Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an off-Broadway musical theater play (1998) and film (2001) about a fictional rock and roll band fronted by a transsexual singer. The text is by John Cameron Mitchell and the music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask. The story draws on the life of Jayne County, the original transgender rocker, the androgynous glam rock era of David Bowie (who produced the original run of the show), early punk rocker Iggy Pop, and the gender bender fashions of the early 1980s. The show was repeatedly workshopped by Mitchell and Trask at New York's famed Squeezebox Club before opening at the Jane Street Theater (located in the Hotel Riverview) on February 14, 1998.
The performance rights for the show have recently been made public, allowing for several touring and amateur productions world-wide.
The plot revolves around Hedwig, a transsexual wannabe rock star, leader of the band called The Angry Inch. In the story, Hansel, a German "slip of a girly-boy" who loves philosophy and rock music, is stuck in East Berlin until he meets Luther, a US Soldier. Luther falls in love with Hansel and the two decide to marry. This plan will allow Hansel to leave Communist East Germany for the democratic West. However, in order to be married, the couple must be a man and a woman. Hansel's mother Hedwig gives her child her name and passport, and finds a doctor to perform a sex change. The operation is botched, however, and her surgically constructed vagina heals closed, leaving Hansel — now Hedwig — with nothing but a dysfunctional one-inch long mound of flesh between her legs, "with a scar running down it like a sideways grimace on an eyeless face."
Hedwig goes to live in America as Luther's wife. On their first wedding anniversary, Luther leaves Hedwig for another man. That same day, it is announced that the Berlin Wall has fallen and Germany will reunite. Had Hansel only waited a year, the anatomical change to Hedwig would not have been needed to escape East Germany.
Hedwig recovers by rediscovering her love of rock music and forming her own band. She names it The Angry Inch, referring to her mutilated genitalia. Hedwig befriends the shy and misunderstood Christian teenager Tommy Speck (played by Michael Pitt in the film – in the play, the actor playing Hedwig also portrays Tommy), with whom she shares some of the songs she has written. Soon after Hedwig gives him the new stage name "Tommy Gnosis", he leaves her and goes on to become a huge star using the songs Hedwig had written. Meanwhile, Hedwig and her band are forced to support themselves by playing diners and sleazy bars. In the film, these gigs are played at a nautical-theme restaurant called Bilgewaters, which is based on the TGI Fridays chain.
Throughout the film, Hedwig refers to Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium. This speech, retold by Hedwig in the song "Origin of Love," involves a myth about how human beings were once round, two-headed, four-armed, and four-legged beings. Angry gods split these early humans in two, leaving the separated people to forever long for their lost other half. Hedwig believes that Tommy is her soulmate and that she cannot be whole without him. She feels driven to either reunite with him or destroy him.
There is much debate as to whether this musical is about a transsexual woman or a drag queen, a male or a female. Many people consider Hedwig to be a transsexual because she had gender reassignment surgery. However, the operation does not result in a distinctly female or male genital structure, and her reasons for undergoing it are largely situational (a means to escape East Germany via marriage) rather than being related to an innate gender identity. Hedwig herself seems rather ambivalent about her gender status, but in the song Wig in a Box she does refer to "woman I've become," suggesting that (at that point in the story, at least) she regards herself as female. It is also clear that Hedwig enjoys transvestitism, at least to some degree. Even at the story's end, when Hedwig has shed her female garments and seems to be embracing a (relatively) masculine persona, the character still sings of herself alongside notable female rock figures ("Here's to Patti, and Tina, and Yoko, Aretha, and Nona, and Nico and me") suggesting that Hedwig still identifies as female to some extent. However, the variety of physical and mental signs of sex and gender and the lack among them of any clear-cut, definite answer as to Hedwig's identity may also be accepted as just that: nonbinary gender, androgyny, sexual ambiguity. (See also genderqueer, genderfuck)
The play and film have rather different endings, and both have led to many interpretations by critics and fans. The play ends with Hedwig and Tommy seeming to merge into one person, with some suggestion that perhaps they were the same person all along. As for the film, it takes even more of a turn into surrealism after Hedwig and Tommy's car crash, and it's difficult to say if the events depicted are literally occuring, if Hedwig is imagining them, or if something else is happening. One interpretation has it that Hedwig (and possibly Tommy) were killed in the crash and that everything after the crash is flashing through Hedwig's mind as she dies. There is a certain logic to this: after the crash, there is a montage of Hedwig's dreams seemingly coming true (she achieves fame, she is acknowledged as the writer of Tommy's hit songs, etc.), followed by a scene where she appears in one of the much-despised Bilgewaters restaurants and sings a song raging about her tragic life - perhaps feeling one last stab of bitterness in the final moments of her existence. She laments how her various relationships have taken parts of her, but goes on to assert that she has reconstructed herself, sewn up in bits and pieces as an exquisite corpse that still shows the impact of those she has known. After this, Hedwig finds herself in a vast, black, empty concert hall, where Tommy and Hedwig share a loving but tearful goodbye, after which Tommy slips away into the darkness, leaving Hedwig alone. Then Hedwig is surprised to find herself abruptly transported to a gleaming white (heavenly?) concert hall, and she performs the joyous, reflective song Midnight Radio for an appreciative crowd. Her feminine garments stripped away, she hands her wig over to a grateful Yitzhak, who immediately transforms into the glamorous woman she always wanted to be while he was trapped in Hedwig's shadow. The crowd carries Yitzhak away from Hedwig - another symbolic farewell - and the next we see of Hedwig, she is naked in a dark alley, staggering away from us toward a bright light (perhaps towards the light often described in afterlife experiences).
It should be pointed out, however, that in interviews Mitchell has referred to the character going on to a new and better life after the events of the film, which suggests that the death interpretation is probably not the intended one.
Whatever the interpretation, the endings of the film and the play are universally accepted as Hedwig abandoning her bitterness and dreams of being "completed" by another person, and being symbolically reborn as a whole, happy individual and going on to something greater.
In 2003, Off Records released an album called Wig in a Box, a charity tribute album which also included new material adding to the mythology of Hedwig. Proceeds of this album benefitted The Hetrick-Martin Institute, home of the Harvey Milk School, a school for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
The band Type O Negative covered "Angry Inch" on their 2003 album Life Is Killing Me. Meat Loaf covered "Tear Me Down" that same year on his album Couldn't Have Said It Better, adapting some of the lyrics (notably the spoken section about the Berlin Wall) so that the song is instead about Texas and Meat Loaf's own life. Trask, who composed the music for Hedwig, was much influenced by Meat Loaf's albums growing up. A deleted scene on the Hedwig DVD acknowledges the debt in a roundabout way, as we overhear Hedwig's manager Phyllis Stein (Andrea Martin) arguing about the band's sound on the phone: "MEATLOAF..?! Bowie!"
One of the Bonus tracks of Damn Skippy, "Pirate In A Box" by Lemon Demon, is a parody of Wig In a Box.
Mitchell eventually grew rather tired of performing the character, and when he was promoting the film he told LA Weekly he felt like now she was all grown up, he was shopping around for a college to put her in, and he was ready to let her go.
Fans of the play and film refer to themselves as "Hedheads".
The film has spawned a small, Rocky Horror-like cult following, with midnight screenings where fans dress up as the characters and sometimes act out the dialogue or talk back to the screen.
Trask and Mitchell disagreed on the best sound for the songs, with Mitchell favoring more of a slick, "Broadway" approach and Trask favoring a darker, rougher, more rock n' roll sound. As a result, the cast album for the stage show follows Mitchell's preference, while the movie soundtrack follows Trask's.
The songs for the film were mostly recorded "live," as they were performed during the shoot, in order to capture the intensity of a live performance.
In the DVD commentary, Mitchell mentions that Pitt was somewhat uncomfortable with their prolonged love scene, complaining about being scratched by Mitchell's stubble among other things.
Many notable actors have played Hedwig onstage, including former Brat Pack member Ally Sheedy.
The name of Hedwig's aggressive manager, Phyllis Stein, is a pun on the word philistine.
Mitchell and Trask originally intended for Hedwig to sing You Light Up My Life, but when the rights proved too expensive, the song Midnight Radio was composed instead.
In order to look like a transsexual, Mitchell had to shave constantly during the course of the film, often using an electric razor between shots while still in full makeup.
The film's lighting is designed to maximize Hedwig's attractiveness in some scenes and to be unflattering in others, depending on how romantic or squalid the scene is supposed to be.
The film's DVD features several deleted scenes, mostly expanding on the characters around Hedwig. We learn more about Yitzak (he was once a drag queen called "Crystal Nacht', a pun on Kristallnacht) and how he met Hedwig, and we learn that Hedwig's manager has had a cell phone surgically implanted inside her head (unfortunately she hangs it up incorrectly and it gets stuck on an annoying dial tone).