The Changing of the Hedwigs

The snow is falling gently, almost so gently that I’m unsure if I’m imagining it. I hold out my tongue to catch a flake, remembering the old adages about snowflakes being cradled with germs, especially in the cesspool that is NYC. I swallow it anyway. I welcome the burn.

Let me be clear: I am already covered in tomato juice, pulled from the sweaty chest of John Cameron Mitchell. My new shirt is dripping with a chilly water stain, a spit mark from earlier in the evening, and I am glowing from the inside out. I have been Christened by a master.

I am an undeniable nerd; an unabashed freak. I love the underbelly of humanity; the trod-upon and the brokenhearted. Earlier in my trek back to the city, I found myself at 2am in a piano bar, alone and yet surrounded by friends: transgendered pioneers trudging through showtunes along with me; a cancer survivor with vertigo who called herself a “regular;” two college girls who spent their weekends singing “Hello Dolly” instead of at nightclubs. We are freaks.

The freak factor is welcome at Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and its warm welcome to Broadway was unexpected. Who is this German woman with Coke bottle blonde curls and glitter beyond her eyebrows? Why do so many find their own humanity in the least likely place, at the Belasco Theatre, rocked in the arms of a genderless diva and ignored rock icon?

This type of theater worship is not unfamiliar to me: I am a fangirl. Perhaps this admission is more worth admonishing than my love for Hedwig. I stagedoored Spring Awakening more times than I can count; I’m on my 97th Broadway show. I tracked the stars of Hair as though they were featured in OK Magazine; curious less about their dating habits than I was about their next theatrical moves. There’s something magical about greeting someone outside of the stage door, where you’re both relative equals. There’s no other medium that allows this one-to-one experience, capped with an autographed Playbill and (if you’re lucky) a picture.

Since my fangirl height, I grew, and grew up. I watched my idols move to LA, become dance teachers, or grow into Broadway stars in their own right. Yet Hedwig always remained heavy on my mind; a memory of the movie, of the days before I moved to New York; a freak like me who was “internationally ignored” and confused as to why. She was selfish and yet abused; she was a seeker, hurt by her own desire to find love. She sought crowd worship but also threw herself at the feet of the undeserving. And I loved her all the more for it.

I heard Neil Patrick Harris would step into Hedwig’s heels when it opened on Broadway in 2014, and I was delighted. I had never watched his shows nor been a particular fan, but I knew what this would mean: Neil The Celebrity would bring credibility to my girl Hedwig; he would unfreak the freak for the masses, and as much as I struggled with Hedwig’s newfound fame, he did her true; he did her well. Neil brought Hedwig to life and made her an unlikely star.

I missed Andrew Rannells’ short run in the role of Hedwig, replacing Neil, a regret I’ll have to live with. However, I made the move this January to see the “changing of the Hedwigs,” as I dubbed it: Michael C. Hall’s last performance, followed by John Cameron Mitchell’s first performance back in the role he originated. And although I saw the same show, watched the same dances, and heard the same songs, I had entirely unique experiences.

Michael C. Hall brought less grace, less femininity, to the role—but somehow made the story truest. The moments that were unclear up until that point were suddenly crystal: the moment toward the end when identities are exchanged; the lead-ins encouraging a connection between Hedwig and her “other half” Tommy Gnosis: he thought the character through to the depths of her soul. He was always a true Hedwig, putting on a stage show for the rest of us. Hedwig, for him, was a tragic character wearing the mask of a performer. It was beautiful.

But John Cameron Mitchell was the master. As Hedwig, he improvised like no other, carried the performance element to the hilt, and reminded the audience that he created the uncreatable. His Hedwig was tragic and beautiful, but had the best comedic timing imaginable, fully aware she was performing for her fans. She floated into moments of tragedy but brought herself back with a quick-witted comeback or an audience-infused French kiss. John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig is always the wig-headed performer first, a trait born of a desire to be loved, and only offers suppressed peeks into her peppered, mournful past. She is there on her own terms. And this is the Hedwig I loved most.

Making an appearance at curtain call was Steven Trask, the master behind some of the most beautiful lyrics in Broadway history. I wanted to melt myself into his body, absorb some of his beautiful soulfulness and at least tell him how much his make-believe world meant to me. But I think he could feel it. We were all standing on our feet, cheering and crying together. We were amongst fellow freaks.

And I close with some of my favorite lyrics from the show; I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Hedwig, I’ll see you again soon.

 

The last time I saw you

We’d just split in two

You was lookin’ at me

I was lookin’ at you

You had a way so familiar

That I could not recognize

‘Cause you had blood in your face

And I had blood in my eyes

But I could swear by your expression

That the pain down in your soul

Was the same as the one down in mine

 

——– 

 

Forgive me, for I did not know

‘Cause I was just a boy and you were so much more

Than any god could ever plan

More than a woman or a man

And now I understand how much I took from you

When everything starts breaking down

You take the pieces off the ground

And show this wicked town something beautiful and new

And if you’ve got no other choice

You know you can follow my voice

Through the dark turns and noise of this wicked little town

It’s a wicked little town

Goodbye wicked little town

 

 ————

 

I was born on the other side

Of a town ripped in two

I made it over the great divide

And now I’m comin’ for you

Enemies and adversaries

Try and tear me down

You want me baby, I dare you

Try and tear me down

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