On Nights Like This: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Strangely enough, my introduction to Hedwig and the Angry Inch was through the film. An oddity for me, perhaps, but not for many others. I knew a bit about the show, but it was still on my ever-expanding mental list of musicals to see.

I re-watched the film yesterday, before and after my final performance in Hairspray (another wig-heavy show, so it seemed appropriate) and I walked away from it with the question that has been on my mind with a lot of musicals lately: why? Why is this story so captivating? What is it about Hedwig that allows it to reach so deeply into our souls? Well, mine at least.

The answer to this, I believe, is in the beginning of the piece. In the film and the musical, Hedwig is introduced to the audience immediately. This is not one of those “small town is suddenly flipped upside down by a newcomer” story, or a “how are these strange characters going to affect this normal person standing amongst them all?” show. Hedwig (or Yitzhak, rather) immediately tells you, that you are going to be witnessing her story, and hers alone. She is different, she knows it, she uses it. Hedwig is going to be telling you the story, her story, about the loves she lost and the life she’s led. How many musicals have the ability to do that? Certainly not anything like The Music Man or Company.

Hedwig also has the distinction of having a backstory almost too far-fetched to be believed. Many unfamiliar with the show will assume Hedwig is either transgender, or a drag performer, not an accidental mutilation trying to find her other half. Hedwig takes a seemingly outlandish story and creates a believable life for a character, with the psychological effects of such an upbringing becoming clearer as the story progresses. In the film, in every scene that occurs in the present, there is the looming presence of the past, creating windows into Hedwig’s life that parallel each other in a hauntingly beautiful manner. The musical handles this similarly, with Tommy’s concert interrupting the show or Yitzhak and Hedwig’s bickering.

Oh yes, Yitzhak. Dear, sweet, Yitzhak. I could spend hours thinking about the heart-wrenching parallel between Hedwig and Luther’s relationship, and Hedwig and Yitzhak’s. Hedwig married Yitzhak to get him out of Croatia, in the same way Luther married Hansel to get him out of East Berlin. Tommy and Yitzhak, strong performers in their own right but initially struggling to find their sound, both started singing backup for Hedwig, before their own careers began to blossom. Hedwig, realizing her mistakes from the past, stops Yitzhak from success or happiness at every turn, not realizing the emotional toll that takes on the performance-loving Yitzhak. In the film, Yitzhak auditions for the tour of Rent, a silencing moment where suddenly his departure from Hedwig’s life is imminent until Hedwig selfishly rips the opportunity from his hands. It is not until the cathartic finale, “Midnight Radio,” where Hedwig gives Yitzhak a chance to shine, and in doing so, apologizes for the years of pain she has caused.

The film greatly departs from the musical’s interpretation of the story and structure, which very clearly showcases John Cameron Mitchell’s talent for adaptation, as he was not afraid to make drastic changes to help the film translate better to screen.

Which one should you watch first? Good question, me! The answer is really simple. Either one. Watch the movie, appreciate the structure of the musical and the intimacy of it. Watch the musical, appreciate how the story has expanded to include other characters and how beautiful some of the cinematography is.

Hedwig is Hedwig because it grabs you by the throat and makes you pay attention, and so does she.

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