The end of a very long story is this: I did not see Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the late 90s or early ‘aughts. Despite ample opportunity, and friends urging me to do so, I opted out of the whole thing. Even the movie. My reason was stupid and not worth getting into and totally, typically, annoyingly me.
For years and years I meant to fix that mistake. But with so much new out there — new theater, new movies, new books, new friends — I just never got around to it. Then the rumors started. Hedwig was going to make its way to Broadway. That’s when I got this totally tantalizing idea in my head: I could see this show on stage for the first time, totally pure. With no knowledge of what happens, of how it starts or where it goes or how it ends.
This is an idea that I’m kind of obsessed with — not just with Hedwig, but more generally, conceptually. Perhaps especially because in 2014, it feels increasingly rare: the opportunity to see a musical I know almost nothing about. To experience it the way I used to experience theater as a kid, when it was all new, each show unfolding before me with nothing but the power of its own storytelling to take me on the journey.
Because the internet exists, because I cover Broadway theater on this website in my spare time, because we keep turning movies into musicals, because I am no longer nine, I basically never go into a show with no concept of what’s about to unfold anymore. It’s basically impossible.
And I suppose it’s unfair to say I had NO concept of Hedwig. Any obsessed Hanson fan worth her salt has watched the YouTube video of Hanson-adjacent singer-songwriter Ben Jelen performing “Wicked Little Town” at The Knitting Factory in 2008 (Lucky was actually there that night!). Last year Norbert Leo Butz sang “Wig in a Box” in his cabaret Girls, Girls, Girls. Just a few weeks ago I heard Matt Doyle and Katie Gassert sing “Origin of Love” at Matt Murphy and Ryan Scott Oliver’s wedding. But somehow, improbable though it may be, I didn’t know much more.
In fact, I made it into the Belasco last week knowing only this:
1. It stars someone named Hedwig, who is either in drag or transgender, though I was leaning toward transgender.
2. It features someone named Yitzak, who is a man, but who is played by a female actress.
3. There is a song called “Wig in a Box,” and a song called “Origin of Love” and a song called “Wicked Little Town.”
That’s it. That’s all I had going in. That, and the knowledge that some of the people whose taste I trust most in this world absolutely adored this show. Lucky, for example. Hedwig is her favorite musical. This all seemed like great news. I was so excited. I’d spent the past few years working really hard at not getting spoiled, and I’d succeeded, and I was going to see this show with fresh eyes, and no baggage, and Hedwig was going to tell me its own story. In its own words. In its own style. All by itself.
I maybe regret this now.
I mean. Hindsight is 20/20 and yadda yadda yadda. But… wow. Wow, did I have an unenjoyable experience at Hedwig.
I spent the last 10 minutes of the show confused out of my mind. And not like… in this awesome, omg, this show is so cool and it’s not forcing a strict interpretation on me and I totally get to make up my own mind about what just happened on that stage. But in a very literal way, in a like… I actually do not know what just happened and none of the ideas I can come up with based upon the story I just saw and the set of facts it presented me make even the remotest bit of sense or even seem possible.
I’ve felt confused by the way shows have ended before. I didn’t even realize Memphis was ending until I noticed all the actors were suddenly in in matching costumes, and thus, I was witnessing the final number. There was a song about Bananas in Bullets Over Broadway that I definitely do not understand, but I do know it was definitely the end of that musical. And shit, more than a year later I still have NO IDEA how The Bodyguard ended, and I’ve even talked to someone involved with the production team (they changed the ending from the movie, y’all).
But what those shows have in common is this: I hated them. And I walked out of the theater knowing — incontrovertibly — that they were not pieces I thought of as high quality, intelligent, thoughtful, well-crafted theater. They were pander-y, or schlock or even just plain bad. They were not my shows.
Leaving the Belasco after Hedwig, I did not feel that way. I did not think: that is an inherently bad show. Instead I felt… deeply disappointed. And utterly confused. I emerged onto 43rd street feeling stupid and lost, and wondering how on earth I had missed what was going on. Thinking something must have been wrong with me because I couldn’t follow the story.
I don’t normally react that way to musicals. Plays? Yes, sometimes. With plays I sometimes think I just must have missed some genius allusion that would have unlocked the whole rest of the show for me. That I’m just not smart enough and it’s my fault I didn’t enjoy it.
But musicals… I feel pretty confident when I experience musicals that I’ve understood what’s going on. And that my enjoyment, or lack thereof, is what it is. Not the result of some personal failing, but the result of the show itself.
In that way, Hedwig was a stand-out. But here’s the other remarkable thing about Hedwig: the more I thought about it, and talked about it with friends, and listened to the cast recording (because I did immediately love the songs)… the more I began to fall in love with it. To see the end of the show as a flexible bit of magic that was meant to allow me to make up my own mind, that could and should be interpreted in multiple ways. As something that was not literal.
I began to see the layers — the Platonic allegory, the history of rock and punk, the cold war parable, the unpacking of gender and identity and freedom — that had been totally obscured by my very concrete confusion at the end of the show.
And I began to realize that my problem was not with the show itself, really. But with the particular production I’d just seen. One that made a handful of very literal choices that pulled me completely away from the emotional thrust of the material. I became so wrapped up in untangling the facts of who Tommy and Hedwig were — one person? two? — that I couldn’t see the bigger stories being told.
And if I’d gone into Hedwig with even a basic understanding of what was about to unfold, even a basic understanding that Tommy and Hedwig were definitely two different people at the outset, then maybe I would actually have loved the show right off the bat. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so confused by that newspaper cover with two pictures of the same person — because both were so clearly Neil Patrick Harris — in different outfits. (Is Tommy cross-dressing as Hedwig and he was mug-shotted in and out of drag? Does Hedwig actually have an alter-ego named Tommy?) Maybe without that confusion stopping me in my tracks and pulling me fully out of the narrative so early in the show, and then again, later, during the final scenes, I would have been better able to follow the Platonic allegory or the cold war parable or or or or.
And I don’t know. Maybe a show shouldn’t require me to have background to understand what’s going on. And maybe that is entirely the material’s fault, and not the fault of a production that made some choices — glaring timeline issues, two pics of NPH on that newspaper cover — that fucked with my ability to suspend disbelief. Or maybe it IS the production’s fault, because how can you fuck with my ability to suspend disbelief in the theater? ESPECIALLY with a show that has such a theatrical ending?
But maybe the idea of seeing a show totally “pure” is bollocks anyway. Because even if we don’t know the story we’re about to be told, we all enter the theater with expectations in tow. And those are things we can never, ever escape.
Photo: Joan Marcus