that audiences will take from it what they need. It is, in many ways, a fairy tale as scary, as violent, as cautionary, and as hopeful as the original Grimm brothers’ stories. And like the great children’s fairy tales, audiences take from Hedwig’s story (and its ending) what they need at that moment in their lives. Just as there are multiple lessons and interpretations of the great fairy tales (read Bruno Bettelheim’s excellent The Uses of Enchantment for more on that topic), so too there are many different lessons and interpretations left wide open at the end of Hedwig. Each of us sees in it what we need to see; each of us finds in the show the healing we seek.
When the show ends, it leaves so many questions open. Did the action of the show actually move from Hedwig’s concert to Tommy’s concert, or is that in Hedwig’s mind? Has Hedwig actually become Tommy? Or is the actor playing Hedwig now playing Tommy? Or has Hedwig found "the Tommy" inside herself? Has something magical taken place at the end, or are we watching two brilliant theatre artists (Mitchell and Trask) constructing an over-arching metaphor? The fact that Hedwig finally rejects the magical and metaphysical in the "Wicked Little Town" reprise might suggest that something magical has not taken place at the end.
A mystical, supernatural event to happening at the end, Hedwig literally to becoming Tommy all of a sudden, with no set-up, no establishing of that possibility, might cause the show to unravel a bit as a dramatic narrative. If it is a magical transformation, then Hedwig (the show) has violated the "ten-minute rule" most narrative art adheres to, the idea that a narrative can use any devices imaginable, as long as those devices – the "rules" for the evening – are established in the first ten minutes. Audience unconsciously accept this rule, accepting a man-eating and R&B-singing plant in Little Shop of Horrors, the use of hallucinations and fantasy in Floyd Collins or A New Brain, the aggressive breaking of the fourth wall in Cabaret, the self-reflexive language and style of Urinetown, the Brechtian devices of Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Man of La Mancha, Bat Boy, and others.
If the scene actually changes to Tommy’s concert, that raises another question. Since we are the audience at Hedwig’s concert for most of the show, in effect playing a role ourselves, have we switched roles and are we now the audience at Tommy’s concert? Since the entire show takes place in "this" theatre as we’re watching it, why would the authors suddenly insert the show’s only scene change just minutes before the show ends? The rest of the show is brilliantly constructed enough to suggest the authors wouldn’t do that. But can we draw that conclusion with certainty? No. Hedwig breaks other rules; maybe it breaks this one too.
Or is this transformation entirely an internal one for Hedwig? Since Tommy came from Hedwig, since literally everything that made Tommy a star was an invention of Hedwig’s, what does it mean when the stage direction in the script says "She has become Tommy in concert."? Are we to take that literally or metaphorically? Has she physically become Tommy or has she rediscovered her male side – the side she "gave" to Tommy – and is finally whole again, healed, reborn, connected once more with her other half? Perhaps the message is that the other half isn’t out in the world; it’s in each of us. That the script refers to her after this as "Hedwig/Tommy" suggests that Hedwig’s two halves have at last made peace with each other in the same body, that she is now a whole person with her male and female sides finally in balance. If we accept the script which tells us the character is now "Hedwig/Tommy," if the actor is now playing both Hedwig and Tommy, that would argue against an actual physical transformation, since it would be difficult for any actor to play two opposing characters at once; and even if some brilliant actor could pull it off, would any audience understand? It seems more likely that both Hedwig and Tommy now co-exist inside Hedwig, that at last Hedwig has reclaimed her male half – her Hansel – and she/he is going to be okay.
As the reprise of "Wicked Little Town" ends, it segues without dialogue into the finale, "Midnight Radio" Hedwig’s new Declaration of Independence. Perhaps Hedwig, now healed, now whole, may even end her performing career now that she no longer needs the healing it promises. Or maybe she will continue, but with a new message for audiences. She’s not just whole now; she’s also been healed artistically, becoming one with her idols. In the final song, Hedwig toasts to the great Divas of rock, strong, independent women who made their own way, most of them after their men were gone. She invokes the names of Patti Smith, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono, Aretha Franklin, Nona Hendryx, and the iconic, once ubiquitous Nico. And finally, Hedwig toasts to herself; now she belongs among the pantheon of Great Divas. She too can now heal through her rock and roll.
Interestingly, most of these divas led lives similar in some details to Hedwig’s. Patti Smith began as a painter, became a playwright while dating Sam Shepard, then began performing accompanied poetry readings and finally rock songs with Lenny Kaye. But it wasn’t until she left behind the influences of the men in her life that she became a force to be reckoned with, as one of the leaders of the New Wave movement. Tina Turner came to fame as part of a duo with her abusive husband Ike. In 1975 she divorced him, but her career was now in trouble. Finally in 1984, she staged a rock and roll comeback like few had ever seen, and she became a bigger star than she had ever been with Ike. Like Hedwig, Turner never shied away from her ugly past and was willing to talk about the dark places she had been and her journey back to the light.
Yoko Ono was for a very long time seen as nothing more than John Lennon’s wife, but she was a serious artist in her own right, and it wasn’t until after his murder in 1980 that Ono now relatively free of the shadow of Lennon’s genius, was finally taken seriously. Aretha Franklin came from a broken home. Her career, under the management of her husband Ted White, began to hit the skids in 1966 and Columbia records decided not to renew her contract. White left her and in her despair she considered leaving the music business. But now on her own, without White managing her, she got picked up by Atlantic records and was given almost complete artistic control of her work. She recorded several songs, including the now legendary "Respect," and she soared to the top. Though Nona Hendryx had success for years singing back-up for and working with men like David Byrne, Alice Cooper, and Bootsy Collins, she found her greatest success in her own solo career, writing and performing some of the most innovative rock and roll American has seen. The singly-named Nico was a model, film actress, and singer with The Velvet Underground before going on to her own solo career. It is rumored that she had affairs with Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Jackson Browne, and several other rock icons, but she found lasting success and legendary status as a solo artist. Significantly, in the 1995 film Nico Icon, she said, "I don't have any limits, I don't need to be outside to feel like I'm outside. . . My only regret – I was born a woman instead of a man."
Hedwig also mentions LaVern Baker, the great 1950s R&B singer, in the song "Wig in a Box." But this brief reference holds more meaning that one might expect. Baker’s career mirrors Hedwig’s in interesting ways, including a surprising parallel to Tommy’s theft of Hedwig’s songs, and the discrimination that both Baker and Hedwig faced. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
A versatile vocalist, LaVern Baker proved capable of melding blues, jazz and R&B styles in a way that made possible the emergence of a new idiom: rock and roll. During her time at Atlantic Records (1953-62), Baker cut half a dozen singles that rose to high positions on both the pop and R&B charts, including "Tweedle Dee" and "Jim Dandy." Coming at a time when jazz singing was swiftly evolving into an earthier, more down-home and emotionally fervent style known as rhythm & blues, Baker proved to be one of the key vocalists who furthered that transition. As an R&B pioneer, Baker suffered from the segregationist impulses of the larger culture by having her songs "covered" by a white singer, Georgia Gibbs, whose sanitized versions greatly outsold Baker's own. Because mainstream white pop stations were reluctant to play "race records," artists like Baker and Little Richard lost considerable airplay, sales and income from the cover syndrome.
But these rock divas aren’t Hedwig’s only foremothers. Though glam rock seems to be the most pronounced influence on Hedwig and the Angry Inch and its central character, another less obvious but still very important influence is the great Marlene Dietrich. Like Hedwig, Dietrich was famous for her heavy eye shadow, her exaggerated eyelashes, her deeper than usual voice, and her overt yet still somehow subtle sexuality. Like Hedwig, Dietrich left Germany for America, in Dietrich’s case, just before the rise of the Nazis. (Hitler actually invited her to return to make movies for the Third Reich. She refused.) Like Hedwig, Dietrich’s sexuality was very ambiguous. She was often seen in men’s formal wear, both on screen and in her private life. In her first film, the now legendary The Blue Angel, Dietrich not only performed her signature tune, "Falling in Love Again," in full men’s evening wear, but she also flirted shamelessly during the song with the women in her audience. Later in her career, Dietrich became even more famous for her one-woman concerts – and for her furs. She often sang songs written for men about women ("I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face," for example), and was always relatively open about her very intense lesbian love affairs while in Hollywood. Interestingly for Hedwig fans, Dietrich appeared in one film with David Bowie, the 1979 Just a Gigolo. The great film director Billy Wilder described her as "a strange combination of the femme fatale, the German hausfrau [housewife] and Florence Nightingale." Mightn’t the same mix apply to Hedwig?
The other major influence on Hedwig and Hedwig is David Bowie and his character Ziggy Stardust. His 1972 album, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – and the subsequent concert tour and film – revolutionized rock and roll. First of all, the album told a fully formed story about the doomed messiah, Ziggy Stardust. It’s true, The Who had done it first with Tommy, but Bowie took it ever further. Ziggy Stardust was also the beginning of the marriage of science fiction and rock that would last through the 70s and into the 80s. And Hedwig’s song "The Origin of Love" has its parallels in the Ziggy Stardust song "Soul Love." And Ziggy Stardust’s "Lady Stardust" extols the virtues of cross-dressing. The other big innovation was the confident and skillful transformation of rock and roll into a theatrical experience. Culture Vulture.com says of Bowie and Stardust, "What's surprising, viewing this film after reading innumerable magazine articles looking back at the then-shocking theatricality of the Ziggy performances, is how straightforward a rock show this actually is. Aside from Bowie's wardrobe, there's very little of the spectacle that bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper would bring to American arenas only a few years later. It's not the kind of overblown, Vegas-esque extravaganza so many acts, from U2 to Britney Spears, take on the road these days. It's just a really good rock concert. In 1973, that was enough."
But it was also dramatic, giving audiences not just an evening of songs, of many separate experiences, but instead one full, unified, dramatically coherent experience. There was a unity to the Ziggy Stardust album and concerts that was still pretty new. British commentator James Littlewood wrote, "Of all David Bowie's many distinctive personae, none have done more to lodge this most ingenious of British artists in the world's consciousness than his 1972 amalgam of the alien visitor and Christ-like rock star: Ziggy Stardust. Cheap glamour, spacemen and ambiguous sexuality surface throughout the loosely conceptualised collection that is The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. If its premise sounds faintly ludicrous, then inspired and dramatic songs such as ‘Starman’ and ‘Five Years’ dispel all doubts about Bowie's genius, and the theatrically tragic ‘Rock 'n' Roll Suicide’ brings the album and it's fictional protagonist to a close. As a cultural and musical signpost, Ziggy Stardust points simultaneously backwards to early rock & roll and forward to the simpler, tougher inclinations of late-1970s punk and New Wave rock. As one of the defining rock albums of the 20th century, its influence is immeasurable."
Like Dietrich’s Ziggy Stardust’s sexuality was ambiguous, his performances electrifying, his influence impossible to fully comprehend. Much of rock and roll had become rather safe and commercial by 1972. Bowie changed that. Rock again became dangerous, sexual, ambiguous, rebellious, angry, and, most important, confusing and annoying to adults. Most subversively, it argued that sexuality can be fluid, can be ambiguous, that sexuality doesn’t have to fit comfortably into preordained categories. That scared the hell out of many parents. Bowie and his experiments not only gave birth to the glam rock movement, but also to the slightly later but parallel punk movement.
The other musical influence on Hedwig is the godfather of glam rock, Iggy Pop, who, along with his band The Stooges, redefined rock and roll from 1969-1973 and created the musical and thematic vocabulary of glam rock, and later, punk rock. (Many historians give Sue Blane, the costumer for the original Rocky Horror, credit for creating the look of punk rock.) Rolling Stone says, "Iggy Pop once billed himself as the ‘world's forgotten boy,’ but that is no longer the case. From fronting the proto-punk Stooges – the most despised band of the peace and love Sixties – Pop has gradually attained a position of veneration, and permanence, in the rock pantheon." One current website dedicated to Iggy Pop says, "During the psychedelic haze of the late 60s, the grimy, noisy and relentlessly bleak rock & roll of the Stooges was conspicuously out of time. Like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges revealed the underside of sex, drugs and rock & roll, showing all of the grime beneath the myth. The Stooges, however, weren't nearly as cerebral as the Velvets. Taking their cue from the over-amplified pounding of British blues, the primal raunch of American garage rock, and the psychedelic rock (as well as the audience-baiting) of the Doors, the Stooges were raw, immediate and vulgar. Iggy Pop became notorious for performing smeared in blood or peanut butter, diving into the audience… In essence, the Stooges were the first rock & roll band completely stripped of the swinging beat that epitomized R&B and early rock and roll. During the late 60s and early 70s, the group was an underground sensation, yet the band was too weird, too dangerous to break into the mainstream. Following three albums, the Stooges disbanded, but the group's legacy grew over the next two decades, as legions of underground bands used their sludgy grind as a foundation for a variety of indie-rock styles, and as Iggy Pop became a pop cultural icon." As with Dietrich and Bowie, so much of this could apply to Hedwig.
But Hedwig also finds its roots in the Surrealist movement of the 1920s, from which the phrase exquisite corpse comes (the name of the show’s climactic number). It began as a parlor game, in which each player would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, then pass it to the next person to continue the phrase. The game expanded to images as well as words, and the Surrealists adopted the game as a way of creating art. The name exquisite corpse or, in its original French, cadavre exquis, came from an early playing of the game that resulted in the now famous phrase, "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau" – "The exquisite corpse will drink the young [or newly made] wine." Nicolas Calas called the result of this kind of work "unconscious reality in the personality of the group" resulting from a process of "mental contagion." Hedwig certainly sees herself as that kind of creation, a perhaps awkward stitching together of the influences of her life – her mother’s telling of the origin of love, Luther’s initial love than abandonment, Hedwig’s botched surgery, the various wigs (and resulting personalities) over the years, the harsh rejection by Tommy Speck – all these pieces held together by Hedwig’s courage and survivor’s instinct, to form a mangled but proud human being – a sex-reversed Frankenstein’s monster who, like Mary Shelley’s original, does not want to harm anyone but just wants companionship. The label also refers to Hedwig’s belief that she was separated from her "other half" and must be stitched back together again in order to be truly happy.
It’s not only a disturbing image, but also a perfect one for the show, and further proof that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of the one of the richest, most intelligent, most literate, most beautifully wrought pieces of theatre in years, full of such complexity, such immense philosophical questions, such profound emotions. This is where the American musical theatre is headed, and it is a cause for celebration.
Copyright 2004. Excerpt from Scott Miller's book Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
, From Assassins to West Side Story
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR