Scott and I went to *The Origin of Love* at Town Hall on 6/27/19. It was a concert of songs from *Hedwig and the Angry Inch,* a rock musical from 1998. The concert was performed by the creators of the show, John Cameron Mitchell (who was the original Hedwig and wrote the book) and Stephen Trask (who wrote the songs).
*Hedwig* tells the story of a genderqueer East German “internationally ignored song stylist” and rock singer. She started her life as a “slip of a girlyboy” named Hansel. He had an affair with an American GI named Luther when he was a teenager and Luther said he would marry Hansel and take him to America but only if he got a sex change. So Hansel had a botched sex change operation, leaving him with an “angry inch.” They settled in Junction City, Kansas and Luther soon left her. There’s more to the story but that’s as much as you need to know for now.
The musical is set at a concert of Hedwig and her band, the Angry Inch. Her lead backup singer is a drag queen named Yitzhak, a role that has always been played by a woman.
I have a long history with *Hedwig.* My best friend Karen and I saw the original off Broadway production sometime around 1999. We didn’t see it with Mitchell, we might have seen it with Michael Cerveris. I thought it was exciting but didn’t quite get it - - I think I was expecting more of a traditional musical and was put off by the rock concert element of the show (I was even more of a square back then). I loved the 2001 movie version, directed by Mitchell.
They opened with “The Origin of Love,” a touching ballad about how humankind originally had both genders but was split it half, and we all spend our lives looking for the missing half of our lost self. This was the first song that Trask wrote for the show.
Mitchell said that the tour started as a way for him to raise money for his mother’s healthcare, and they’d been doing a concert once a month for about a year. He and Trask hadn’t performed together in New York since 2004, so this was a special experience for them as well as for us. Let me note briefly that Mitchell was wearing a fantastic mid-century modern black and white geometric gown, and rather than the iconic blonde wig, he had a wig in the same shape but in grey (as befitting a lady of Hedwig's vintage).
Mitchell told the story of how they met, sitting next to each other on a cross country flight. They were the only two passengers not watching the in flight movie, *When Harry Met Sally…* (which Mitchell accurately described as “heteronormative”). Trask was reading a paperback copy of a memoir by queer German film auteur Rainer Maria Fassbender, which Mitchell (accurately) viewed as an invitation.
They became interested in each other’s work. Trask went to see Mitchell in his off-Broadway show *Hello Again* and Mitchell went to see Trask perform with his band, Cheater, at CBGB’s. Mitchell told Trask about a babysitter he had as a kid, a middle aged German woman who Mitchell described as “Marlene Dietrich in a tube top.” She also made ends meet as a prostitute. Mitchell and his brother would go out the back door when a john would arrive, and if she didn’t like the looks of the guy, she would go out the back door with them. How cute is that? This woman became the basis for Hedwig and the rest is history.
Trask sang a song from his Cheater days. His vocals weren’t very impressive but the song was glorious - - he has a way of writing songs that have a straightforward rock/pop structure but have unexpected harmonic shifts or other elements to make them unique.
Mitchell and Trask started trying out material as Squeezebox, a gay rock club in the city that specialized in drag performers doing rock covers. Mitchell said in this phase they were “greatly overprepared and woefully underrehearsed.” The first time they performed “The Origin of Love” Mitchell said he had never felt more like a woman or more like a man.
The next song they did is my favorite song in the show, the haunting, lovely ballad “Wicked Little Town.” They did this with someone playing musical saw. This wasn’t stated as such, but this was another nod to Dietrich - - she played musical saw on her USO tours during WWII, she said it was nice for the boys to be able to see her legs. Here is is from the movie, with Michael Pitt as Hedwig's nemesis Tommy Gnosis:
They did “Sugar Daddy,” a great country-ish number. Mitchell talked about the off Broadway run of the show, and said it was “a <> which is French for ‘Yes, but can you eat it?’ “ They did a gig now and then as the band led by Tommy Gnosis. They had an early Tommy Gnosis gig at a band that they thought was called Bruise. Their thought was, “Wow, that’s a great name for a punk bar.” They arrived to find it was called Brews.
*Hedwig* was seen by many members of the theatrical establishment. Mitchell said, “Glenn Close came to the show ten times. I made her come ten times!”
Mitchell started dating the bass player for Cheater, a cute guy named Jack. Jack’s day job was as the personal assistant to Lou Reed. A typical request from Reed: “Jack, get me an E string and a box of Tucks.” Mitchell announced that the tour and this concert series were dedicated to Jack, who died in 2004 “of his addictions.” Jack’s mother was coming to the show two nights later.
They did one of the most beloved songs from the show, “Wig In a Box,” and of course the audience sang along at one point. I was overcome, there was such a strong feeling of strength and community. Here's that number from the movie - - it made my Top Five favorite musical numbers ever when I made that list in 2012. Keep an eye out for Miriam Shor in the chef's hat (more about her in a minute):
That sort of felt like the end of the show, and the rest felt like a set of encores or an epilogue. Amber Martin, who had been more or less singing the role of Yitzhak in the concert, did a song called “Bermuda.” Wow, she has a voice, she totally made me think of my beloved Ann Wilson, lead singer of Heart. Here she is singing that song:
Mitchell came back and they did “Tear Me Down,” the opening number of the show. And then there were a string of exciting guest performers - - Lena Hall did a song, she had played Yitzhak in the 2014 Broadway revival with Neil Patrick Harris. Her voice was a little shot, but she had the verve, the moves, and the snarl. Miriam Shor came onstage, she played Yitzhak in the movie and is now on *Younger,* one of my favorite TV shows. I was over the MOON that she lead the band in a performance of “Dance This Mess Around,” a song from the B-52s first album. What a thrill to have three Yitzhaks onstage together.
Trask did a song from *This Ain’t No Disco,* an off Broadway musical I saw last summer. I’ll diplomatically describe the show as “not very successful.” You can read the full review here:
Michell auctioned off a few things, to raise money for his mother’s health care. He for $400 for a Hedwig shower curtain, $550 for a Hedwig painting, and a whopping $1200 for a Hedwig poster.
Two final songs - - Mitchell did “The End of Love,” a song from his current project, a podcast musical called *Anthem,* starring himself, Glenn Close, Patti Lupone, Cynthia Errivo, and Laurie Anderson. And they ended with “Angry Inch” with special guest Neil Patrick Harris. The audience went coo coo nutty when he came out onstage. What a profoundly meaningful and thrilling evening.