Gender-bending did not enter western consciousness with the advent of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. The phenomenon began at least as far back as Plato. Such is one of the lessons of the 1998 musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now in revival on Broadway starring Neil Patrick Harris and directed by Michael Mayer.
Audiences flocking to this 95-minute entertainment, with book by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, may not think they have signed up for the first session of an undergraduate philosophy seminar. They have come to see Harris, a major American television star owing to How I Met Your Mother, give glam rock a workout. But the evening, even with the longueurs of its storytelling, manages to make us think about not just gender-based aspects of love but also the cold war, cheap American pop music, and the price of fame.
Like most rock ’n’ roll worthy of the name, however, especially when the word “wig” figures in the title, this production is primarily about hair. Harris descends from the rafters of the Belasco, teetering between stacked heels and a rolled-blonde hairpiece. Over the course of the show, which is essentially an extended monologue, he will sport tresses that are punk, Farrah Fawcett, and 1984 Tina Turner, to name just a few. Adding to our enjoyment are Hedwig’s fanciful costumes, which were designed by Arianne Phillips.
The physical production, which includes a set by Julian Crouch centred on a broken-down car, helps keep us engaged when the storytelling sags. Reared in East Berlin, Hedwig (birthname: Hansel) undergoes a botched sex change in order to marry an American GI and moves to Kansas. Left with an “angry inch” for a sex organ, she uses the phrase as the name of her rock band. She writes songs for a Christian teenager, Tommy Speck, who leaves her behind and goes on to wild success as Tommy Gnosis.
A veteran not only of sitcoms but also of gender-bending stage shows such as Rent and Cabaret, Harris is ideally experienced to deliver Hedwig’s low jokes as well as its rock ’n’ roll kick-outs and tearful ballads. Plato may have called Hedwig an androgyne, but I think that Samuel Richardson’s term for Clarissa is more apt: a saucebox. With sequins, of course.