Wednesday, May 21, 2014

“It’s all about the direction of the aggression” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)

So my wife and I went to new York City and saw the Broadway (or “Broadway-adjacent”) revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Neil Patrick Harris, which we had been looking forward to for months and months, and it seems absurd to not at least comment on the experience but at the same time I honestly feel that the show is more or less review-proof. It’s very much a love-it-or-hate-it phenomenon, I think, and I have already established my bona fides as someone who unequivocally loves it. It’s hard to say what I love more, the story or the music, although that is probably testament to the fact that the songs and the narrative are so tightly intertwined it’s basically impossible to evaluate them separately. And they’re both amazing.

Going to the Belasco and seeing the show live is kind of like going to an intimate venue to see a great band play their greatest hits. The current incarnation of the Angry Inch absolutely kills it, musically. (There’s also a new arrangement for the revival of “Sugar Daddy”, which was always the weak link for me because I don’t especially care for country/western; now it’s more blues/punk and all the better for it.) Since I had only ever seen the movie version previously, I had wondered how the stage show would cover all the same material; turns out a lot of the elements from the movie represented by various actors in flashbacks end up rolled into Hedwig’s monologues on stage, so really it’s like going to an intimate venue to see a great band play their greatest hits for an episode of Storytellers, with the world’s greatest transsexual diva pulling out all the stops between songs, inhabiting various personae to illustrate the histories and mysteries of the lyrics and whatnot. Again, either that sounds like absolute torture, or totally rad, and I doubt I could move you from one to the other. Fortunately, the entire crowd in the theater was pro-Hedwig from the outset, which was a cool vibe to be immersed in.

The show has been updated slightly to include a few more topical references and a couple of jokes that either hail back to the original production and didn’t make the cut into the movie, or else are recent additions. As a pathological completist, I now very much wish I had a time machine so that I could go back to 1998 and see the original staging for comparative purposes. But that is pretty unlikely to happen. On the other hand, I did have the benefit of meeting up with some friends who live in NYC after the show, one of whom had seen Hedwig a few weeks earlier. I asked if one part of the banter had been improvised on the spot; my friend burst my bubble by informing me they had done the exact same exchange at his show. Nevertheless, for both of us it really drove home how professional the cast is, to be able to pull off the same gag night after night and make it look spontaneous every time.

Speaking of gags, there was a moment in the show where Hedwig spits some soda at an unsuspecting audience member, causing the rest of the crowd to go nuts. Hedwig shrugs and says (I am possibly paraphrasing a little here), “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll moment. More of a heavy metal moment, I suppose. Would you like to see a punk rock moment?” The crowd cheers, Hedwig takes a huge sip of soda, and then allows the soda to spill down her chin, neck and chest. “You see, it’s all about the direction of the aggression,” she explains. So in light of that, I could put a positive spin on the trauma of the baby throwing up on himself in the car the day before: he was just trying to get into the Hedwig spirit!

But yeah, the show rocked and I unreservedly, giddily recommend it. And I never watch awards shows and rarely comment on them, barring the occasional thinkpiece on the deeper meaning of the Academy Award Best Picture race, but fair warning come early June this year: if Lena Hall doesn’t win a Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical, for her role as Yitzhak, I will be ranting.

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