Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Broadway Theatre

The Last Five Years

Northlight Theatre

By Justin Hayford

Being caught full force in playwright John Cameron Mitchell’s gaze is like having your mind read by a psychoanalytic clown. It’s a gaze I encountered many times during our years together at college. He stares through you with such mischievous intensity you’d swear he’s spent his life eavesdropping on all your most embarrassing and intimate moments. Yet a childlike playfulness shows that he finds all your transgressions delightful.

This intimidating yet seductive gaze must have served Mitchell well during his extended stint as Hedwig Schmidt, the gender-fucked ruin of a rock-and-roll icon he created for this musical. Hedwig is such a brutal, pathetic creation–a vulgar, dissipated, traumatized transsexual whose dream of becoming Patti Smith will never be fulfilled–that without cheeky allure she could easily become inaccessible, a freak.

Mitchell wrote the show in collaboration with Stephen Trask, who provides a score of pop gems that could teach Abba a thing or two about catchy hooks. It opened in 1998 on Valentine’s Day in the dilapidated ballroom of New York’s Hotel Riverview and ran for nearly three years. Now it’s arrived in the dilapidated Broadway Theatre, the former movie house just south of Belmont whose back stage wall has been demolished for the show. Hedwig has taken up residence smack on the corner where sexual freakdom reigned before money came to east Lakeview.

Unlike the vast majority of rock musicals, Hedwig is stripped to the bare essentials. Accompanied by a four-piece band that plays the bejesus out of Trask’s score, Hedwig tells her sad and ridiculous story through 90 minutes of glammed-out cabaret. She began life as Hansel, raised in the former East Berlin by a mostly absent father and an unfeeling mother who told little Hansel bedtime stories only to retract them. He finds escape from his loveless family in American pop radio, which he listens to in the oven, the only place in his tiny house where he has any privacy. “The music made as big an impression on me as the oven rack made on my face,” he says.

Growing up as “a slip of a girly-boy,” Hansel is seduced by an American army officer, Luther, who mistakes him for a young woman. Once the truth is revealed, Luther offers to bring Hansel back to America as his bride if he’ll go through a sex-change operation. Reasoning that “to be free, one must give up a little part of one’s self,” Hansel goes under the knife, but the surgery is botched; he’s left with an angry inch of flesh “where my penis used to be, where my vagina never was.”

Fast-forward. Luther divorces Hedwig and leaves her in a mobile home in Junction City, Kansas, where every night she dons a wig and becomes “Miss Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen.” Faced with a bleak and featureless existence, she puts together a band and starts gigging. Soon she’s molding a local fan into international rock superstar Tommy Gnosis–who abandons her the moment he achieves success.

Through all her crises and disasters, told through a mixture of deadpan shtick and heartfelt confession, Hedwig is driven by the memory of one of her mother’s bedtime stories, a story that actually comes from Plato’s Symposium. The human sexes were originally joined “like a fork on a spoon / They were part sun, part earth / Part daughter, part son.” But an angry god split humans in two and scattered us on the winds, leaving us with an incurable ache to merge with our lost halves. “So we wrapped our arms around each other / Trying to shove ourselves back together / We were making love,” she sings in the fiery anthem “The Origin of Love.” For Hedwig, who’s doubly split in half, the need for wholeness drives her at times to near delirium.

It’s this search for completeness and identity–perhaps the quintessential American quest–that turns an evening of potentially superficial camp into a rich and poignant human portrayal. Mitchell artfully transforms cheap and tawdry humor (“When it comes to huge openings, many people think of me,” Hedwig purrs) into a highly literate exploration of desire and loneliness, aided in no small part by the muscular poetry of Trask’s lyrics.

This tiny little show turns out to be something of a mammoth undertaking for the performer tackling the title role. From the moment Nick Garrison (who also portrayed Hedwig in a Seattle production) makes his entrance, it’s glaringly apparent that he’s physically wrong for the part. This “slip of a girly-boy” who should be able to pass as a checkout girl in rural Kansas has a large, squared-off frame with huge, muscular legs. Despite his denim-and-fringe cowgirl getup and Farrah Fawcett-cum-Heidi wig, Garrison is unmistakably male, and in his hands all the gender indeterminacy in the script rings patently false. Moreover he looks like an actor impersonating a rock and roller. The attempted fraud is made even more apparent by the band’s genuine supple, cocky menace.

Most problematic, Garrison spends the first half of the show in attack mode, tearing through the script, running around the stage, and repeatedly singing into audience members’ faces. All the effort is transparent, but Hedwig’s character gets lost in the mania. Garrison and Joseph Witt, who also directed the show in Boston and Los Angeles, seem to forget that an audience needs to know and like Hedwig before we can go along on her journey; on the night I attended, Garrison got a decidedly chilly response and stopped the show twice to tell us what a lousy audience we were. Hedwig is thrust upon us too forcibly, and it’s something of a scramble to catch up with her.

But about halfway through Garrison takes the opportunity to slow things down, recounting the story of Hedwig’s long, tortured relationship with Tommy Gnosis and connecting with her heart rather than displaying her showy facade. And when Garrison leads with his strengths, revealing a deep emotional connection to the material instead of trying to be a showman, Hedwig takes off. Launching into the evening’s most thrilling number, “Wicked Little Town,” he delivers all the poignance you can expect from a great rock ballad.

With this kind of honest portrayal, everything in the show starts to ring true. Suddenly the lumbering, muscular man becomes a credible woman–or at least the actor’s physicality recedes into irrelevance. And as Hedwig sinks lower and lower into her misery, she becomes a life-size tragic figure rather than an overinflated curiosity. By the time she rises in the show’s final number, singing to “All the misfits and the losers / Yeah, you know you’re rock and rollers,” you might swear she’d been telling your own life story all evening.

Meanwhile, over at Northlight, Jason Robert Brown–Tony winner for Parade–offers his musical take on the quest for romantic fulfillment. Jamie is a 23-year-old successful writer with a cell phone and a cool Gap jacket. Kathleen is a 23-year-old aspiring actress with a cell phone and a cool Gap dress. When they get together, they have two cell phones and a cool Gap wardrobe.

The Last Five Years is supposed to be a song cycle about the romance, marriage, and breakup of two young, featureless people who apparently had no meaningful experiences before they met. The only problem is, Brown hasn’t bothered to provide a story beyond the barest catalog-copy outline. They fall in love, fight, and split up because that’s what people in shows like this do, not because of anything in their characters or their social or historical context. Brown sends the lovers on separate journeys–he’s going forward in time, she’s going back–so that we almost never see them interact, making their relationship largely hearsay. Standing separated onstage, they sing in generic terms about how happy, sad, frustrated, or confused they are.

Broadway veterans Norbert Leo Butz and Lauren Kennedy kill 85 minutes admirably, paying Brown’s lackadaisical lyrics undue respect (“You don’t have to get a haircut / You don’t have to change your shoes / You don’t have to like Duran Duran / Just love me”) and even managing to sing the interchangeable lite-rock tunes with conviction. Directed with an understated touch by Daisy Prince, The Last Five Years is the theatrical equivalent of watching laundry spin.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow/Paul Natkin.