Hedwig and the Angry Inch's co-creator and original Off-Broadway star, John Cameron Mitchell, pulled his wig down from the shelf to return to the role he created Off-Broadway in 1998, this time in the show's Broadway revival.
Embodying "internationally ignored song stylist" Hedwig, a transgender rocker, is in Mitchell's DNA. He created the show alongside songwriter Stephen Trask, basing elements of the storyline on his own life. It's Mitchell's personal connection with the material that brought fans out in droves to experience his first performance — traveling from around the country to be there because of their connection to Hedwig's story.
In the lead-up to his first performance, some fans waited for hours to secure their spots in the show's standing room line, including graduate student Wanting Han, who's seen the Broadway revival of Hedwig 26 times across the span of its run thus far. For Han, who secured her spot in line at 8 AM and came wearing an oversized yellow foam wig, her love of the show is partly thanks to a connection she feels with its central character. "I wrote a letter last August and gave it to John Cameron Mitchell, because somehow I think I'm a little bit like Hedwig, because I'm a foreign student here, and so I'm an outsider in this city and this country."
Being a Hedhead — a diehard fan of the show — "means something to you on a personal level" according to fan Mark Scoff. "It doesn't matter if you've seen it once, if you've only seen the film, if you've seen it 50 times — if this show means something to you, you're part of the club." Not everyone's willing to apply the label openly, but that doesn't mean the show doesn't strike a chord regardless. "I am obsessed with the show; I guess I'm a Hedhead," Ari Rudess said, "but I wouldn't identify as one."
Her mother, Danielle Rudess, added that Ari has an "aversion to groupies, because her father [a rock star] has groupies," but Ari maintains that "that's not the only thing. Also, for me, this show and the experience of seeing it is deeply personal, and I don't feel a need to share it."
Rudess added that "in order to play this role well you need to be able to become the character, and the fact that you're switching genders in a way, even though it's a gender-ambiguous individual, means that whoever's playing Hedwig takes them in as their alter ego, and I think that that's especially true for John Cameron Mitchell. This is almost an incarnation of him, and I don't know if he would say that, but I feel like this is Hedwig. If you're obsessed with this show, then you fall in love with the character, so to see the character almost in the flesh is totally amazing."
Hedwig fan Brad Sandstrom, a musician and musical theatre composer, technically calls himself "more of a Deadhead" than a Hedhead. Sandstrom was seeing Hedwig for the first time after years of being a fan of the movie. He wanted his first time seeing the show to be with John Cameron Mitchell, because "that's why I feel a connection to the story." "The Origin of Love" is a particular high point of the show for him. "I'm a philosophy major and studied ancient Greek, so that had a huge thing for me. Being in high school and listening to that song made me interested in ancient Greek philosophy, so it's had a lot more influence than maybe I thought."
For Danni Siminerio, who came decked out in a blonde wig and near-replica Hedwig costume, replete with denim skirt and an elaborately beaded denim jacket (which represents "three days straight, no sleep — just painting and working on it hand-gluing on jewels"), the show holds an element of emotional release. Her first time at the show was during Andrew Rannells' run when her college was selling discounted tickets. "I was crying after the first time I saw it, became obsessed, saw the movie, saw it again the next week — obsessed." Siminerio won the lottery for the night's performance and could be spotted in one of the boxes rocking out throughout the show, which elicited five standing ovations and deafening applause and cheers.
For many of Mitchell's fans, the evening represented an incredible opportunity to time travel in a way. Amanda Rose Benjamin wasn't even three when Hedwig debuted. "To be able to see something recreated from the '90s when I was a toddler is amazing," she said. "Everyone's going to be here tonight. It's a different generation — it's an old generation mixing with the new."
Some dedicated fans, including Siminerio and Micheal Johnson (who also dressed in full Hedwig drag — right down to the gold heels and glittering makeup), also attended Mitchell's final dress rehearsal on Tuesday night. "I cried," Johnson said. "They had to mop up the first floor from my tears. It feels like a big moment in history. They say the queen is home, the bitch is back, and it's true, and she's just as great as ever." Johnson, a recent New York transplant from Texas remembered first hearing the news of Mitchell's casting. "I screamed so loud that my neighbors heard me and came to check on me, and I was fine — I was just so happy... My favorite thing about Hedwig is how one can go to the theatre and find perfection in someone who is so flawed."
Texan fan Ashley Brown made the trip to New York to see the show for the first time after years as a fan of the movie. In the run-up to the night, she constructed a look inspired by the "Sugar Daddy" number in the show, with a vintage 1940s coat and a handmade silver and black striped tie made from a hair scrunchie. A blonde Hedwig wig stood in for her usual neon green, yellow, and blue hair. Her brother and his girlfriend were even inspired by her to take up Hedwig fandom; they even have soulmate tattoos inspired by the "Origin of Love" segment of the show.
Of her brother's affinity for the show she said, "That is one of the most amazing things, that I could expose him to this world and have him actually embrace it the way he did and continue on with it... He's definitely a Tommy Gnosis kind of kid, and I exposed him to Hedwig and he just flourished so much after that."
Suzanne Schneider, who has taught Hedwig as a college professor, was inspired by the energy of the night and the excitement of the crowd. "John Cameron Mitchell coming out there in this role that is him, and everyone was out here loving him, and it doesn't matter what the performance was — you walk out into the world knowing that you're perfect as you are."
Schneider said, "I'm constantly asking my six-year-old son. 'What will you remember about me when I'm dead?' and when he's angry most of the time he says, 'Only the bad times.' But I've gotten him obsessed with Hedwig, and the other day we're in the car, we're belting out 'Origin of Love,' and he's six and he knows most of the lyrics, and my two-and-a-half-year-old knows most of the lyrics, and we're in the middle of the song, not even thinking about everything, and it was the rock part of the chorus — 'And fire shot down from the sky in bolts' — and he stops and he looks at me, and he goes, 'Mom, this is the thing I'm gonna remember. This is the thing I'm gonna remember when you're dead.' …I realized in that moment, my six-year-old understood everything that I was about – my politics, what I love about the story — you're referencing Plato's Symposium for God's sake — my intelligence, my politics in terms of gender."
Schneider's favorite musical moment of the night was "Midnight Radio," which she described as "the anthem of your life. 'Origin of Love' hits you here [your heart], but 'Midnight Radio' allows you to keep going. He came out afraid, and he came out hard, but we were like 'We love you,' and he was like, 'Just in case you didn't know, I can still kill it.'" Carol Boldish has been a fan of the show since hearing about it on Vin Scelsa's Idiot's Delight radio show during its original run. Boldish was immediately hooked and saw the show several times at the Jane Street Theatre downtown. "I was afraid at first," she said. "It's an Off-Broadway kind of vibe, so I was like, 'How can they take that to Broadway?' but they did a great job."
Hedhead Servio Collazos, who came to New York from Florida to see the show on his birthday, Mitchell's first night was an almost out-of-body experience, having discovered the show through the movie in college. "I was floored. The second he came out, it was like being in college again being in my dorm room, watching him make his entrance — it was surreal."
For those whom Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Mitchell in particular have touched along the way, the diehard fans and those who've been waiting for a chance to see the definitive Hedwig step back into the role on Broadway, the night was one to remember. After the show, fans lined up behind barricades at the stage door in the hopes of meeting the man of the hour. Having been told it would likely be a two-hour wait, they took the news in stride. Johnson took up his ukulele and started a Hedwig sing-along as snowflakes began to fall. There was no stopping these Hedheads, whose voices resounded throughout 44th Street, creating their own makeshift midnight radio. The night was still young, and there were still more songs to sing.
Richard Patterson is a critic and editor for Exeunt Magazine as well as a playwright and lyricist-in-training. Visit him at therichardpatterson.com and follow @broadwaygayby on Twitter.