Hedwig and the Angry Inch - Original Cast Recording (retro review) (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Original Cast Recording (retro review) (1999)


Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a punk musical with text by John Cameron Mitchell and music by Stephen Trask. Many may be more familiar with the 2001 film adaptation, the 2003 tribute album that was more or less responsible for reuniting The Pixies, or the 2014 on Broadway production with Neil Patrick Harris. Hedwig’s legacy is long and the cult following extensive, but today let’s focus on the original off-Broadway production in the late 90’s, and particularly the 1999 original cast recording.

Hedwig is the story of a “slip of a girly boy” named Hansel in East Berlin with an obsession with early punk and proto-punk who takes on the identity of a woman named Hedwig in an attempt to marry an American military officer who promises to get them out of the war torn town. Following a botched gender reassignment surgery that left Hedwig with no genitals other than “a one inch mound of flesh” and being abandoned by their military hubby, Hedwig forms a rock band called Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig falls for a man named Tommy who they turn into a rockstar under the pseudonym Tommy Gnosis, only for Tommy to steal all of Hedwig’s songs and become a rock superstar. The story takes place as Hedwig is playing small gigs around the country trying to prove that they wrote all of Tommy’s songs, while also struggling with their own gender identity after basically being forced to transition to female by circumstance and outside pressures.

The play is basically a performance by Hedwig’s band with the backstory unfolding in songs and in the banter between them. Unlike a lot of musicals, nobody ever spontaneously breaks into song, as the songs are always part of the band’s performance. Also unusual is the fact that only three characters sing in the entire show: Hedwig, the band’s guitarist, Yitzak (a male character who is always played by a woman), and Tommy Gnosis, who is traditionally played by the same actor who plays Hedwig (although they were played by different actors in the movie for some reason).

In the original production, in the movie, and on this recording, Hedwig is played by the show’s co-creator, John Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell would also briefly play Hedwig in the Broadway production, but that production is probably best known for its original lead actor, Neil Patrick Harris. There have been over a dozen recordings of different productions, and for my money the best one is the 2014 version with Harris as, despite being the most mainstream production ever put together it’s somehow the most musically punk rock version of the show. But as we look back on the original recording from 1999 we see a very different kind of music featured on the album.

Compared to later productions of the show, the 1999 cast recording is significantly more piano based, giving it more of a New York Dolls-esque proto-punk style. The opening track, “Tear Me Down,” which compares the dualities of Hedwig’s character to the Berlin Wall, is far more piano based than even the movie version that was made two years later. Following that comes the gorgeous ballad “The Origin of Love,”which is based on a story from Plato’s Symposium which posits that humans were once four-armed, four-legged, two-headed creatures who were split in half by the gods as punishment, and the feeling we call love is us trying to get back together with our former halves.

This version of the recording has a song that has almost never been used in subsequent productions called “Random Number Generation.” The cleverly titled song is a kind of post-grunge number sung by Yitzak that doesn’t do much to add to the story, but pays tribute to the artists that inspired the show, most notably Iggy Pop.”Sugar Daddy,” the song telling the story of how Hedwig/Hansel was seduced by Luther, the American military officer, is usually a country song in these early productions of the show. One of my favorite things about the 2014 Harris recording is that it pulls off the impressive feat of turning “Sugar Daddy” into a genuine punk song. “Angry Inch,” which tells the story of Hedwig’s botched sex change operation is the most balls-to-the-wall (pun intended) punk rock song in any version of the show.

Hedwig continues to be a cult hit to this day, especially with the help of the 2001 movie. I would argue that Hedwig is not a trans woman character because they never really chose to transition, and Mitchell has stated publicly that the character is genderqueer. Some trans people find the show problematic, especially because certain interpretations of it could support popular transphobic theories, but I appreciate the fact that it’s a story that deals with gender and sexuality in ways that were way ahead of its time for the late 90’s. Even over 20 years after it was written it remains relevant to the LGBTQIA community and has aged surprisingly well amidst changing ideals regarding these issues over those years.