The rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch began as a vehicle for its writer/star John Cameron Mitchell to strut his stuff at Manhattan’s queer rock club Squeezebox, where Steven Trask’s band Cheater backed drag entertainers. The son of an Army Major General who commanded the U.S. occupation of West Berlin, Mitchell was inspired by the story of his former babysitter, a German-born prostitute who married a U.S. G.I. and ended up in a Kansas trailer park. Before Trask had finished composing the work’s original material, Mitchell started telling Hedwig‘s story through covers of Cher, David Bowie, Yoko Ono, the Velvet Underground, Television and even Pere Ubu, all with rewritten lyrics.
That combination of quasi-biography and homage is one of the reasons Hedwig remains so substantial. “The Origin of Love,” for example, is based on Aristophanes’s speech in Plato’s Symposium about the desire to unite with one’s soul mate. The ancient Greek philosopher describes gay, lesbian and heterosexual intercourse as originating in a primal state where there were three sexes comprised of doubled bodies — male/male, female/female and a third androgynous combo — before jealous gods split each sex apart. That’s a lot to slip into a Bowie-esque pop song, much less tie to Mitchell’s plot.
You don’t need to know all that to enjoy Trask’s exacting tributes to ’70s pop, glam and punk: “Wicked Little Town,” for example, paraphrases the piano riff in Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” while preserving the song’s galaxy-wide longing. The arrangements on the new Broadway cast album differ little than those on the original 1998 Off-Broadway disc or the Bob Mould-enabled 2001 film soundtrack. There’s a little more sheen, a bit less grit, but Neil Patrick Harris commands nearly every song with an authority that’s equal parts Freddie Mercury and Joel Grey. As with the film version, “Random Number Generation” gets cut, as well as the soundtrack-only additions, but in their place is “When Love Explodes (Love Theme from ‘Hurt Locker: The Musical’),” a lilting piano ballad that gives Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak — here voiced by Kinky Boots vet Lena Hall — a showcase. That’s the primary concession to Broadway’s blue-haired bread-and-butter. The rest remains as gloriously freaky as it was in Squeezebox.