Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and a text and lead performance by John Cameron Mitchell, took New York’s downtown scene by storm when it opened on Valentine’s Day, 1998, in what was then the far reaches of Greenwich Village’s Meatpacking District. It snapped up the off-Broadway theatre awards and ran more than two years. A film followed, also starring Mitchell, and Hedwig was produced throughout the US and other locales. In 2014 Neil Patrick Harris led a Broadway production that ran for more than a year and, improbably, as this was the show’s Broadway debut, won the Tony™ Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
What started out as a trendsetting shocker – a glam/punk score supporting what was, at the time, deemed to be a “drag” performance – over time became mainstream, with well-known performers clamoring to portray a desperate German man who had a botched sex change operation (hence, the “angry inch”) as a way of being able to immigrate to the US with his American soldier boyfriend. So, when Diversionary Theatre’s Matt Morrow decided to stage a “20th Anniversary Legacy Production,” Morrow was not reaching into the archives to resurrect some forgotten treasure. Rather, the “legacy” was Morrow’s own encounters with the early Hedwig, which shaped a life in the theatre.
The show is staged as a cabaret, where Hedwig (Jeremy Wilson) is reflecting on emerging as “genderqueer” after immigrating to the US, breaking up with the soldier, and partnering with a man named Yitzhak (Cashaè Monya), who Hedwig persuades to give up being a drag performer. Coincidentally, there is a concert by Hedwig’s protégé, Tommy Gnosis, across the street, and Hedwig periodically opens the door so that he can taunt Gnosis for his success while Hedwig plays dive joints with his band, also known as “The Angry Inch.” The band is an integral part of the show, and it’s worth mentioning that its members are Patrick Marion on keyboard (also, music director), Jim Mooney on guitar, Linda Libby on Bass, and David Rumley on drums.
Morrow’s production interpolates references to some local people and places, with varying degrees of success, but it focuses on how “genderqueer” differs from drag, the latter being a performance, while the former the result of an ongoing quest for identity. Wilson embodies this quest with a somewhat melancholy performance that struggles with its drag component. Monya embodies it as resentment for having a quest interrupted. The result is something of a theatre of cruelty, interrupted by gags and songs, including one that the audience knows and to which it readily sings along.
In some ways, Hedwig and the Angry Inch feels like a throwback to a long-gone era, but by the end there is a real sense of sadness reflecting how drag performers are accepted, even adored, which genderqueer people are not. Maybe that’s the real legacy, and undoubtedly one that Morrow intends with the production. This Hedwig wants to be cutting-edge, and it is, if you allow it to be.