There is really nothing like the experience of going into a theater knowing absolutely nothing about a musical, and then having all of your nonexistent expectations exceeded. That was my experience with the show Hedwig and the Angry Inch in one sentence. I was fortunate enough to win lottery tickets to the show, and all I knew was that it was a rock musical about a drag queen—which, generally, is all I need to know in order to want to attend a show.
After sitting down, it was not long before actor and singer Andrew Rannells — who was performing the role of Hedwig for the second-to-last time — descended from the ceiling, decked out in full drag hair and makeup and a glittery jean skirt/jacket ensemble. From the moment he opened his red-glittered mouth, his impressive commitment to the role was evident. Rannells tells the tale of Hedwig, a transgender woman from Germany whose sex change operation was botched. Hedwig is an “internationally ignored” performer who is trying to make a name for herself, and she describes her fascinating life to the audience in the form of an extended monologue/rock show. Lena Hall plays Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband and the only other character onstage apart from the four-person band (dubbed “The Angry Inch” in tribute of Hedwig’s failed operation).
With only a cast of two, fears might arise of boring the audience or not generating enough emotion. Luckily, Hall and Rannells could probably eat saltines in the center of a blank stage and neither emotion nor entertainment would be an issue. They work beautifully in tandem; Rannells’ flamboyancy is at an all-time high, and Hall plays this up by submitting to the role of the quiet, deadpan spouse in the corner. Though make no mistake, she does not remain quiet for long. Her voice is clear and strong, and even the instances in which she is only providing backup vocals are pristine. It is clear how she won her Tony for Best Featured Actress. On the other side of the spectrum are Rannells’ show-stopping vocals, which are stunning and provide the best balance between femininity and power—two terms that he proves are in no way mutually exclusive.
The music of Hedwig is probably the reason that I enjoyed the production so much. It is solidly a rock musical, and each song either completely brings down the house or gives one the uncontrollable urge to sway with a lighter aloft. The lyrics are witty and sharp, each song providing a different angle or viewpoint to Hedwig’s story. The expositional Tear Me Down is a great workout track, while Sugar Daddy, arguably the best song of the show, is even better to blast while walking down the street and feeling more glamorous/punk rock/ generally-better-than-everybody you pass. Wig In A Box is my favorite, as it is catchy, provides a good mid-tempo beat, and is centered around wigs and their many different characters. Wicked Little Town is a ballad for anyone who has ever felt stuck and isolated, and the reprise gives some insight into Hedwig’s biggest challenge—the unrequited love of (more successful) rockstar Tommy Gnosis. And Midnight Radio is truly emotionally satisfying, the perfect finale to a whirlwind of emotion and glam-rock frenzy.
All in all, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was one of the best musicals I have ever seen, and though it may seem to cater to a specific counter-culture, I would recommend it to any fan of rock and roll. Don’t let the glitter and denim scare or mislead you; Hedwig is a musical for anybody who has ever relied on the power of music to save them from heartbreak, restlessness, or even themselves.