The drag rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been a cult sensation in each of its incarnations – first as a downtown musical, then a film, and now a Broadway show. On a recent night when I saw a performance, I wasn’t surprised to see (and hear) the formidable presence of superfans. No sooner would the intro notes to a song play than the crowd would erupt in cheers, some crooning the opening bars. One woman in my section wore what looked to be a handmade poncho covered in patchwork images of Neil Patrick Harris. Cleary not a first-timer.
I have to confess that when I first watched the film of Hedwig, I couldn’t get past the first 45 minutes. The story was – and I think still is – ridiculously far-fetched. An East-German boy discovers rock music, experiences a botched sex-change operation, moves to America, and becomes a pop singer only to have his songs stolen by his young creative partner (and momentary lover) for whom he babysat. What redeems the show, and what made me want to see it on stage, is the music. Composed and written by Stephen Trask, Hedwig’s score sounds even better live. His songs are catchy, energized, and uplifting all at once. And each is soulful enough to emotionally transport the audience, especially when performed by an actor as talented and magnetic as Neil Patrick Harris. (I had the pleasure of seeing Harris on his last night in the role.)
The music is so good that, ultimately, it manages to eclipse the narrative missteps throughout the show. (Even within Hedwig's bizarre world, there are several moments and that are off and implausible.) For example, the concept that director Michael Mayer creates for the Broadway production involves Hedwig performing a one-night concert at the Belasco Theatre, the actual theater where the show is playing. But Hedwig is supposed to be a flop who has no fame to speak of. She would never perform at the Belasco, certainly not to the thunderous applause that NPH receives while playing her. So the meta-story in which Mayer couches the plot doesn't hold. And the show gets further derailed from there, culminating in a final scene where it's not clear whether Hedwig transforms into another character or instead if we're suddenly in the presence of that other character. I'm guessing Mayer wants that ambiguity, but why, I couldn’t say.
In any case, the fan-abundant audience didn’t seem thrown by the non-sequitors, I suspect because the themes of self-acceptance spoke louder than the narrative hiccups. More so, the show’s finale is triumphant, with a beautiful star-filled visual and with Harris shedding his wig and makeup.
Leaving the theater that night, it occurred to me that Hedwig is part of a larger category of musicals: shows that succeed by taking audiences on an emotional trip. These musicals brim with feeling and ensure that the viewer feels something, regardless of whether the plot is meandering or nonexistent. Hair is a classic example. So is A Chorus Line. These are iconic musicals, with memorable runs and multiple revivals. The fact that these musicals encourage the viewer to feel more than think, does not imply that there isn't great ingenuity at work. They are meant to tap into a specific experience that is entertaining to watch and personally meaningful to contemplate. Hedwig manages to fall short as a story but succeed as an experience. It is in many ways the opposite of what a play sets out to do.
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich