John Cameron Mitchell has called his pet subversion a “post-punk neo-glam rock musical,” which is ferociously cool but not terribly helpful. Hansel is a Gummi bear-loving East German boy who endures a botched sex change operation to go West with a gay American sergeant (Maurice Dean Witt). America, however, is cruel to Hansel-turned-Hedwig (Mitchell). The Sarge dumps her, she starts a band, turns tricks in Kansas, and has an affair with wannabe rock’n’roller Tommy (Michael Pitt), who ditches her, steals her songs, and makes it big.
By the time we get around to Hedwig she’s a Dietrich-bitten trans-sexual pitching screechy ballads in backwater dumps with a band called “The Angry Inch,” which is what Hedwig got out of her surgery.
The campy outrageousness of the premise doesn’t change that the move is about gender, longing, and hysteria. It’s also an extended rock’n’roll outtake that makes rock culture into a suicide weapon. Mitchell, who did his Hedwig show off-Broadway, tops himself time and again in a cult performance for the ages.