‘Riverdale’ nails the look of a landmark queer musical — but softens its politics
The following story contains spoilers from Wednesday’s episode of “Riverdale,” “Wicked Little Town.”
Wednesday’s musical episode of “Riverdale” attempts to exalt “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the 1998 cult hit that’s “not appropriate for students and families,” according to the school principal (Kerr Smith): Though it was on Broadway and won multiple Tony Awards, it’s too niche, too downtown; the movie version is rated R.
“‘Hedwig’ is not a niche show,” argues Kevin (Casey Cott), who wants to perform a “Hedwig” song at the upcoming variety show. “It celebrates identities, genders, expressions of all kinds, and it speaks to my entire generation. We are relentlessly slammed with crisis after crisis, and we take it, and we’re numb, yes, but also screaming on the inside. Please, just listen to us. We’re people, not numbers. We’re Generation Z.”
This impassioned proclamation leads into a cover of the deep cut “Random Number Generation,” with Kevin’s classmates headbanging with him through the hallways. Undeterred, he then shows up at school in Hedwig’s signature garb — an embellished denim outfit with fishnet stockings, patterned boots and fringe-laden wrists — for a rogue performance of the roaring rock song “Tear Me Down.”
“This was actually my first time doing full-out drag,” said Cott, who donned the “paper towel wig” from the 2001 movie adaptation and suggested the midsong smooch with KJ Apa’s Archie, since a kiss with a random audience member is a “Hedwig” trademark.
“I learned more than I could have ever imagined, and it was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had,” he continued. “My hat is off to all the drag performers out there. What they do is not easy, and I think they’re incredible.”
“He sat in the makeup chair for a good hour before that scene and definitely experienced a whole different world,” added makeup department head Juliana Vit. “He actually even curled his own eyelashes and put on his own mascara. He did a pretty good job for a first-timer!”
Kevin later finds solace during a sleepover with Betty (Lili Reinhardt), Veronica (Camila Mendes), Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and Toni (Vanessa Morgan), who share the verses of “Wig in a Box.” Kevin is shown trying on the Farrah Fawcett and Miss Beehive wigs (the latter of which took 10 days to construct) while the ladies sport scintillating sleepwear.
“That took hours and hours and hours of bedazzling thousands of rhinestones and crystals,” said costume designer Rebekka Sorensen-Kjelstrup. “I don’t think we realized how long it was going to take to get that kind of detail onto their pajamas!”
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Throughout the episode, two couples — Betty and Jughead (Cole Sprouse), and Veronica and Archie — get into separate shouting matches via the punk number “Exquisite Corpse,” and each pair reconsiders their relationship through the power ballad “The Origin of Love.”
Nearly everyone from the cast sings a line of “Wicked Little Town” — three words that really couldn’t describe “Riverdale” any better — while the episode’s newly formed band, The Archies, perform “Midnight Radio” atop Riverdale Diner.
“It’s such a different style of music for a musical than we’ve done in the past, so we’re broadening [our viewers’] horizons in terms of musical theater in general,” said Tessa Leigh Williams, who wrote this episode as well as the show’s previous takes on the musicals “Carrie” and “Heathers.”
“I first saw ‘Hedwig’ in high school and I had never really seen anything like it, and it just completely blew my mind. So I’m really excited for people to get to know this music that they may not have heard before,” Williams added.
These “Hedwig” songs so effortlessly slot right into the world of “Riverdale” that the episode can almost make you forget the title character of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a gender-fluid musician who suffered a botched sex change operation in order to secure passage out of Cold War-era East Berlin alongside an older man. Its framing device is a tell-all concert, in which the “internationally ignored” performer banters with the audience about her fractured childhood and various lost loves.
From its 1998 debut at the Jane Street Theatre to its more recent, Tony-winning Broadway run with Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss, Taye Diggs and Mitchell himself in the title role, “Hedwig” has remained so beloved because its ending, while ambiguous, leads to an emotional nakedness and wholehearted self-acceptance.
“For all its serious subtext, the movingly affirmative ‘Hedwig’ is raucous, racy and full of hilarious, lowdown survivor’s wit,” wrote Times staff writer Kevin Thomas in 2001.
“The specific issue of gender identity raised by Hedwig’s cruel surgical plight extends to the eternal inner conflict between the need to accept one’s self and the desperate craving for changes believed to be required to be accepted and loved by others. Hedwig demands the love and acceptance from others that she cannot give to herself.”
Of course, it’s impossible for a 45-minute television episode to fully encapsulate the plot, context and legacy of an 100-minute stage show. And as with any musical TV episode, songs are trimmed for time and recontextualized to further the storylines of those onscreen, not those who originally sang them onstage.
But “Riverdale’s” decision to remove any mention of the surgery snafu or the characters in Hedwig’s fictional orbit leaves just a fraction of her story intact, primarily in the form of passing mentions of the Berlin Wall.
“Hedwig” was also notable at the time for its widening of the theater’s representation of gay characters. "[It] gave a new twist to the diva musical altogether,” wrote Larry Stempel in “Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater.”
“It turned from the traditional divas of Broadway’s gay culture to embrace the ambiguities in the gender-bending personas of those glam-rock performers who, starting in the 1970s, sought to replace the staunchly masculinist ideals of earlier rock icons.”
Whether the episode’s rendition of “Sugar Daddy” — a crowd-pleasing, country-driven number in which Hedwig unabashedly basks in the gender binary‘s gray area — is a brilliant commentary on gender identity or a strained recontextualization will depend on your reading of the scene: In it, queer couple Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz are joined by a handful of other female high school students to seduce the school principal, an older male who is visibly uncomfortable with the song’s overt sexual nature.
Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told The Times that the series decided to take on “Hedwig” at the suggestion of its composer-lyricist, Stephen Trask, who is a fan of the “Riverdale” franchise, and that the writers consulted with a GLAAD representative in the making of the episode.
“Every time we do one of these musical episodes, we do have to figure out the balance of how much of the story of the musicals do we include or explain,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “What I think people know about ‘Hedwig’ is the outlandish Hedwig look, the iconic costumes and the rock score.
“In this case, it felt like the quest for identity in pre- and post-Berlin-Wall-breaking-down felt very removed from the stories that we were telling with our kids,” he continued. “So we focus more on the song in terms of mood and emotionality as opposed to hard story.”
Hedwig’s picturesque wigs and glam-rock sound remain, and her lyrics now serve characters concerned with variety shows, college prospects and sinister videotapes. It illustrates the final lyric of “Hedwig’s Lament,” a tune from the musical left out of the episode: “He took the good stuff and ran.”
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