The crossover between movie and musical has been strong in the last few years. Every genre, it seems, is getting a Broadway adaptation, from comedies like Legally Blonde and Bring it On to Spiderman, Shrek, and Heathers…even Silence of the Lambs and Ghost have stage adaptations now. Of course this crossover trend is neither new nor a one-way street, as popular musicals like RENT, Chicago and Into the Woods have been adapted for the big screen. Major changes are frequently made in both directions, in order for the story to fit the new form.
This was a trend that had barely begun while I was in graduate school, earning my M.A. in theatre studies. Now it’s three years since I finished my degree and I can’t stop thinking about this trend in adaptation. With all this in mind, I am starting a feature called “Musical Or Movie”, where I compare the two versions and let you know whether one is truly better than the other. Some results may surprise you.
To kick off the series I’ll be writing about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is currently surpassing all expectations with a wildly popular Broadway debut*. Hedwig premiered off-Broadway in 1998, and lasted for two years before closing. This production did win both the Obie and Outer Critics Circle awards, but did not transfer to Broadway. Creator and star John Cameron Mitchell made a film version along with composer Stephen Trask, and Hedwig’s popularity soared.
The show is now something of a cult-classic, with a vibe that reeks of Rocky Horror—but the similarity ends at the aesthetic. The story follows East-German born Hedwig Robinson, born Hansel Schmidt, a young boy obsessed with rock and roll in the 80s. Hedwig’s life story is told in a series of restaurant gigs where she delivers flashbacks in between songs with her backup band, The Angry Inch.
I’m starting with this show for two reasons: one, I’ve been obsessed with Hedwig for years and I love her, and this show, to death. Two: Hedwig on Broadway has made some diverse casting choices in the last few months, first by replacing Lena Hall with Rebecca Naomi Jones, and most recently with the announcement that Taye Diggs will take over as Hedwig in July. Jones and Diggs will be the first people of color to play these roles on Broadway–and two of very few people of color in lead roles on Broadway (The Lion King is the only notable exception.)
*Two of the five actors in the titular role have extended their runs so far.
**Add a double asterisk and add thank you to some of our readers who kindly informed me that Taye Diggs will be the second person of color to play Hedwig, as Darren Criss, currently in the role, is half Filipino.
Hedwig tells the tale of how Hansel grew up on the wrong side of the wall and fell in love with an American G.I. named Luther Robinson. Robinson woos Hansel with promises of freedom in Junction City, Kansas, but in order to get out of Germany, Hedwig will need a sex change operation.
Fast forward and Hedwig finds herself the victim of a botched operation (hence the Angry Inch), living in a trailer park with Luther until he dumps her for a younger more-anatomically-correct boy. In what I think is one of the most tragic moments of the story, Hedwig reflects on her life while a news report lauds the patience of the German race. She watches the Berlin wall torn down live from what feels once more like the wrong side of things.
The crux of the story is in the next man to enter Hedwig’s life—though she has no idea when she meets him. Tommy Speck is barely a teenager when Hedwig meets him while babysitting for him and his younger sibling. By the time she’s done with him he’s Tommy Gnosis: rock star, and he’s learned more tricks than Hedwig could possibly teach. He steals her best writing and hits the road without her—leaving her alone one final time to determine what she’s worth without all the men that have left her behind—from the young boy Hansel, to Tommy himself.
This is a lot to take in, I know, and I already feel like I’m leaving tons out (which I am; pick up the movie or go see the show, seriously), but that leaves us with the most important question of all: “Musical Or Movie?”
Since the musical came first, we’ll start there. The musical obviously has live performance as an advantage over film. The stage format also allows Hedwig’s story to unfold in real time, giving the performance more immediacy and allowing the audience some personal stake in the matter. No matter where the musical is performed, the surroundings are integrated into the story–further driving it home that, as an audience member, you’re really witnessing something special take place before you. On Broadway, Hedwig gets the royal treatment, with laser lights and a mega powerful sound system, dynamic performers and a magical use of projection. All these elements combine to create an experience rather than a show–something you can’t help but take part in at multiple points throughout the performance. Hedwig runs through the audience, even planting a few lap dances and the occasional impromptu kiss as she goes.
Costume and makeup changes also happen in real time–with no intermission break in the middle of the show. Some changes happen right on stage and some are so complete that they are truly transformations. Hedwig’s name was chosen with care–and she lives up to it by changing her carefully coiffed hairpieces with almost every musical number. As they change a different element of her comes alive and takes center stage, and when she passes off the spectacle of costume and hair she does so with heavy meaning behind the gesture.
One major difference between the musical and the film is the number of actors present. On stage the cast is four or five members strong: Hedwig plays every character from the sordid tales of her past, including Luther, her mother, and Tommy himself. Watching her story unfold this way adds something profound that is lost in the film, when each character is played by a different actor with fully dressed sets and little left to the imagination.
Don’t misunderstand–the movie is worth your attention as well. Creator John Cameron Mitchell plays an electric Hedwig who still crackles almost twenty years after the film premiered. A character who appears in the film but not the stage show is Hedwig’s manager, Phyllis Stein (Andrea Martin). Martin’s performance is also on point throughout, and while she provides structure to the “traveling” act of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it’s easy to see how she wouldn’t have a place on stage. In the movie, the musical act is on the road, shadowing Tommy’s performances across America. While Tommy plays to sold-out stadiums, however, Hedwig and her lovable but barely-able-to-speak-English band bounce from skanky bar to skanky bar. At one point the audience is so fed up with Hedwig’s tasteless backstory that they begin shouting slurs, and Hedwig stage dives into them.
The costume and makeup in the film is beyond what would be possible on stage–with close-ups of Hedwig et al, every sparkle on her lips gets a moment in the limelight. There’s also a sense of intimacy injected to scenes between Hedwig and Tommy, in early days, and Hedwig and her “husband” Yitzhak, in the present. Yitzhak has a complex backstory that intertwines with Hedwig’s development as the events of present day unfold parallel to flashbacks. Audience members get to watch as Hedwig’s style and confidence explode and then deflate with nothing less than dramatic flair. Mitchell is jubilant, depressed, excited, confident, overwhelmed, confused–and it all comes across on his near flawless performance. I watched Hedwig on film long before finding her on stage, and didn’t know what I was missing from the live performance until having experienced both. If you can’t make your way to the Belasco, or Hedwig hasn’t hit your town yet, definitely cut your teeth with the movie.
So Which is It? Musical or Movie?
Hedwig is perfection no matter where she’s performing, but now having seen both I prefer the musical. While the film tells the story well enough and the film’s soundtrack is nothing short of magical, the musical has multiple layers that would be impossible on screen.
Watching Hedwig live is an experience unparalleled on stage today. It’s like going to a rock concert and having a heart-to-heart with the headliner. It’s huge and intense, and intimate and sweet. It’s irreverent and serious and beautiful. I dare you to see Hedwig tell her tale and not walk away feeling something new.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is available to stream or purchase on Amazon.
You can purchase or stream the Original Cast soundtrack also on Amazon, or the Broadway Revival Cast Recording (feat. Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig) from the “Hedwig on Broadway” website.