I don't know whether it was the fierce wit or the Farrah Fawcett-on-steroids batwing hair, but the minute I met Hedwig, I was hooked.
It was 2001, and I had a few hours to escape new motherhood for an afternoon movie. The only options in my tiny California town were the creepy Hannibal (I'd had enough of his fava beans and chianti in Silence of the Lambs) and an "independent glam rock opera" that appeared to be a cross between This Is Spinal Tap and happy hour with the Lady Chablis.
From the first scene, I knew I'd made the right choice: Hedwig and the Angry Inch opens with crazy crunchy guitar chords and a phenomenal creature in acid washed jeans wailing "Dontcha know me Kansas City? I'm the new Berlin Waaaalll! Try and tear me down!" And so begins the headbanging, heartwrenching and wickedly funny story of how "a slip of a girly-boy" named Hansel becomes "internationally-ignored song stylist" Hedwig Robinson, whose band, the Angry Inch, is named after a sex change operation gone terribly wrong.
But that synopsis can't possibly do justice to the universal themes of the search for love and self-realization couched in some of the most hilariously quotable lines of the century. (How many times do I have to tell you? You don't put a bra in the dryer! It warps!) Also central to the plot is the rock star rise of ex-lover Tommy Gnosis, who performs sold-out shows with the stolen songs they wrote together while Hedwig and the band are relegated to touring a low-end chain of steakhouses where they perform in front of the salad bar. Any creative person who's ever had credit for their work jacked can relate.
After first introducing her on stage to New York's '90s post-punk scene, Hedwig's creator John Cameron Mitchell infuses his lip-glossed persona onscreen with magnetic grit and glamour as she supports herself with banal gigs and the occasional odd job, "mostly the jobs we call 'blow.'"
Alone in the theater on that Tuesday afternoon, I chairdanced 'til the very end of the credits, tears in my popcorn and Stephen Trask's soundtrack seared into my heart. Within a week I knew all the lyrics, and I still rock my kids to sleep with its melodious ballads when they'll let me.
A fictional transgender German rock star might sound like an unlikely obsession for a straight (but not narrow!) married lady with a mortgage, but I'm definitely not the only Hedhead. The film has become a critics' favorite and revered cult classic, along with the stage production that came before it. The rock musical is still performed all over the world, including in our own "wicked little town":
This weekend the Bay Street Theatre revives Hedwig and the Angry Inch for the third time in the three years, with the über-talented, four-time Connect Savannah Best Actor winner Christopher Blair as the Divine Miz H. The equally brilliant CeCe Arango and Travis Coles reprise their respective roles as Yitzak and Tommy, and Hedwig's mommy issues get their due by "godmother of local theater" JinHi Soucy Rand. The gifted Christopher Stanley directs and BST mainstay George Moser leads the band with Tom Hoffman and Benjamin Rafuse. Former bandmate-turned-actor John Turner takes a turn as sugar daddy Luther.
You betchyer bottom dollar I was there for the show's first run back in 2010 and every year hence, though I admit that I was skeptical at first that a local theater company could hold any kind of candle to my big screen muse. I was delighted to have those cynical pretensions smashed to smithereens by size 11 platform shoes as Blair and the rest of the cast struck exactly the right tones, both musically and emotionally. I may have actually swooned in the lobby afterwards, when Blair, still in his formidable blond wig, handed me a hanky to wipe my running mascara.
His ability to rock fishnet stockings aside, Blair has gone on to become Savannah's number one leading man, starring in a host of dramas and family-friendly musicals as well BST's lionized production of Rocky Horror. Last year he donned Willy Wonka's striped hat for the Savannah Childrens' Theater, where he teaches full-time. He's also a member of the Collective Face Ensemble and will play against CS Best Actress Maggie Hart in Sam Shepard's Fool for Love next spring.
When I catch him between classes and rehearsals, I ask why he thinks Hedwig remains such a beloved icon.
"I think everyone knows what it is to have that longing for another," he considers over his latte, looking every inch the modern Southern gentleman with close-cropped hair and tapered black jeans. "And everyone knows what it means to make a horrible mistake and have to live with it."
"Plus," he grins, "a man in a dress can say things that other people can't."
Blair first discovered Hedwig in its rough incarnation back in the mid-90s, when Cameron and Trask were still belting it out at New York's Jane Street Theater. The stage play takes it back to its lounge act beginnings, and the script's elasticity allows him to keep it current and local, sprinkling in banter about Club One's drag queens and Paula Deen.
"There might be a few Miley references this time around," he adds mischievously.
Though there's no shortage of camp, Hedwig is much more than a not-so-sweet transvestite — or rather, transgender, the more inclusive and politically-correct term for those who live between the antipodes of male and female. She's a super-shero for our transgender friends and neighbors, encouraging them to not only bravely challenge our society's polarized notion of gender but to dance all over it with sparkly shoes (or snazzy wingtips, as the case may be.)
Indeed, one of Hedwig's most poignant songs, "Origin of Love," based on Plato's Symposium written in 380 BCE, presents the notion that gender and sexuality have always been more pliant than we've been led to believe. Describing a time when humans were two-faced, four-armed beings made up of girl and boy parts in all their permutations, Aristophanes recounts that the gods grew jealous "of our strength and defiance," so Zeus split us right through the middle and scattered us throughout the earth. The parable goes that we've been searching for our other halves ever since. Of course, your therapist might tell you such Cinderella simplicity is unhealthy, but Hedwig has to find that out for herself.
Blair contends that the play "shatters the myth" of romantic love, and I'd posit that she demolishes more than that. In our post-millenial world, Hedwig represents a paradigm shift from "us vs. them" to a less dichotomous zeitgeist composed of compassionate global citizens for whom the once-incendiary labels of sexuality, gender and race have faded into mere descriptors. Hedwig is ultimately a political character, and as J. Ryan Parker writes at PopTheology.com, "her androgyny is a metaphor for a permanently complex and multilateral world."
The philosophical coffeshop confabulation could go into the night except that Blair drops this bomb: Much like he hung up his garters as Rocky Horror's Dr. Frankenfurter last year, this weekend's run will be his last curtsy as Hedwig.
"I've done with what I can do with it," he sighs, then perks up. "But I can't wait to see what someone else might."
No contenders for Her Feathered-Tressed Majesty yet, but live audiences can still see her in her sequin-spangled glory next spring when Hedwig and the Angry Inch claws its way to Broadway for the first time. (I might be stalking the Jet Blue website for cheap fares to NYC.) Does our own seasoned Hedwig have any thoughts on the role being played by superstar Neil Patrick Harris?
"You mean Doogie?" he asks drily, referring to NPH's child star origins. "Personally, I don't see it. But he's always surprised me."
His bigger concern is whether Hedwig will still translate under the big, bright lights of Broadway.
"She's always played the small room," he frets.
I feel a similar protective affection for the sassy-mouthed girly-boy from East Berlin, but I'm not worried.
Something tells me no matter what you throw at Hedwig, you'll never tear her down.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
When: Th-Sun, Nov. 21-24, 7:30pm (all shows 21+ except Sun)
Where: Bay Street Theater, 1 Jefferson St.
Tickets: $15 advance/$20 door