The Greatest Misfit of All: ‘Hedwig & the Angry Inch’

The hottest ticket of the season belongs to the titular victim of a botched sex operation in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’ If you’re lucky enough to get seated in the first few rows you may get a kiss, a motorboat, a car-wash, or a drop of glittery sweat. I got something far more precious. A song or two into the show, Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig looked me straight in the eye, raised his middle finger, and mouthed the words, ‘Fuck you.’ It was glorious. It was thrilling. It was the blessing of Hedwig.

Gorgeous and grotesque, hilarious and morose, male and female, good and bad ~ Hedwig embodies the best and worst within all of us. Harris gives his blood, sweat, and tears to this committed performance. As the “internationally ignored” songstress of the show, he is making the star-turn of the Broadway year, and every accolade you’ve heard turns out to be winningly accurate. He doesn’t leave the stage once for the intermission-free marathon of a show, even as he does countless costume changes (most of Hedwig’s sartorial journey is one show-long strip-tease, with a couple of hair-raising exceptions – and for one of those quick-changes, his head still manages to remain on-stage.) Defying conventional Broadway rules, this is more of a rock-show than a book-musical, but the loose narrative is given bulk and weight by the themes of identity (sexual and otherwise,) loss, sacrifice, family, love, cruelty, redemption, and acceptance.

Hedwig represents and champions the misfits and losers, not in any heavy-handed anti-bullying message, but rather through sheer exuberance and example – of living as she is and not making any apologies for it. Hedwig has been dealt a rather cruel number of blows (ba-dum-bum) but her resilience, her perseverance, and, yes, her bitterness, turn her into a champion. There is rage burning here, mostly misdirected toward the put-upon Yitzhak, who gives challenge to Hedwig’s attention-getting theatrics with his own sheer talent and propensity for toying with wigs. It’s a risky move – showing off in the proximity to such a show-off – and it takes Hedwig the majority of the show to offer someone else the spotlight.

Harris is so mesmerizing and entertaining as Hedwig, projecting such raw star power and finesse, it almost works against the show in that it’s unbelievable how Hedwig did not become the star that her nemesis Tommy Gnosis did, until you think about her story, her appearance, and the ways we resist all that is foreign and different. That becomes the sad apex of the show, and in the final third of the evening, as she comes to terms with the unfair hand she was dealt, in a moment of redemption and forgiveness, she overcomes her outsize, over-compensated ego, and gives her “husband” Yitzhak the opportunity to do what she never could.

It is an act of supreme generosity and it frees both Hedwig and Yitzhak in one fell, and moving, swoop. As she rises on a pedestal, recalling the boy she was, and the person she longed to be, she also comes to a sort of peace with the Hedwig within. Like most of us, that defies a rigid idea of gender or a single set rule of what it means to be human. We are like the multi-faceted crystals hanging from her first outfit, throwing off different colors depending on the light and shadows of life, moving and fluid, yet sharp and dangerous.

Not many of us can directly relate to the story of a sex change operation gone so horribly wrong, nor of the brush with fame, or such singular musical talent, but somehow Hedwig manages to touch a heart-string of humanity, ring a gorgeously raw note from it, and leave us all just a little better for having heard it plucked.

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