Just to clear the air first, I have impeccable credentials when it comes to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I saw the original off-Broadway production with John Cameron Mitchell while on my senior trip in New York City. I saw the absolute first screening of the film adaptation when it was shown here in Houston at the MFAH. Finally, I directed the first stage production of the show in Houston at Fitzgerald's in 2004, in addition to playing Tommy Gnosis in pre-shot footage. I am not a casual fan, is what I'm trying to say.
So you would think that I would be shorts-browningly excited to hear that John Cameron Mitchell was teaming up with Stephen Trask to bring a sequel back to the stage. Broadway.com reported that reading of the upcoming production was to take place in Provincetown, Massachusetts, this September. "We spend so much of our early lives trying to figure out who we really are," Mitchell said of the show's themes. "And we spend the rest of our lives preparing ourselves to let it go."
Make no bones about it, I'm going to see the show if I have to crawl on bloody stumps, but I'm not looking forward to it. There's a lot that can, and almost certainly will, go wrong with it. Such as...
Ask anyone what the best part of Hedwig was and they'll tell you that it was the unbelievably amazing soundtrack that Trask and Mitchell wrote together. My God, "Midnight Radio" alone is reason to own it, and I had "Origin of Love" played at my wedding. It's maybe the most perfect modern soundtrack since Velvet Goldmine, and even the album cut "Random Number Generation" that Miriam Shor did is killer.
Trask has gone on to do some pretty good scores for a dozen or so films, including a pretty catchy one for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, but his only really comparable work to Hedwig is the songs he wrote for 2003's Prey for Rock and Roll starring Gina Gershon.
If you haven't seen it, do so. Gershon plays the aging lead singer of an L7-esque band that never quite made it, and it's a bald, beautiful look at what it means to be in a band. It also features original songs by Trask, and with the exception of the title track, every single one of them is basically a forgettable Hole knock-off. There just aren't those experimental twists, the epic scope or the clever phrases that Mitchell contributed. Maybe working together again will rekindle that, but as a rocker Trask has just not been on his game since.
I've seen three stage productions of Hedwig since the movie came out, and every one of them did the same thing: They tried to put the movie on the stage without realizing that that wasn't how it was supposed to go. They try to add as much of the film pacing, extra characters and sets as possible, and the result is a bizarre mash-up that comes across like a high school presentation of Pink Floyd's The Wall.
Look, the film was great. Mitchell turned out to be a fantastic film director, which pleasantly surprised me. He expanded his bare-bones, confessional concert into what was basically Beaches if John Waters had written it. That works fine for a film.
I still remember that blank brick wall in the Jane Street Theatre, though, and how it felt to be just us in the folding chairs one on one with Hedwig in the dark. It's still the best concert I've ever been to, and with the movie still looming large in people's minds, I'm willing to bet that Mitchell will have no choice but to make a more traditional musical to meet expectations. The opportunity to be that stark has been lost.
This is the hardest part for me to admit to myself, but it's true.
For two reasons. The first is the fact that a lot of the fans that say they "get" Hedwig do not in fact "get" Hedwig at all. They go on and on about how they have to find their other half like Hedwig did, and each one of them is referring to finding somebody to love.
Except that that isn't the message of the show or the film. It's all about learning to love yourself, embracing the different sides of your own existence to become a whole being. Hedwig doesn't end up with Tommy Gnosis. She becomes Tommy Gnosis without ever stopping being Hedwig. She'd both and more, a being composed of what she loved most in another and what she loves most in herself.
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The story of Hedwig is about learning to live with yourself objectively and without illusion. Since so much of the audience missed that point, I doubt they're going to be ready for the next step that includes having gotten it.
My second reason for believing it will fail can be summed up in two words: Shock Treatment. The sequel/equal to the Rocky Horror Picture Show is better than the original in every way. The music is better, the cast is better and the message is a million times more relevant in this age of reality TV. Yet no one ever watches it because it's not more of Tim Curry in heels deflowering virgins and eating people that piss him off until he gets lasered to death by Team Incest.
Mitchell is an artist. The last film he directed got an Academy Award nomination. He's not going to retell the same story, he's going to take it to the next level. But here's the thing when it comes to cult phenomenons like Hedwig and Rocky Horror. Audiences don't really want them to change. There's a reason why Rocky is still being pantomimed in theaters worldwide and Hedwig is starting to follow suit.
Fans say they want more of the story, but I can promise you they really don't. They just want the original story to continue forever, and they aren't going to get that. So it will fail, and Mitchell's career, which I follow closely and have a lot of hope for, will take a brutal hit.