The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Mamma Mia

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Hedwig & The Angry Inch

July 10, 2001,  New Line  96 minutes
Off-Bway musicals are generally small-scale affairs unsuited to uptown exploitation. The vast majority are quick, quiet flops--never to be heard of again. Among the hits, some are downtown tryouts for Bway. But there's also the Off-Bway musical that belongs Off-Bway yet transcends its origins to become part of the Bway lexicon (and often crossing over in revival): Godspell, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Dames at Sea, Little Shop of Horrors. To this list add the unlikely cult phenomenon Hedwig and the Angry Inch from 1998--which is just the 4th Off-Bway musical to get screen treatment. Unlikely because it's a most unusual hybrid of rock concert/drag/art-performance piece with a quirky, specific character backstory. There's really nothing else quite like it.

The brainchild of stage actor John Cameron Mitchell, the show presages the millennium mainstreaming of gender identity, whether it's dabbling in confusion, transference or pan-sexuality. A two-year hit downtown, 16 years later the musical was refit for Bway with an openly-gay main-stream TV star to great acclaim (a Tony) and sold-out houses. But Hedwig is such a juicy role that it tempts straight men as well. Mitchell's inspiration draws on bits from his upbringing as an army brat, using locales he knew from childhood: Germany, Kansas, and various mid-American posts, along with his rock 'n' roll influences. It's interesting the show is absent any rap--it's strictly a rock score (by Stephen Trask) written well into the hip-hop zeitgeist. (It would take Lin-Manuel Miranda to break thru that Bway ceiling).   Which is not say the score is arcane or 
irrelevant. It mostly serves as Hedwig's act, autobiographical torch songs sung in sadly off-the-mark bookings (by her clueless if enthusiastic agent) in a chain of strip-mall cafeterias called Bilgewaters (an example of many such amusing details.) Hurling her hardcore punk rage at overweight Midwesterners eating dinner is not without amusement but "Angry Inch," "Tear Me Down" and "Exquisite Corpse" aren't exactly--if you'll pardon the expression--music to my ears, either. Yet they sure make their points. More sonically appealing for the suburban diners Hedwig entertains (or rather, assaults), "Sugar Daddy" has a sweet country ramble, tho the lyrics might offend them if the music doesn't. To us jaded culterati, it's enjoyably peppy if inconsequential. "Wig in a Box" has an '80s Australian-pop feel, and is bubble-gum enuf to have its own bouncy ball--OK, wig--on lyrics for the final verse. And "Wicked Little Town" has a mature rock ballad heft to it--tho even after multiple hearings I still have no idea what the song is about. The show's manifesto, "The Origin of Love" is based on Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium, a meditation on the genesis of human gender development--an uncommonly philosophic & poetic song for a glam rock act. Once Trask put this to music they were off to the races. The show developed slowly in performance at clubs as Mitchell moved from covers of David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Cher and Velvet Underground songs to Trask's new material as they evolved the text. Initially the story centered on gay teenaged Kansas boy, Tommy, raised on army bases (like Mitchell) who dreams of rock stardom. Hedwig sprung from a German babysitter in his youth who was also a part-time hooker. Mitchell developed an intriguing backstory which put Hedwig at the forefront, and Tommy Gnosis became her nemesis. After four years, an official theater piece opened in a hotel ballroom in the meatpacking district, (where the surviving crew of the Titanic had recuperated) and grew into a downtown sensation.

Curious enuf as a theater piece, it's rather extra-ordinary that interest, to say nothing of financing, materialized to adapt Hedwig for the screen. In fact, it was so quickly greenlit that it was in production long before the show closed Off-Bway--which necessi-tated a stream of replacment Hedwigs beginning with Michael Cerveris, Kevin Cahoon and the first female actor, Ally Sheedy. New Line wanted no one other than Mitchell, who could've simply filmed it as it was in a club setting, but instead, with support from the Sundance Institute, developed a layered, visual bio-history which unveils the present troubled state of his heroine, whom he plays to stunning affect. Rare is the actor who writes his own signature role, let alone rides it to the bank; and tho it was too indie for Hlwd, Mitchell did get a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination. New Line also let him write & direct the movie--proving that no one could do it better. Amazingly, what was by its nature, stagebound, was transformed into cinema. Yes, there's a good measure of Hedwig's "concerts" in various Bilgewaters eateries--but most are intercut with other scenes, illustrating the genesis behind the lyrics. Segments of her East Berlin childhood (as an incorrigible boy, Hansel) are filmed in blue filters; conveying life under Soviet oppression in minimal screen time. His home is so small, he has to play in the oven. 

More than just a one-liner, we actually see his head inside one--the oven walls filled with pictures and clippings as a would-be child's bedroom. In recollecting this memory we cut to Hedwig, fully coiffed, her head in oven--with more current clips & pics. It's an ingenious frame for a long monologue. The 6 year-old Hansel, Ben Mayer-Goodman does a hilarious St. Vitus dance to some thrasing rock; and the grown Hansel (John Cameron) lies naked in a field of rubble when the black army sargeant, Robinson discovers him--becoming his ticket out of the Eastern bloc. Despite being a "girlyboy" Hansel is not a  transexual. It's not his inner nature--but his outward necessity; a choice gone bad not only for the botched surgical condition (the angry inch) but by its very motivation (the Berlin wall); instantly invalidated by its fall, the very day Robinson abandons her in a Kansas trailer-park for another twink--and a boy at that. What's a damaged tranny to do? She recruits an all-Asian female backup  band  (made  up  of  army  wives)  that's  another 
funny visual--they could call themselves The Pacific Rim. A witty scene in a pile of abandoned tires has Hedwig sharing stories with her half-dozen fans (Hed-heads, who wear foam hair flips), while guzzling from a bottle of Zima. A row of portapotties are framed like Stonehenge outside the Menses Fair. These little details add up to something wonderful--the sense we're in the hands of erudite and creative people enjoying themselves as if living a private joke, and trusting enuf that we can catch on and join the party.

Casting, down to bit roles is spot on. A very baby-faced Michael Pitt plays to perfection the teenage Tommy, with a convincing transition to Goth rock stardom. (A decade later he would mature into the soulful heart of Boardwalk Empire.) As much stifled bandmate (and Hedwig's lover), Yitzhak--a man wanting to do drag, played by a woman--Miriam Shor is oddly haunting. I've seen her in dozens of different TV shows since--and am always jolted back to her  bearded  Yitzhak. 
Cut from the movie was an illuminating flashback to her meeting Hedwig in Croatia as competing drag acts. It doesn't make much narratiave sense--Croatia? When did Hedwig go there? Hadn't she escaped Berlin to reach America? The movie lands her with a thump--like Dorothy, on the opposite trajectory: Kansas not Oz. As Hedwig's peppy if improbable agent, Phyllis, Andrea Martin gives an unusually subdued performance (tho some of her best stuff is likewise left on the cutting room floor as seen in DVD bonus tracks. A whole thruline concerned the planting of a phone line in her head--then needing tech support) Among other DVD extras is a 2003 documentary about Hedwig from clubs to screen called Whether You Like it Or Not, which is quite fascinating for among other things showing actual footage of early incarnations of the show at Squeezebox, thru Off-Bway and onto film. It also reveals the man behind Stephen Trask--who's  mostly a  cipher as
one of The Angry Inch--Hedwig's punk band; but here gives sense of the amusing queerboy pal he was with Mitchell. And of course, the star him/herself reveals the process of evolution resulting in an exquisitely layered and subtle film performance that is as heartbreaking as much as it is hilarious. Even his retired army general father and Scottish mother are on camera to say how proud they are of John.

By 2014 gender identity politics had moved from the fringes to a topic in the national conversation, which convinced a consortium of producers including the original, David Binder, and the Shuberts, this once outlier of a musical, was a valid bet for Bway. With Neil Patrick Harris (who by then had made something of a name for himself as a song & dance awards host) throwing himself into Hedwig, the show was a smash. With no reason to close at Harris's six month withdrawl, they lined up a parade of star replacements: Book of Morman's Andrew Rannells, Dexter's Michael C. Hall, Glee's Darren Criss; Taye Diggs; possibly best of all they gave John Cameron Mitchell his creation back for a few winter months. It ran over 500 performances on Bway.

I had never bothered to investigate the Off-Bway show or recording (tho it wasn't a conscious rejection) so until the movie I was ignorant of the story as much as the music. What I knew was that drag was involved and that Hedwig recalled my own imagined drag persona (circa '92), Helsinka--a sort of East German Nico; a caustic stewardess for Finn-Air. But as in stand-up comedy I hadn't the passion behind it to devote true commitment. I was happy to see John Cameron fill in the details and hone it to perfection. The movie opened in "selected cities" on July 10, 2001--the last golden summer in the final gasp of the 20th century. Good buzz had me going the weekend it premiered, but whether I'd have rushed without need of entertaining an out of town visitor (a hippie/farmer from Arizona) in the wild ways of San Francisco is an open question. But the surprise was on me, for I hadn't expected to enjoy the film as much, let alone be moved by it at all. Movies were growing ever less interesting to me, and it had been awhile since I'd seen a new one that drew me back to the cinema in short order, once, let alone twice. I'd forgotten over the last 15 years how much I admired the picture. It's so beautifully esoteric.

This was all in line with what my primary practioner--holistic endocrinologist, psychic & chiropractor, Dr. Rhonda Emmert (who TC always dubbed "Donny" for Diane Keaton's boundary-less therapist in Manhattan)--suggested to me on one of my regular visits. Having aligned me on a path of consistent wellness (after a lifetime of regular colds) her advice to me was to Embrace the Esoteric. After my retreat from 42nd St. Moon, secure in both home & employment I found myself drifting into creative isolation. I went back to listening to music, intensely; I was on a tear with my art work, and I reactivated a project I'd first gleamed years before; an original  musical fable--this one to be written around unknown & underrated songs from obscure Bway musicals. The story was one I'd pitched to Zadan & Meron for Bette Midler & Cher in my Hlwd heyday--to which they said, Great! Go write it! (for free). A decade later, free of deadlines or financial constraints, I returned to it with fresh ideas, and two local players I'd met at 42M in mind to play the leads: rival Bway divas (Daisy, sunny & sweet onstage, vulgar & profane off; Hannah, broad & racy onstage, pious & polite off) fighting for one last triumph in a musical about Eva Peron as it might've been written by Irving Berlin in 1960. With Meg Mackay & Lesley Hamilton in mind, I developed an intricately plotted backstage comedy, curating songs from such forgotten musicals as Top Banana, Whoop Up, Sherry! Three Wishes for Jamie, & Flahooley among others. In August 2001 I invited them and another dozen actors and friends for a reading in my living room on South Van Ness. To everyone's surprise but mine, the script of When Stars Collide showed great potential, and I felt highly encouraged. Tho the songs played well, several wondered if an original score wouldn't be better? Since I knew no composers  I   hadn't   considered  it  an  option.   But  Meg 
Mackay, who came with very low expectations, now was high enuf to recruit her husband, musician & composer, Billy Philadelphia, to the project. The two of them did cabaret shows together, and Billy had radio & band gigs of his own. Well, I thought, what do I have to lose? In addition to developing the libretto, this now obliged me to write new lyrics for Billy to set to music. Strangely, I had never really tried it before, not daring to attempt it in my first musical book, Give Me the Sky (set to songs by Jule Styne, Comden & Green). And tho I found writing lyrics slow & slightly tortuous, (I get it, Mr. Lerner) I really liked it once I found out I was actually pretty good at it. Now I was back writing with excitement & passion, and When Stars Collide looked like it was heading toward a life beyond my imagination.

With the publication of a lavish & exhaustive oral history, The Beatles Anthology opened a flood of archival material, and I unexpectedly found myself sucked in to studying the Fab Four with remedial devotion. Of course they had been there (on the sidelines) thruout my childhood, but I hadn't fully appreciated the sheer "bigger than Jesus" impact they left on history and culture. They and the 1960s are inseparable; and so, for better & worse, am I. From my absorption in the era another idea for a musical was born: a Mod Alice set in a Wonderland of London emerging from a post-war austerity--the working class drabness so perfectly realized in Terence Davies' Distant Voices Still Lives; bursting into a Technicolor Carnaby Street peopled with equivalents of the white rabbit, mad hatter, chesire cat and Queen of Hearts--set to a Beatles-like score: Strawberry Alice. Now I had two musicals on my docket. Could it be while nearing age 50 I had finally come home to what I'd wanted from the start?

I saw plenty of theater that year.  Local SF productions of shows I'd seen elsewhere were typically mediocre. I made two trips to NY in the spring of 2001--where Bway was awash in revivals: The Music Man, Bells Are Ringing, Follies, and at Encores! Bloomer Girl & Hair. The only new musicals I saw were the unfairly maligned Seussical and the overly praised Producers. In LA I saw a wonderful production of A New Brain, and a reborn Flower Drum Song, by David Henry Hwang--an unexpected fantasy come true--that was in  many ways  brilliantly reimagined, 
and in a few, horribly misguided. As a passionate partisan of this lesser-known R&H musical, I took it upon myself to speak with Hwang (at a screening of the movie months later in SF), and write him a detailed critique (peppered with praise) to get it right before Bway. A few changes were made (most importantly the inclusion of the song, "Sunday"--tho not to best advantage) but the show didn't score with audiences in NY, and I never understood why it didn't simply come to SF for an open-ended run (for it seems all the Asians I ever knew loved the show--primarily known from the movie) and if LA could draw big numbers of them, the Bay Area was a goldmine of a market. Some things seem so obvious to me, I wonder how everyone else can miss them.

As my Hlwd years faded into the past, I found my enjoyment of its present product growing less and less. Almost Famous hit a major pleasure nerve, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon simply blew my mind, but little else had made much impact on me. On the other hand I was just discovering Fox's '40s musicals with Betty Grable & Carmen Miranda--in Technicolor so lurid as to hypnotize. There were still corners of film history I hadn't digested. But if millennial movies were lacking, a new era in television was blooming with the explosion of cable-- which I had finally surrendered to after my rebellion against pay TV became untenable.  In my youth television programming was low-budget, unsophisticated, juvenile--perfect for kids; Movies were primarily adult. By the turn of the century it had reversed: films were ever more cartoonish while TV was flourishing with complex, adult programs like The Sopranos, Sex & the City, Absolutely Fabulous, The West Wing and Six Feet Under. But this was also the birthing years of non-scripted "reality" television, and I wasn't immune from the voyeuristic invitations of Survivor, Big Brother, The Bachelor, and their like--before they whipped into a tiresome & toxic froth of narcissistic exhibitionism that led all the way to the path of Donald Trump.

Beyond the opiate of TV; I spent more hours on my writing and artwork, and many more absorbing music: comprehensively working my way thru the '70s--'90s Bway catalog; the Beatles journey, or my latest archival find: Arthur Schwartz songs in early recordings (giving inspiration for a song revue--an even more modest reach, yet lacking enuf passion to fuel the effort) among others. And as I was so taken by surprise with the Hedwig movie, I bought the soundtrack, immediately. In the entertaining doc,  Whether  You  Like  It or  Not,  Stephen  Trask  rather 
arrogantly claims most rock musicals are bad--impure and artificial to the rock idiom. (Perhaps he had in mind the one Bway stalwart whose name he shared at birth: Stephen Schwartz). He's quite wrong, of course, and it doesn't help his cause to tout his one musical achievment as a measure. Much as I'd like to say otherwise I found, and still find the score a good deal less engaging when separated from the film. And that only reinforces the quality of the movie; where the songs seem inseparable from the narrative, from the pleasure to be had. When simply heard, they're middling rock. Within a few weeks I ran to the movie a third time at the boutique Embarcadero Cinema. It was (fittingly?) the last movie I would see before the world fell apart, just a few days later on that September morning.

Next Up: Chicago
Report Card:  Hedwig & The Angry Inch
Overall Film:  A-
Stage Fidelity:  B+
Songs from Stage:  10
Songs Cut from Stage:  0 
New Songs:  3 (2 just on soundtrack)
Standout Numbers: "Sugar Daddy"
     "Wig in a Box"
Casting:  Judicious
Standout Cast: John Cameron Mitchell
Cast from Stage: Mitchell, Miriam Shor
Direction:  Imaginative, un-narcissistic
Choreography: Gyrations by Jerry Mitchell  
Scenic Design: Budget wonders
Costumes: Wigs and more wigs
Standout Location: Bilgewaters
Titles: Concentric neon circles
Oscar noms:  Too indie

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