Matt Rodin takes on the Iconic Hedwig and the Angry Inch
When I first heard that I’d be stepping into Hedwig’s shoes, I was in utter shock. Me? In heels, makeup, and that iconic wig? I didn’t understand how I could possibly tell this story that felt so foreign to me - so separate from my own experience. Hedwig and I have little if nothing in common and I had never even considered the possibility that I could be the right person to bring her to life. And so began my deep dive into the show’s history and the events that led to Hedwig, and I, coming to Milwaukee Rep.
I suppose a good starting place would be at a drag-punk club called Squeezebox in downtown New York City in the summer of 1994. The club was a haven for people who felt out of place at the typical gay clubs, straight bars, and other various party venues of the time. Instead of drag performers lip syncing, they gave queens an opportunity to sing live covers with a four piece punk band. John Cameron Mitchell, who had already appeared on Broadway in Big River, Secret Garden, and Six Degrees of Separation, was invited by the club’s bandleader, Stephen Trask, to test out a character they had been developing.
“Direct from communist East Berlin, by way of a trailer park in the Midwest, let’s put your hands together,” the host exclaimed, “and welcome the internationally ignored song stylist, HED-VIG!” Mitchell took the stage to a spattering of applause dawning an oversized pair of pink sunglasses and a small blonde wig with the tag still attached. He lowered the microphone stand to accommodate his height and began singing what became the show’s opening number, “Tear Me Down.” Through a series of original songs, covers, and stand-up monologues, he told the story of a boy named Hansel whose search for love led him to get a sex change operation (that was botched) and move to Kansas. It was the first of many groundbreaking moments - as drag characters weren’t typically thought of as whole people, with histories and stories to tell about their lives.
Over the next four years, Mitchell and Trask would continue to experiment with Hedwig at other venues throughout the city until opening Off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theater on Valentine's Day in 1998. While it took some time to generate buzz, eventually celebrities began to show up and the fandom started to grow. The original production ran for over 2 years, and closed after 857 performances. In 2001, the show was adapted into a film that received critical acclaim at festivals but was a flop at the box office. It went on to have productions all over the world, before making its way to Broadway in 2014 with Neil Patrick Harris at the helm. Through all of this, the story of Hedwig has developed a cult-like following with fans who’ve come back to see the show hundreds of times - often in costume.
It begs the questions, why Hedwig? What is it about this story that allowed it to go from a downtown punk-drag club to a major feature film all the way to Broadway? How could anyone possibly relate to a person who literally sacrifices their manhood for freedom? I think it comes down to love. Each of us knows what it feels like to want to be loved for who we are and that’s exactly what Hedwig is searching for. In the story that Hedwig tells, and in performing this piece itself - she is hoping to be accepted for her truth.
Hedwig is inspired by, among many other things, a story that Aristophanes tells in Plato’s Symposium. In it, he explains that early humans were two people conjoined and known as the children of the sun, moon and earth. Zeus, feeling threatened by their power, split them all in two and now we spend our lives search for love - our other half. So while Hedwig’s journey is largely driven by her desire to find her other half, it’s clear that the search is also for wholeness within herself. Self-acceptance. Self-love.
Upon unearthing all of this, I began to understand where our stories might intertwine. Since moving to New York City about 5 years ago, I’ve had to do a lot of work to find peace in who I am. As artists, we are conditioned to seek approval from the world around us. We often feel as if we need to be given the green light to do the thing that we love the most. Unless we’re booking jobs, winning awards, or amassing fan bases on social networks - we’re not successful. In reality, no amount of anything will generate inner peace and fulfillment because that is an internal job. It’s about finding the balance between the things we can and cannot control and getting comfortable in the middle ground. Similarly, as a young gay person, I understood that I had to adapt my queerness to my environment to make the people around me more comfortable. This left me feeling either too gay or not gay enough. In reality, my queerness is not for anyone else. No amount of outside approval will make me feel at ease - it is an internal job of self-acceptance and self-love. Any binary of sexuality or gender is simply a construct and whether we admit it or not, we all exist somewhere in the in-between.
Hedwig is the personification of this. “She’s more than a woman or a man” Mitchell has explained. But Hedwig as a theater piece is also a break in the binary. It’s more than a musical or a play or a rock concert or stand-up show or a love story. Hedwig is an opportunity for each of us, myself included, to see and experience the messy middle. Somewhere between what we know and what we don’t, what we understand and what we can’t, what we think and what we feel, who we are and who we could be…