[Metroactive Music]

[ Music Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

My Fair Hedwig

[whitespace] Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Mad About the Boy: Hedwig and the Angry Inch--the band, the concept, the album--merge rock and narrative.

The American musical gets a transgender shock from 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

By Gina Arnold

EVERYONE HAS a guilty pleasure: a song or group they won't own up in public to liking. All guilty pleasures are, by definition, embarrassing. But a secret liking for a song by Def Leppard, or even a passion for Enrique Iglesias, is one thing. A love of the art of musical comedy--my own secret vice--is another thing entirely.

See, here at the end of the 20th century, musicals are considered the lowest form of art, the sonic equivalent of Hallmark Cards, painting on velvet and collecting stuffed animals. And yet, despite the wretched output of Andrew Lloyd Webber, musicals are really the most exacting form of pop music, the ultimate merging of lyrics, tunefulness and context.

Perhaps that's why some rock & roll practitioners have long attempted to compose such a merger. But even their best efforts--namely, the Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia--have hardly raised their heads above the mire, being more rock albums than plays. Thus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock opera that opened off Broadway last March, has already far outdistanced its competitors in the field, becoming the best of the breed to date.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a true rock opera, that is, it is an opera that is about rock. It purports to be just a particular band's nightclub performance on a night when the lead singer, Hedwig, is morosely babbling out her life story between a bunch of original songs. The songs so happen to illustrate her points, which comment on transgender issues and the fall of Communism, since Hedwig fled East Germany, winding up first on an army base in Kansas and, finally, in lower Manhattan.

In the end, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a wonderful treatise on the dreams that rock ignites in us all--and the way those dreams have of backfiring, big-time. But because not everyone can go to New York City to see this play at the tiny Jane Street Theater in Greenwich Village where it resides, the original cast soundtrack has just been released by Atlantic Records as a regular rock album.

Moreover, in an attempt to appeal to listeners who have not seen the play, the band Hedwig and the Angry Inch--really actor John Cameron Mitchell and the group Cheater--is now being treated as if it were real: playing on the Letterman and Rosie O'Donnell shows and appearing as itself in magazines and so forth.

But I'm not quite sure how well this tactic is going to work. In the play, Hedwig is a transsexual ("the angry inch" is her term for her penis, which was lopped off in a botched sex-change operation). But without knowledge of her appealing personality--developed in monologue over two hours--she is not an automatically charismatic figure. Then there's her alter ego, Tommy Gnossis, and her sidekick, Yitzak. Without these characters looming up in our brains, much the way Jagger and Richards loom up when we play Rolling Stones records, will people buy the conceit?

ANOTHER QUESTION is whether the music on Hedwig and the Angry Inch is good enough to justify releasing as if Hedwig really existed as a band. Atlantic Records certainly thought it was, and they have a good case. Hedwig's artistic output--developed over two years by songwriter Steven Trask and his band, Cheater, in the nightclubs of New York--is heavily derivative of the Velvet Underground, Nico, David Bowie and Roxy Music, but it's still good stuff.

Ironically, Hedwig's rockier songs are her weakest. The fact that Mitchell is merely "playing" a rock star shines through numbers like "Tear It Down"--a hard rocker about growing up in East Berlin--and the super-theatrical "Angry Inch." He's a much better chanteuse, which may be why the better songs are the ballads, like the extremely poignant "Origin of Love," which heavily evokes Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love." "The Long Grift" is also a great ballad, and completely undependent on plot knowledge.

But the best song on the entire album by far is "Wicked Little Town," which is about the universal concept of leaving life in a boring small town to become someone else. It ends with the heartbreaking couplet "When you're someone you are not, and Junction City ain't the spot, remember Mrs. Lot and when she turned around."

Now that's the kind of Cole Porter- Alan Lerner-Rodgers and Hammerstein-like lyric that dignifies the very best musical comedy, and it is the moment when Hedwig and the Angry Inch most seamlessly merges musical comedy and rock. And yet I still think only the lucky playgoers are really going to appreciate this record as a whole. That wasn't true of Tommy, which had a far dumber plot, but then Tommy listeners already knew the Who. Hedwig is a noble experiment in mixing genres, but in the end, it doesn't quite make the leap.

Van Redin

School Spirit: The soundtrack to 'Rushmore' captures a time of musical innocence with a canny selection of '60s tunes.

IN SOME WAYS, no two artistic visions could be farther apart than Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the new movie Rushmore. Hedwig takes place in New York and is about the seaminess and sexiness of rock and its transformational properties. Rushmore is a gentle Midwestern high school story, entirely free of sex, drugs, violence and erotica. But the two things have one trait in common, which is their quirky and appealing soundtracks.

Rushmore is, of course, in much wider release than Hedwig, and it is a surety that millions of viewers will be charmed into buying the soundtrack (released on London Records). It features obscure songs of the British Invasion by groups like the Kinks, Chad and Jeremy, the Faces, Cat Stevens and Creation. (Alas, a very rare Rolling Stones track that is prominent in the picture is left off the record, probably for licensing reasons.)

As a collection of cheesy '60s pop songs, the album succeeds nicely. And as a soundtrack to a movie, it is even better. That is, the music goes with the action perfectly, adding a whole new dimension to the visuals and script. Director Wes Anderson said he originally chose such groups because they all wore the same kind of dorky suits and ties that the film's hero wears, but their perfection goes much deeper: despite the strange time warp (Rushmore apparently takes place in the present; the songs were all recorded in the '60s), there is a matching emotional feel.

The songs are about love and innocence and hope. And alas, any song written today by a modern artist probably couldn't capture that preadolescent feeling.

In short, Rushmore is a winner of a soundtrack. But despite the album's excellence, it still brings up the same problem that Hedwig and the Angry Inch did: i.e., does one need to have seen Rushmore to appreciate it? Well, not exactly, but it sure helps, because Cat Stevens alone does not a great album make. And although seeing Rushmore makes one rethink Cat Stevens (and Chad and Jeremy, and the others), the conclusion one comes to is merely wonder that the arts, when multiplied, can add so much to one another.

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the March 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.