Why you have bad taste in musical theater

Susan Miura

How else to explain the fact that Amazon.com carries 34 versions of Rentñincluding a karaoke version and one from the Japanese castñbut it is virtually impossible to track down a copy of Kurt Weill’s score to Knickerbocker Holiday. Similarly, the standout cinematic musical this year was Moulin Rouge, which was more gimmick than story, rather than the astonishing screen adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Some will protest, pointing out that Rent isn’t really so bad, and wasn’t Moulin Rouge fun? And, yes, if we were in a fair universe, I wouldn’t say boo about the subject. If audiences had expansive, democratic, even catholic tastes in musicals, with their CD collections displaying The Music Man alongside Offenbach’s Orphee aux Enfers alongside Catsñwell, nobody would complain. But what do we have instead? The Phantom of the Opera alongside Jesus Christ Superstar alongside Evitañthe unholy trinity of Andrew Lloyd Webber. To paraphrase Kenneth Tynan, I don’t think I could ever really love somebody who loves Starlight Express.

I labor under the willful misapprehension that most people’s tastes in music remain so dull because I must believe itñI cannot bring myself to think that these fans of musical theater have heard Tom Waits’ plaintive score to The Black Rider or the bawdy music hall songs of George Formby, but have chosen Miss Saigon instead.

To whit, The Lens theater page will, on occasion, run reviews of CDs from overlooked musicals. We begin with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the film version of which ran at the Uptown Theatre a few months ago, and the stage version of which will debut locally in next month, thanks to the Outward Spiral company. Then it is on to weirder territory with the Tiger Lillies’ soundtrack for Shockheaded Peter, which the Walker Art Center brought to the Twin Cities just over a year ago. A warning in advance: If you find the music of Stephen Sondheim to be the acme of writing for modern musical theater, turn back now. This is not music for sensitive ears.

 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Atlantic Records)

 

On Feb. 14, 1998, actor John Cameron Mitchell stormed the stage of the newly revamped Jane Street Theatre in Manhattan dressed in a wig, glitter, minidress and wrapped in a massive red, white and blue cape bearing the words “Yankee Go Home . . . With Me!” As the audience burst into thunderous applause, Mitchell, in character as the “internationally unknown song stylist” Hedwig Schmidt, growled at them in a Marlene Dietrich accent. “Thank you,” he said, “I always like a warm hand on my entrance.”

What followed was a 90-minute blend of Ziggy Stardust-type glam rock concert and performance art as Mitchell alternated between singing 12 Velvet Underground-inspired musical numbers and narrating the tragic story of Hedwig’s life, including the botched sex-change operation that left her with an “angry inch” and a permanently bewildered sexual identity. “Don’t you know me, baby?” Hedwig asks. “I’m the new Berlin Wallñtry and tear me down!”

Shifting between poignant and hilarious, Hedwig’s story is of a German “slip of a girly boy” who lived in an apartment so tiny he had to crawl into the stove for privacy, who surrenders his sexual organ to a quack doctor and becomes, briefly, an unsatisfied Midwestern housewife to an American soldier. Hedwig’s brief stab at rising above her sordid existence comes in the form of a teenage boy she dubs Tommy Gnossis; under her tutelage Gnossis has become an Iggy Pop clone, but when he is caught in flagrante delicto with Hedwig he denounces her. Now Hedwig has taken to the stage to demand her place in the spotlight, despite performing in a venue across the river from a vast auditorium where Gnossis mocks her in front of an audience of thousands. Snippets from Gnossis’ nearby show can be heard throughout Hedwig’s performance, particularly when she throws open the stage door and screams her rage at him.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch became an overnight Off-Broadway sensation, and more recently a cinematic cult hit in art house theaters, and the original Off-Broadway soundtrack from Atlantic Records captures much of the play’s eccentric electricity, including its dizzying wordplay (the film’s soundtrack is also recommended). In “Wig in a Box,” Mitchell sings “the strangest things seem suddenly routine,” and indeed they do. We’re in the same fragmented, androgynous universe Todd Haynes chronicled in his film Velvet Goldmine; it’s thrilling and terrifying.

 

Shockheaded Peter (NVC Arts)

 

German physician Heinrich Hoffmann had trouble finding books for his children. In 1844, it seemed the only types of literature available for youngsters were simple morality tales and idiotic nursery rhymes. Frustrated, Hoffmann wrote and illustrated his own book, which he titled Struwwelpeter. Hoffman’s book, which quickly became a popular classic, is a wicked parody of the doggerels of his day, filled with misbehaving children who receive their ghastly comeuppance. A lad called Suck-a-Thumb, for example, is warned by his mother about a tailor who roams the town with a long scissors, snipping off the offending digits of children who can’t keep their fingers out of their mouths. Little Suck-a-Thumb ignores his mother’s sage advice; his story ends badly.

All of Hoffmann’s stories end badly, with as high a count of dead and crippled infants as Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies. “I remember reading the book as a child,” Michael Morris told the Village Voice, “it sort of haunts you once it’s there.” Morris heads London’s Cultural Industry production company, which specializes in odd and diverse work, and he was determined to see Struwwelpeter transformed into a stage play. To this end he enlisted the help of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, who have developed a style of theater that relies on sets and costumes assembled from rags and garbage, and together they created Shockheaded Peter, which they have deemed a “junk opera.” Their show is a ragged blend of puppet show, commedia dell’arte and vaudeville. Crouch, in white pancake makeup and shock wig, leads the cast as a berserk master of ceremonies, and early in the show he opens a trap door on the stage and pulls from it the show’s most inspired flourish. Crouch seizes a long ponytail and hoists it into the air, dragging from beneath the stage Martyn Jacques and his wheezing accordion.

Jacques, the lead singer of the British cult band The Tiger Lillies, composed the music for Shockheaded Peter. He has been described both as a “criminal castrati” and “Tom Waits on helium,” but neither do justice to the shrill, haunting carnival music he sings in a high, operatic falsetto. Every one of Jacques’ songs for this production ends with a brutal death, and soon he has the audience crying out for blood. And the blood comes; at first in squirts, then in buckets, as a long parade of wicked children are buried under floorboards, burned to death, impaled on silverware and eventually swept away by a gust of wind. This last fatality is the play’s (and the CD versions’) literal high point, with a magnificent, soaring melody as Jacques sings “Up he goes into the skies; No one hears his screams and cries.”

At the play’s end, when everybody has died or gone mad, Crouch rises from below the stage dressed in a massive (and anatomically correct) naked infant’s costume to berate the audience for not appreciating the play. “You try to do something a little different,” he sighs before barking his snobbery at the audience: “I was trained in London!” Now shaking with rage, he points to the floor, reminding us that at the start of the play an infant was buried there. “All I’m saying,” he declares furiously, “is that it might do you some good to ask yourself what’s buried beneath your floorboards!”

We have been chastised.

 

Tailor silhouettes from Shockheaded Peter.