A Star-Studded Tribute to a Fab Show
Hedheads Rejoice: ‘Wig in the Box’ is Great and for a Good CauseBy Frederick Choi
Wig in a Box: The Songs from Hedwig and the Angry Itch
Released Oct. 21
Fans of Hedwig, called “Hedheads,” will be pleased to see that after five years, their favorite transsexual/transvestite is still alive and kicking her stiletto heels. The wonderfully tragicomedic tale of Hedwig begins with a young boy named Hansel who undergoes a botched sex operation in order to marry and flee Communist Germany. The experience leaves him with a new name and the eponymous “angry inch,” as well as an identity crisis bigger than the Berlin Wall. Hedwig is left clawing her way through the American Midwest in search of her self after several relationships go sour.
“Heady” material to say the least, but its success, Off-Broadway in 1998, as a movie in 2001, as well as in the numerous regional productions that followed (including in Boston) owes to the perfect marriage of a masterful and catchy set of songs by Stephen Trask with a rich book by John Cameron Mitchell (and, in the case of the play and the movie, having the multi-talented Mitchell in the tour-de-force title role certainly didn’t hurt).
Hedwig’s current incarnation is as a star-studded tribute album to benefit the Hetrick-Martin Institute entitled Wig in a Box: Songs from and Inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Appropriately, the Hetrick-Martin Institute’s mission is to provide safe havens for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth, and their locations include the Harvey Milk School in New York City. The list of contributors to the disc is impressive, including They Might Be Giants performing the lovely ballad “The Long Grift” from the stage show; “The Three Bens,” Ben Kweller with Ben Folds and Ben Lee (formerly of Noise Addict); the Breeders; Frank Black; the Polyphonic Spree; and in an amusing twist Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show reading a small excerpt from the script.
As with most tribute albums, many of the artists’ renditions are competent but err on the side of being too close to their source. Still, there are quite a few notable exceptions. Spoon successfully spoonerizes “Tear Me Down,” complete with horn section, and Imperial Teen nicely reworks “Freaks.” Yoko Ono’s personality shines through “Hedwig’s Lament/Exquisite Corpse” (paired with Yo La Tengo, probably due to a name game similar to that which combined the three Bens) and adds some memorable vocal stylings to the convulsive coda.
On the excellent power ballad “Midnight Radio” (which tastefully features youth from HMI on background vocals with the Minus 5), Cyndi Lauper’s thin but passionate voice recalls the powerfully broken voice of Marianne Faithfull. Sleater-Kinney and the B-52’s Fred Schneider, both of whom Trask has said in a Rolling Stones interview that he consciously tried to imitate, join forces to great effect on “Angry Inch.” A slight misstep is one of the best songs of the score, the power ballad “The Origin of Love.” Rufus Wainwright’s languid voice isn’t quite suited to the song, which has a rock out bridge that Wainwright merely moseys his way through despite its get up and mosh accompaniment.
Unsurprisingly, the performances here reveal just how great these songs are. Because of slightly clearer enunciation than Mitchell’s, Trask’s genius lyrics also get a new chance to shine, such as the lyrics from “Angry Inch”: “My sex change operation got botched/ My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch/ Now all I got is a Barbie doll crotch / I got an angry inch.”
No doubt long-time fans will immediately skip to Mitchell and Trask’s brand-new track “Milford Lake.” Despite its use of water as its central image (yawn), the song is a put-it-on-replay ballad that would not be out of place on an indie record. The song leaves one wishing that Mitchell and Trask would drop everything and record a whole albumful of new songs. Jonathan Richman performs a fairly ho-hum version of “The Origin of Love” with alternate lyrics and Bob Mould (of Husker Du fame) improves “Nailed,” probably the weakest song of the score, by remixing it and setting it to a house beat. Robyn Hitchcock performs an original entitled “City of Women,” the only song not written by Trask and, like “Milford Lake,” it bears little connection to the show despite being “inspired by Hedwig.”
Despite the lack of John Cameron Mitchell and Miriam Shore’s distinctive vocals, all in all Wig in a Box, as we’ve come to expect from Mitchell and Trask, is a great release. It’s a smart blend of well-loved songs and arrangements, some new songs and new arrangements, inspired pairings of artists with other artists and songs, along with some excellent unseen artwork from Emily Hubley who contributed to the show and movie. Here’s to five years of Hedwig, and hopefully many more to come.