“Oh my fucking Goddess,” deadpanned John Cameron Mitchell last night at the Belasco Theatre in New York. He’d just finished belting “Tear Me Down,” the first song in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the musical-cum-glam-rock-concert-cum-bleary-confessional Mitchell created and wrote with Stephen Trask, performed for years in rock clubs and off-Broadway, directed on film, and returned to this week for the first time in over a decade. Most of the crowd was standing and cheering, the first of four standing ovations he’d receive this evening. Mitchell, center stage, basked in the applause; Hedwig, the bitter, damaged “internationally ignored song stylist” he portrays, received it with eyebrow raised.
Hedwig has always been a sparkling mess; as performed by the now 51-year-old Mitchell, she’s something more, a kind of trashy, beautiful relic. By all accounts Mitchell’s performance is less athletic than that of the excellent actors who preceded him in this Tony-winning revival (Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, and Michael C. Hall); Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak (played throughout the run by the astonishing actress Lena Hall), last night, served as part roadie, part emotional nursemaid, attending to Hedwig with tender concern. (Hedwig is forever getting tangled in her microphone cord, and Yitzhak forever scurrying to extricate her.) At show’s end, when the wigs and costumes come off and Hedwig stands before us exposed, Mitchell—though in far better shape at 51 than I have ever been or will ever be—still appears touchingly frail.
There was, of course, a mild disconnect between the rapture with which Mitchell was received and Hedwig’s complaints about how unjustly ignored and forgotten she is. (In truth, the evening felt just like a concert by Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s onetime protégé, now a rock star on his own.) At one point, Hedwig describes herself as the opposite of paranoid – “I’m pronoid. I’m under the delusion that I’m surrounded by people who want to help me.” Last night, Hedwig was surrounded by people who cared dearly for her, and Mitchell took full advantage of that support, luxuriating in the many opportunities his own script offers for ad-libs, tossing little fizzing firecrackers into the precision clockwork of a Broadway production. He posed for selfies with the crowd, made Grindr jokes, offered a used handkerchief (“the snotrag of Turin”) to the crowd. One lucky front-row patron was dragged halfway onstage for simulated sex, getting a real faceful of Hedwig’s angry inch. The production, usually 100 minutes, lasted two hours, and not a one of us would ever have complained.
The show has been a cult object nearly as long as it has been a show; even at the little Jane Street Theatre in the late ‘90s, devotees memorized the lyrics to Hedwig’s potent, emotional songs, and sang along in the audience. But last night felt a little like a revival meeting, a cult gathering to welcome its long-lost leader back into the fold after a long pilgrimage. It was a singular theatrical experience, and not one I’ll forget anytime soon. During the final number, the glorious “Midnight Radio,” I watched the crowd around me as much as I watched the stage, and it was full of happy, crying people, holding each other and singing. Even the guy running the follow spot knew all the words. “Lift up your hands!” Mitchell implored, and we did.