Actor's Express production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in this weeks issue, and while I believe theres room for improvement, it remains an impressive production. And as I stated in my review, one of the reasons why watching Hedwig is such a compelling experience is because John Cameron Mitchells collaboration with Stephen Trask is the most authentic stage rendering of rock music youll ever witness. (And before we continue, I dont count Tommy in this mix; the Whos rock opera started out as an album.)
There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which speak to how audiences both gay and straight related to both traditional musical theater and rock n roll. The best thing about Hedwig and the Angry Inch is how it can unite all theater-going (and some non-theater-going) audiences.
I became obsessed with Hedwig when, as the A&E editor for Gambit Weekly down in New Orleans, I profiled the actor Flynn De Marco and the theater troupe he co-founded with Richard Read, Running With Scissors. Under the tutelage of an excellent local director, Carl Walker, they turned Hedwig from a typical month-long summer production into a nearly four-month phenomenon back in 2001. I also was fortunate to catch Actor's Express' production in 2003, as well as a rather humble one in Biloxi, Miss.
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Rock n roll has had a rather sketchy relationship with musical theater over the years. From the moment Bye Bye Birdie hit the Great White Way back in 1961, there was always the feeling that rock music just didnt quite fit in with the Lets put on a show! fabulousness of musicals. (It might be worth noting that Charles Strouse, the man behind the music of Bye Bye Birdie, also scored Annie.) For years, it was as if rock was an oddity to Broadway.
Then came the late 1970s, and a trio of now-kitschy stabs at rock n roll: Hair (1972), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and Godspell (1977). Time and time again, Broadway kept dancing around the edges of rock the R&B inflections, the psychedelic trances, the 60s idealism but not the guts of rock. These musicals felt like they were more about an era, the 60s, than a genre, forgetting how inextricably interwoven the two were.
Musical theatre has only paid lip-service to rock n roll in large part because theyre different audiences, says Read. Rock n roll isnt scripted, its messy by nature. All those musicals you mention theyre choreographed to within an inch of their lives. Hedwig is messy. Also, its actually staged as a rock show, as opposed to simply containing rock music. That helps push the rock vibe.
It wasnt until Richard OBriens brilliant 1973 British musical The Rocky Horror Show came over to the States in 1975 that rock felt at least a little bit more organically developed even if Rocky too was more satire than homage. One could argue, though, that this being the first musical with a more true gay sensibility at work, the lines between satire and homage blurred much more so than they did with Bye Bye Birdie or even, say, 1980's Grease. (And 1985's spectacular Dreamgirls was more about black rhythm & blues' uneasy relationship with rock n' roll than rock itself.)
This is where camp also demands to be taken more seriously from an emotional context. The freaks of The Rocky Horror Show hint that their freakishness goes beyond a silly lab experiment and to a planet far, far away from mainstream culture. In the closing song, "Super Heroes," Frank N Furter laments, Ive done a lot/God knows Ive tried/To find the truth/Ive even lied/But all I know/Is down inside/Im bleeding. We all may laugh at ourselves when we play dress-up at the midnight-movie screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but theres something undeniably serious going on here, something with a rock n roll edge. It may be a bit silly, a bit drag-queenish, but its very real.
Rent (1996) tried desperately to feel authentic, but it rings so hollow I can barely discuss the musical. Many probably believe this was the rock tragedy everyones been waiting for, but looking at Generation X through a La Boheme lens felt so incredibly artificial and so self-conscious, I could barely hang on after intermission the time I saw the Broadway touring show. (Indeed, the musical felt more concerned about the timelessness of opera than rock.) In one of the great ironies of musical theater, the late Jonathan Larsons attempt at capturing the authenticity of the Greenwich Village scene did almost the exact opposite, with everyone a type and no one a real person.
Even more ironically, Hedwig with her Barbie Doll crotch and her absurd life story and her elliptical future is as real as it gets, and thats partly because the rock n roll in Hedwig is as real as it gets. Certainly derivative, its more importantly reverential to a genre and a heroine who is one of the losers that glam rock embraces in its draggy garb.
This may come off as incredibly homophobic, but I also believe it took the right kind of gay artists in the musical-theater world to embrace the right kind of rock n roll. While Mitchell came up through first traditional and more off-Broadway productions, Stephen Trask was a member of the house band at a New York drag club called Squeezebox, which performed for everyone from Joey Ramone to Debbie Harry.
In tackling the punk/glam genre from which sprouted David Bowie, the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music, Mitchell and Trask tapped into the first real sub-genre of rock that appealed to a gay and/or bisexual audience, as opposed to those who were attracted to more traditional musical theater.
The alienation that is one of the hallmarks of true rock n finally proved that it can be the same alienation that is the hallmark of being gay in America. Hedwig finally connected the two.
Theres no question that gays and musical theater go hand in hand, Read says. Were not the only ones who enjoy it, mind you, but we do, and we help make it happen. However, I think a lot of gays have a much dicier relationship with rock n roll; it can be awfully homophobic at times or at least off-puttingly heterocentric. And to be honest, I dont even think of glam rock as gay; it just gave straight guys the chance to put on makeup.
Its hard for some gays to get into rock because they have trouble finding groups or singers with whom to identify, Read continues. Those of us who enjoy it have to look past all that and enjoy the music for what it is. As far as Hedwig goes, it was definitely a rock show where gays could fit in. It was also really good, true rock music as opposed to that mediated, wussified crap in Godspell.
In my review, I suggest that Craig Waldrip as Hedwig comes up a bit short in his performance as Hedwig, and I hope he doesn't take the criticism too hard. Because the good news is, Hedwig herself is used to taking shots; just listen to "Tear Me Down." Bloodied and bruised, she always picks herself up and keeps on rocking. That's what rock n' roll is all about. Finally, that's what musical theater is about.
(Hedwig/Actor's Express photo by Coosa Valley Photography; Hedwig/film photo courtesy Fine Line Pictures; Godspell and Rocky Horror photos courtesy Amazon.com)