Brilliance — in assorted shades, guises, and orientations — shines forth from the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Broadway’s latest dalliance with drag and perhaps its first with a trans-something theme. Neil Patrick Harris does John Cameron Mitchell proud with his extra-quippy version of the raging, foul-mouthed East Berlin avant-rock goddess with a heart of gold. Meanwhile, with daft deftness and vice versa, director Michael Mayer and producer David Binder weave in heaps of topical in-jokes (Anderson Cooper and The Hurt Locker get the brunt of them). Just as it did when Hedwig opened off-Broadway 14 years ago, Stephen Trask’s pitch-perfect original score elicits bursts of laughter and the occasional tear from a ready audience, while Mike Potter’s hot-mess makeup and feathered mega-mullet — now a tonsorial trademark on a par with Princess Leia’s double-bun ‘do — has only increased in showstopping magnitude and luster.
And Arianne Phillips’ costumes, a reimagining of those she created for the 2001 film version, take on new sparkle (thanks in large part to Swarovski) for the next generation of Hed-heads. “I’m lucky enough to consider Neil, John, Stephen, and Michael as part of my creative family,” she said backstage during previews last week, echoing the very message of Hedwig, that of the near-universal quest for one’s family away from family. “There’s a lot of love, a lot of care. We’re all very passionate about the material and people are connected to it in a deep way. There’s a real reverence for Hedwig.”
Hedwig may never let you believe it, but for all her stinging one-liners and cabaret cattiness, she can’t conceal a sentimental streak. “I think the thing about Hedwig is that, between the wicked, whip-snap jokes, there’s a beautiful story,” Arianne gushed, quite rightly. “Neil’s really great at underscoring the prolific humor with the emotion, the tragedy, and the beauty of the story. I think that’s probably a pretty good description of the costumes, too.”
The costumes do invite closer reading, even as they dazzle, snark, and blur across the stage. The opening look, an exaggerated pear-shaped number à la Ziggy Stardust, is indeed a reference to David Bowie and his early space-glam outfits by Kansai Yamamoto. Such is the commanding stage persona Hedwig inhabits, or longs to. But perhaps Hedwig’s most telling costume is her denim skort and jacket, heavily embroidered and painted with signifiers of the Berlin Wall, including Act Up graffiti Arianne herself photographed when she visited the city a couple of years ago. It’s what Hedwig pieced together and wore as she escaped over the spray-painted cement partition, along with what was left of her botched gender reassignment — hence, angry inch. Finally, no imperious punk-rock anti-heroine is complete without her all-over (faux) fur ensemble. Hedwig’s comes with a splash of red paint on the back that she seems completely unaware of, a fitting indignity for so self-involved a character and muse to no one but herself.
“Hedwig is kind of like the Rocky Horror phenomenon,” continued Arianne — who, it should be noted, is a two-time Oscar nominee, as well as Madonna’s stylist and costumer, designing her last five tours. “Mike [Potter] and I were judging midnight costume and wig contests when the Hedwig film came out. It was kind of like my experience being a kid and performing Rocky Horror at midnight screenings in my small hometown. Hedwig is that way for other people. I think any theater, film, art, or music with the message of human connection, and being your true self, will resonate.”