(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #61 – released February 9, 1999)
Track listing: Tear Me Down / The Origin of Love / Random Number Generation / Sugar Daddy / Angry Inch / Wig In a Box / Wicked Little Town / The Long Grift / Hedwig’s Lament / Exquisite Corpse / Wicked Little Town (Reprise) / Midnight Radio
Rock and Roll and Musical Theater: two genres that have always co-existed somewhat uneasily. Even the most successful “rock” musicals from Hair to Rent (with some assorted Andrew Lloyd Webber works in between) rarely, well, rock. Part of the problem is that musicals require a suspension of disbelief—you just have to accept that the characters would suddenly break into song. Rock, on the other hand, strives for authenticity, even at its most fantastic or grandiose. Mashing the two approaches together becomes like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Keeping in mind my admittedly limited knowledge of musical theater, I can name two shows that successfully rock: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hedwig and The Angry Inch. In my college years, I was obsessed with the soundtrack for the former (more so than going to midnight screenings of it), which worked by threading that fine line between parody and tribute of classic rock and roll with utmost precision. Although nearly a quarter century separates it, Hedwig is in many ways its next-generation successor, although it’s less a satire on retro rock tropes (exchanging Rocky Horror’s ’50s pastiches for ’70s glam and punk) and more its own thing. Both musicals subvert genres and gender, but only Hedwig delves into the psychology of identity politics while conflating them with sociopolitical events.
Hedwig’s story centers on its titular character, a German born as Hansel on the day the Berlin Wall was erected who grows up with a passion for rock music. As a young man, he falls in love with Luther, an American soldier whom moves him to Junction City, Kansas and convinces him to get a sex change operation and become Hedwig. The operation “got botched”, leaving him with neither male nor female genitalia but an “angry inch” of flesh. Luther then leaves Hedwig for another man while Hedwig begins to write songs and soon mentors and falls for young Tommy, whom becomes her protégée. However, Tommy leaves Hedwig, runs off with the songs they co-wrote together and becomes a huge star. Hedwig and the Angry Inch documents, cabaret style, her life story as she and her band follow Tommy on tour, usually performing in smaller venues next to the larger ones he’s playing.
Much of the show’s triumph is due to the talent and vision of creator John Cameron Mitchell, who stars as Hansel/Hedwig/Tommy. He constructs a persona that borrows as heavily from classic film actresses and androgynous 1970s male rock stars as it does from drag queens from Divine to RuPaul, but it subsists somewhere in between all those cultural signifiers. He’s equally likable and bitchy, both the consummate diva and comedian, but what really puts him and the show over is his prowess as a singer/performer and the songs, all of them written and composed by Stephen Trask (who performs onstage with his/Hedwig’s band). While it’s tricky to eke every nuance of the narrative from them alone (seeing the 2001 film adaptation cleared a few things up), the show’s original Off-Broadway cast recording is well-crafted and compelling enough to stand on its own.
After a spoken introduction from manager Yitzhak (in keeping with the show’s gender-bending, a male character usually played by a woman, in this case Miriam Shor), Hedwig opens with “Tear Me Down”, a piano-pounding rocker with plenty of “whoooo’s!” that’s two-parts “The Bitch is Back”-era Elton John to one-part Meatloaf (who covered the song a few years later). It exuberantly sets up the narrative’s Berlin Wall metaphor without too much strain. The first of multiple likeminded rockers on Hedwig’s first half, it’s followed by the Shor-sung “Random Number Generation” (a Liz Phair-esque rave-up not actually in the show but recorded just for this album) and the raucous “Angry Inch”, where, in a purposely flattened, bratty sneer, Hedwig tells of her fateful operation. The indelible, punky chorus shouts, “Six inches forward and five inches back / I’ve got an angry inch!” while Mitchell goes all out, recounting this ordeal in shock-rock cadences and muttering such spoken asides as, “My first day as a woman, and already it’s that time of the month!”*
A whole LP of this stuff would probably work fine in a Ramones-y sort of way, but Hedwig proves far more dynamic than that. Those three aforementioned rockers alternate with songs that smoothly delve into other tempos, moods and genres. “The Origin of Love”, likely the closest thing to a standard here, immediately follows “Tear Me Down” with gentle acoustic guitars and understated vocals. It slowly builds in volume and power (the percussion plays a huge part in this) as Mitchell delivers an epic, myth-establishing song whose talky lyrics (he seems to be relaying as much backstory as he can in just over five minutes) get over on the lasting strength of the melody.
The album swerves again, two tracks later, with “Sugar Daddy”, a rockabilly-inflected, country and western-flavored, mostly acoustic stomp that concisely recounts Hedwig and Luther’s entire relationship (a spoken interlude in the middle sows the seeds for the former’s operation). It fits into Hedwig’s framework because it’s both catchy (the chorus could sell breakfast cereal) and irrepressibly sly—Ms. Hedwig wants her lover to lavish her with such ultra-specific luxuries as “Whiskey and French cigarettes / a motorbike with high-speed jets / a Waterpik, a Cuisinart and a hypo-allergenic dog.”
Immediately following “Angry Inch”, “Wig in a Box” nicely slots into its position as the first act showstopper. A thrilling ode to redemption via reinvention, it kicks off as a voice-and-piano, Freddie Mercury-style sketch, depicting Hedwig as a bored, suburban, jilted housewife who finds temporary escape by putting on a wig and transforming herself into “Miss Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen” or “Miss Beehive 1963”—that is, “Until I wake up, and turn back into myself.” The song slowly builds with each verse, becoming an agreeably fey, jaunty sing-along rocker complete with a sped-up, key-changing middle-eight that looks ahead to the empowered Hedwig of “Tear Me Down” and also provides this song’s triumphant outro where she concludes, “I’m never turning back!”
In relating the arc of Hedwig and Tommy’s relationship, much of the album’s second half plays out like a song suite, beginning and ending with alternate versions of its best composition. “Wicked Little Town” is nominally a piano ballad sung by Hedwig about Tommy’s life as a two-bit hustler and, in its first version, one of the show’s quieter, gentler tracks. Everything about it feels remarkably intimate, from the hand percussion and Mitchell’s Marc Bolan-esque croon to the backing female vocals at the bridge and how all drops out right after them except for that gorgeous piano melody that serves as the song’s poignant foundation.
The slightly languorous power-pop of “The Long Grift” follows, layering Hedwig’s glam touchstones with Beatles-esque “oh’s” and “do-do-do’s”. As sung by Hedwig to (or about) Tommy, it’s as much a delicate love song as it is a withering kiss-off. Next comes the brief “Hedwig’s Lament”, a minor key, piano-and-voice torch song that is the first (and only) track here entirely removed rock and roll; however, it’s brief, more of a link than anything else, leading right into the album’s loudest, angriest number, “Exquisite Corpse”. A shepherd’s pie of a song, it shifts from punk/thrash at full throttle to the brief, softer respite of Shor’s vocal to a “Be My Baby”-like backbeat and back to a noise-skronk explosion. What better way to detail Hedwig’s life and identity (both the wig and makeup literally come off in this scene) coming apart at the seams?
As “Exquisite Corpse” concludes in a scrawl of feedback, a familiar piano riff returns, announcing “Wicked Little Town (Reprise)”. It brings things full circle but this is less a simple return and more an answer song from Tommy. “Oh, lady luck has led you here”, sung by Hedwig in the first version turns into “You think that luck has left you there,” sung by Tommy here. It retains the same tempo but sounds far less delicate, more suited to the stadium stage than the singer/songwriter open mic. This reprise mirrors the original almost perfectly, but its slight modulations in tone and melody effectively bring forth closure and resolve to this part of the narrative, and are all the more affecting for that.
The original stage show concluded with Hedwig performing Patti Smith’s cover of “You Light Up My Life”; not able to continue shelling out the rights to cover it, Mitchell and Trask wrote a new song to replace it. Today, Hedwig seems unimaginable without “Midnight Radio”: it not only serves as a stirring, emotional conclusion to the tale, but also lets the show’s central thesis—the idea that we are whole, that whatever it is we’re looking for is ultimately within ourselves—blast off into the stratosphere. A power ballad in every sense of the term, like so many of Hedwig’s songs, it gradually builds from a slow, quiet intro to a majestic, shimmering, loud wall of sound. Midway through, Mitchell and Trask list a parade of female rock icons by their first names (Patti, Yoko, Tina, Aretha, etc.) before concluding, “And me,” and by then, they’ve fully earned the right to say it. “Midnight Radio” is a tribute to discovering the creative spark both within and around us; the goodwill it exudes lingers long after its two-minute, “Hey Jude” like coda repeating the phrase, “Lift up your hands” fades away.
Since its premiere almost two decades ago, Hedwig has unexpectedly sustained a spot in the pop culture firmament, thanks to that pretty great film adaptation (Mitchell’s directorial debut, establishing a career beyond his most famous creation that has included three more features to date), a 2014 Broadway revival starring Neil Patrick Harris (who won a Tony award for the role) and countless other productions around the globe. While the film soundtrack is pretty faithful (if a tad glossier), this original cast recording is still the one to hear, for it pulls off that rare trick of sounding as much of a credible cast album as it does a convincing rock album.
Next: 50+ Ways to Leave Your Lover (or Not.)
*This is even funnier when spoken by the inimitable Fred Schneider of The B-52’s covering the song (with Sleater-Kinney) on the 2003 Hedwig tribute album Wig in a Box.
“Wicked Little Town”