Like watching the Moon landing or the moment they locked eyes with the person they love, people remember where they were the first time they saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The queer punk-rock musical about Plato, the Berlin Wall, love, gender, fame and self-acceptance started first as a stage show before becoming a much-loved cult film with a fervent fandom of “Hedheads” that unwaveringly adore it.
Twenty years since the movie was released and 27 since John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask first debuted the character at New York nightclub Squeeze Box, Hedwig has been a constant presence, being screened and performed all over the world.
The story centres on Hedwig, a singer in a punk-rock band from East Berlin now living in Kansas following botched gender reassignment surgery that left them with an “angry inch”. Hedwig has their heart broken twice, first by the GI who coerced them into the operation to allow them to marry and emigrate, and then by Tommy Gnosis, who fell in love with Hedwig but then stole their songs and used them to become the rock star Hedwig always wanted to be. It’s a tale that many have a deep connection to, not just because it’s hilarious, heart-breaking and has a phenomenal, timelessly cool, soundtrack but also because it taps into the fundamental question of identity and how it’s shaped by the relationships we have.
Stephen Trask, co-creator, composer and lyricist of Hedwig, has seen that intense connection first-hand during theatrical performances, telling BBC Culture, “From the stage we would see couples break up and other people would come and get engaged. People would make life choices watching the show”. For Trask that’s evidence that Hedwig’s enduring appeal is in its universal themes. “There’s a lot of soul searching that Hedwig does about looking for a romantic partner and trying to find wholeness and be recognised for their music and their creativity; it’s not just a gender journey. John and I were very much talking honestly about our own journeys and expressing them through this character that in many ways, most of our audience didn’t have a lot in common with. But the story is so human and fundamental that people can figure out by watching if they are on the wrong path or the right path.