"New Rock Horror of a Musical"
Evening Standard, September 4, 2000
by Donald Hutera
Hedwig, the title character of the American rock musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch, is no lady. Neither is actor
Michael Cerveris, who'll be playing her in the West End. But fuse this unlikely duo together and you have one of the
most combustible combinations of performer and part since Tim Curry donned heels, slap and scanties as Rocky
Horror's transvestite Dr Frank N Furter.
With a mountain of Farrah-Fawcettmeets-Dolly Parton fake hair, and a redwhite-and-denim mini-dress (complete with
cape and pink fringe), Hedwig is a waydown-at-heel semi-transsexual German rock-diva. Think Marlene
Dietrich crossed with Ziggy Stardust. In the UK-tailored version of the show she's pulled some favours (don't ask)
and landed herself and her grungy band, The Angry Inch, a gig in the plush, jewelbox setting of The Playhouse. Playing
down river, at the Dome, no less, is Tommy Gnosis, ex-lover and back-up singer turned superstar who owes
both surname - the Greek word for "knowledge" - and success to Hedwig. Proximity to Tommy has plunged her
into full-throttle confessional mode.
And that isn't the half of it. In fact, the notion of halves is one of the nubs of the script. See, Hedwig was actually
born Hansel, in Cold-War East Berlin. He grew up in a flat so small that the oven was the only place to grab a little
privacy. This German "girlie-boy" with a taste for American pop radio is seduced by an American GI. So far, so
confused? So is Hedwig.
They strike a perverse bargain: Hansel can escape to the States with his serviceman Sugar Daddy only if he switches
gender. A botched operation leaves the erstwhile Hansel with a stub of scar tissue - - Hedwig's angry inch. Once in
America, she's abandoned in a Kansas trailer park where she encounters Gnosis, and ruefully watches the Wall come
down. Hedwig's homeland achieves reunification, but can she herself ever be whole? Can she ever find the Platonic
other half to complete her?
How strange to stumble upon a philosophical rock musical. But, as Cerveris sees it, Hedwig is no ordinary rock
musical. It doesn't provide the dazzling, but empty, spectacle of The Who's Tommy. (Ironically, Cerveris played the title
role on Broadway and bagged a Tony nomination.) Nor is it the bombastic group-portrait-with-a-beat that was Rent.
Instead, it's a weirdly moving and kick-ass cabaret-concert in which this sad, raunchy entity called Hedwig spills her
guts out in a dark night of the soul.
"The convention of the show is that you're coming to see Hedwig's band do a gig," Cerveris explains, "and she's
gonna talk between songs, the way rock people do. Well, Hedwig happens to have a lot to say."
She is the twisted brainchild of John Cameron Mitchell, a young New York actor-auteur who both wrote and first
essayed the role. Stephen Trask's score is a bristling pastiche of glam-rock, punk, Bowie-via-Beatles melodies,
and even a country-rock tune. The show opened off-Broadway on Valentine's Day, 1998. Word-of-mouth,
plus glowing reviews, helped turn it into a cult hit that ran for more than two years.
In the US, Hedwig caught on with industry professionals and rock celebs such as Lou Reed and Patti Smith. David
Bowie saw it several times, becoming enough of a fan to invest in the show's Los Angeles transfer.
As Cerveris sums up: "Hedwig became the rock-theatre piece it was okay to like." He hopes something similar will
happen in London. Cerveris is, however, aware of potential pitfalls. "It's so hard to describe what Hedwig is, so hard to
market it. You don't want to put it in a gay ghetto because it's not a gay piece. Hedwig isn't gay, technically, anyway.
And it's not just a rock piece. And it's not just a performance art solo stand-up comedy thing. And yet it's all
of those at the same time."
A CD of the score was released last year, and Mitchell recently completed a film version for which he is both
director and star. Cerveris, 39, has played everything from Shakespeare to Sam Shepard. On the rock front he's
backed Bob Mould, guested for Peter Townshend and, in Hedwig guise, opened for Boy George and Culture Club at
Radio City Music Hall. (Be on the lookout for his London gigs with The Angry Inch.)
You'd never guess Cerveris had not done drag before. "It's really fascinating. There's a fun, campy side of drag, and
then this whole dark, alternative scene. Anyone who confuses the line between male and female, like Hedwig,
gets deeper into the essence of what and who they are. That's what drag does. I'm being kind of flip, but I think that
every high school boy in America should have a class in drag, where they have to be dressed as a woman and deal
with what that feels like. I think it would make a much kinder, gentler, less stupid society."
Hedwig and The Angry Inch is at The Playhouse from Friday 8 September. Box office 020 7316 4747.
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