Hedwig and the Angry Inch is in previews for its Broadway debut at the Belasco Theatre. I have memories of the original Off Broadway production, and composer Stephen Trask was living in New Haven back then. I’ll write those up another time, but for now I wanted to acknowledge the range of cover versions there’ve been of Hedwig songs.
It’s not much of a range. There haven’t been nearly enough. I fondly hope that one good thing that might come out of this Broadway revival is more covers of Hedwig songs.
There are three soundtrack albums—the original New York one, the movie one and an Australian one featuring a pop star named iOTA as Hedwig.
If it weren’t for Wig in a Box: Songs from & Inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, created in 2006 as a benefit for New York’s Harvey Milk High School, it’d be a pretty shabby list indeed. That one CD stands alone for its variety of interpretations. Here’s its track listing:
“The Origin of Love”: Rufus Wainwright. Properly classical.
“Angry Inch”: Sleater-Kinney, with lead vocals by Fred Schneider of The B-52’s. One of the few singers esoteric yet poppy enough that he can scream “I’ve got an angry inch,” and make it mean something out of context.
The Long Grift”: They Might Be Giants respect a song so underrated that most of it got left out of the movie version.
“Sugar Daddy”: The least covered of all the show’s songs, it seems. Frank Black (with Reid Paley, whom years later Black made a full album with) makes you wonder why.
“City of Women”: appeals to Robyn Hitchcock’s mischievous side.
“Freaks”: perhaps the most straightforward rocker, thus covered by Imperial Teen.
“Wicked Little Town (Hedwig Version)”: The Breeders, naturally coming at the role in a different take than Frank Black.
“Nailed”: by avowed Hedwig fan Bob Mould
“Wig in a Box”: The Polyphonic Spree, since the song has become so ceremonial and spiritual since the movie.
“Milford Lake”: John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. The show’s creators tackle an outtake.
Ladies & Gentlemen”: Stephen Colbert’s showbiz cameo, ages before he danced and sang opposite Neil Patrick Harris in Company.
“Tear Me Down”: Spoon’s as good an indie-band pick as any.
“Hedwig’s Lament/Exquisite Corpse”: Yoko Ono and Yo La Tengo. The new-world New York contingent.
“Wicked Little Town (Tommy Gnosis Version)”: The Bens, the band on this list that really doesn’t resonate anymore.
“Midnight Radio”: Cyndi Lauper and Minus 5 (with Peter Buck in its line-up). Cyndi Lauper really nails this. She should write her own kinky musical sometime.
The Origin of Love”: Jonathan Richman. If you don’t like the Rufus Wainright one, you like this one.
And here are the other Hedwig covers I could scrape up, rare as they are:
Wig in a Box:
• Beef Savage, San Francisco punk-with-rhythm whose own songs include “Twiddly” and “Grab Ilona’s Butt.”
• Alan Cumming (in a medley with Wicked Little Town). Sad that he never actually played the role, but Cumming crashed on John Cameron Mitchell’s couch when Hedwig was a concept still forming, and in the late ‘00s developed a delirious medley for his (ahem) cabaret act.
Tear Me Down:
• Meat Loaf. This happened while the show was young, and boded well for Stephen Trask’s songs hitting the rock mainstream, which would not have been a bad thing. The lyrics are rewritten so Mr. Loaf can adapt it to his own Texas upbringing.
• Dar Williams. The most beautiful and poignant of any Hedwig cover.
• Constantine Maroulis. He played the role, and put this song on his Constantine album. I saw Maroulis, pre-American Idol fame, co-star in a national tour of Rent and play a club with his rock band Pray for the Soul of Betty.
Origin of Love:
• Bonnie Pink. The Japanese pop singer who often records in English and has released a dozen albums since 1995.
• iOTA (featuring Blazey Best), very respectful. Another rocker who went into musical theater (or at least Rocky Horror Show and Hedwig).He did the Australian production of Hedwig, which recorded its own soundtrack album.
• John Cameron-Mitchell and Margaret Cho. For the Wed-Rock marriage-equality awareness compilation.
Matthew Presidente. Vancouver rocker who claims everyone from Led Zeppelin to Neil Young to Leonard Cohen to Tori Amos as influences.
Wicked Little Town:
• Ben Jelen. Scottish-born, American-raised singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist.
• Soft Charisma. The Texas band has coined the genre name “Error Folk” for its music: “”Error Folk reflects the imperfections of life by allowing for imperfections in the music itself.”
The Long Grift:
• Ben Warren. Prolific, insouciant multi-genre rocker whose recordings include “Dead at Disneyland” and “Manifest Destiny.”
Random Number Generation:
This was a pre-existing song by Cheater, Stephen Trask’s band, which was played as a post-show or intermission track (can’t remember which) over the sound system and made it onto the Off Broadway soundtrack album but wasn’t actually part of the show. It was later incorporated into the musical. I have a Cheater demo cassette and publicity photo in my basement somewhere, sent me when the band played an egregiously underattended show in Stephen Trask’s hometown of New London, Connecticut.
Can’t find any major covers of this one, outside of Frank Black’s on Wig in a Box, but was amused to find chord charts for it at www.ukulele-tabs.com. It’s not like this site has the whole Hedwig album converted to ukulele chords—just “Origin of Love”, “Long Grift”, “Wicked Little Town” and “Sugar Daddy”. You know, the ones you’d want to do on ukulele.
The faceless studio band Musical Mania. Found on Big Spender: Theatre Soundtracks, a discount comp of Broadway covers which runs the gamut from Girl Crazy to Bye Bye Birdie to Cats to Follies to, well, Off Broadway’s Hedwig. Good for them.
Many great musicians have played in the backing bands for Hedwig productions. Frank Black protégé Jonny Polonsky led the band for a well-received, long-running Chicago rendition. Steve Mehlman, who drums for Pere Ubu and the reunited Rocket from the Tombs, did a Hedwig somewhere. Here in New Haven, Jesse Jou directed a Yale Summer Cabaret production which starred Chad Raines (who fronts the band Simple Pleasure, and now guitarist for Amanda Palmer), featured Joseph F. Nolan of the revered Connecticut band Kimono Draggin’ on guitar,and was music-directed by the industrious theater sound designer and Foley Artist Nathan Roberts.
Conversely, bands which formed for productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch went on to do club gigs, often as publicity for the stage shows. That’s what happened in Hartford when Anthony Rapp played Hedwig during a Hartford Stage summer season.
I still have the T-shirt from that one. I never wear it. “I’ve got an angry inch,” it says. Unless you’re Hedwig, or Fred Schneider, who wants to proclaim that?