As you may or may not know, Neil Patrick Harris is opening a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, performing in the titular role, and he looks fabulous. If you’re not familiar with the material, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a 1998 musical written by and starring John Cameron Mitchell. Hedwig tells the story of an East German singer who goes to great lengths to marry an American soldier and leaves for the United States to pursue her dreams and a better life. Those great lengths include a botched sex-change operation, leaving Hedwig with the titular “angry inch”. Eventually, she makes it to the United States, but in a perfect storm of insult and injury, her husband leaves her on the day she learns that the Berlin Wall has fallen. The real meat of the story is in how she uses love and rock n’ roll to recover from that and pursues her own identity. The Obie Award-winning musical originally ran for 857 performances, and has since seen performances in no fewer than eleven countries.
Perhaps more famous than the original stage musical is the 2001 film adaptation, also starring John Cameron Mitchell. It’s become something of a cult classic. I’ve long been a big fan of the film, not just because it has great musical numbers, but also because it’s subversive and transgressive. It’s challenging in that it might force the viewer to consider gender in a manner far more complex than usual. Hedwig is not transgender in the way that we most often think about it. The character is written as a man (yet always referred to as “she”, perhaps because speakers tend to reference the persona, instead of the man, Hansel) who undergoes a sex-change and adopts the identity of “Hedwig” for a better life. Once in the United States, the character maintains this identity in part because to do otherwise could result in deportation. Rather than someone who has felt that they were born into (or assigned at birth to) a sex that didn’t correspond with their gender, Hansel pursued a sex change as a means of survival, not as a means of feeling complete or comfortable in his own skin, and chose to become Hedwig. That distinction won’t, however, prevent Hedwig from being associated with transgender persons, or any persons on the spectrum of gender variance. In the coming weeks, I’ll be interested as to what trans authors have to say on the association of this character with their community, how Hedwig’s representation affects them, and whether they want to consider Hedwig one of their own.
That being said, I’m a big fan of any kind of gender trouble, that is, any art or experience that leads us to question the stable, sex-bound binary that our culture largely assumes gender to be. In a time when individual identity is so crucial to how we think about ourselves (especially as Americans), what could be more valuable than a story about bringing the real you to fruition with the help of some sweet tunes? Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock opera in the most meaningful sense, a hero’s journey told with guitars and big musical numbers. The arena is the modern world, and the problem of identity is one that our culture is just beginning to wrestle with meaningfully. In that way, it’s the next step, if a touch clumsy, in a conversation we really need to be having.
Neil Patrick Harris gave an interview about Hedwig in March, in which he discusses his hot yoga prep regimen, his careers, advice he’s garnered on the role from John Mitchell and RuPaul, and most interestingly, where the musical stands in the milieu of trans issues. According to Harris, that place is not at all. To a question posed about how the rise of transgender and gender-variant issues have altered his perspective on the role, Harris responded:
It really doesn’t. Those politics are valid and important, but…she didn’t always feel like a woman and have the surgery in order to complete herself. That sort of changes the focus and takes the show out of the transgender conversation…rather than demanding to be taken seriously as a woman, she demands to be taken seriously as a superstar.
He also goes so far as to grace us with a suggestion for his replacement, saying, “You know who would be pretty? Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And he can sing. But maybe I just want to see him dressed in a slip.” But while we’re on the subject of superstars, Harris’s star power seems to have served in terms of exposure and sales. The March 29th preview performance packed the Belasco Theatre and sold $144,194 in tickets that evening alone, being beat in average paid admission only by The Book of Mormon. It seems likely that the cult fans of the film and the many adoring fans of NPH will carry this show long past its original scheduled run. This has rather roundly put to bed any concerns that Hedwig might be difficult to market to mainstream audiences. Looking forward to a very successful run, the producers of Hedwig have announced a charitable partnership with the Hetrick-Martin Institute. HMI, the “nation’s oldest and largest organization helping gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth to reach their full potential”, will receive a portion of the sale price of each ticket. That donation will be directed to Harvey Milk High School in the East Village: a public high school designed to provide a physically and emotionally safe educational space for all students, but especially those who are LGBTQ+. The school is named for Harvey Milk, the openly gay Member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was assassinated in 1978. So there’s some real, tangible good to go with all the glitter.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch opens on April 22nd, exactly ten years after Harris’s Broadway performance in Assassins, and will run until August 17th, at the Belasco Theatre, barring, of course, a likely extension or second run. You can get tickets here, and while you’re at it, you should read NPH’s cover interview with Out Magazine.