I’m sitting in my second coffee house of the day, volume on my headphones cranked up to maximum, to block out sound around me. This morning, I walked through a snow-covered park, and met with N, to set long and short term goals for our work. I love these once a week meetings, and have taken to staying after N leaves, to get some extra time in, working on the book or free writing, to dump junk out of my brain. The bottomless tea doesn’t hurt, either, even if there wasn’t any caffeinated tea on hand, period, today.
At the moment, I’m listening to a mix of songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Hamilton. There’s some connection there, beyond the fact that I listened to both original cast albums on the same day. My mind does that sometimes, marries things to each other, even when I don’t know why it’s doing that. Sometimes, I find out later, and sometimes, I still don’t know, several years down the line.
If I had to guess right now, I would say it’s strong storytelling, standout characters, and really good music. Super talented casts don’t hurt, either. An East German glam rocker with identity issues and one of the founding fathers may not have much in common on the surface, but beneath that, there is something that connects the two. My brain doesn’t see all that much difference between the birth of a nation and a would-have-been-empty Broadway theater that spans from a divided Germany to a trailer park in Kansas, because it’s more than that. The emotional connection is there in each, raw and visceral, and real.
Neither central character is perfect, each caught up in circumstances beyond their own making. Neither ending can be strictly classified as “happy.” Hamilton dies. Hedwig is…no longer Hedwig, though I think that is a conscious choice. Both suffer devastating losses. Hedwig, born Hansel, loses her identity more than once, on top of being an internationally ignored song stylist (her own words.) Alexander Hamilton, well, history fills us in on most of those particulars, but for the sake of moving things along here, let’s focus on the sex scandal that did things to not only his political career, but his marriage to his beloved Eliza, not to mention losing their son, Philip, in a duel. In the end, Hedwig strips down from her over the top attire and walks out of the theater. Hamilton’s legacy lives on, and I am not ashamed to admit I tear up every danged time Eliza sings about the orphanage, doing what she can for children who are where her beloved Alexander once was.
With both shows, it’s easy to climb inside the title character’s skin and see the world from their eyes. For Hedwig, there’s always that lost little kid beneath all the glamour, the yearning for something great, even despite being beaten down, used, abandoned. I think Alexander Hamilton would have understood a lot of that. Poor romantic choices? Both shows have that covered. Hedwig has a series of poor romantic choices, Alexander only one impulsive one, that we’re shown his attempts to resist, but, as Hedwig would likely understand, even the great ones fall. We’re none of us perfect, and it’s in those imperfections where the stories grow.
If a character already has what they want, there’s no story there. Both Hedwig and Alexander want freedom, purpose, and love. Alexander’s Eliza loves him to his death and beyond, while Hedwig has three dysfunctional relationships that end badly, and departs the stage, alone. I’ve read that, in the movie version, Hedwig’s exit is au naturel. On Broadway, there is an undergarment. Hamilton has a huge, diverse cast, and pretty much everybody gets to sing (and rap,) while in Hedwig, the music is almost entirely Hedwig, except that one song where she’s Tommy. Which pretty much fits Hedwig. It’s her world, and we’re only living in it for a little while. From a certain point of view, so is she.
Even though neither show can be classed as a romance, my romance writer brain inhaled both of these soundtracks, and there’s something churning. What? Not a clue, but I’ll know what I need to know, when I need to know it. That’s generally how it works. Still working out what I’m getting from each of these, and both together. My brain ties them both to Rent, which isn’t an entirely unrelated connection, as an original concept was to perform the Broadway revival of Hedwig on Rent‘s closed set. That didn’t happen, and a fictional musical version of The Hurt Locker, which Hedwig tells us closed during intermission, provides Hedwig’s venue instead. Rent takes place in New York, which would have been the capitol of the country Alexander Hamilton helped to build, so there’s that, and it’s a modern-day retelling of La Vie Boheme, which gives both historical and contemporary vibes, which combine to make something entirely new.
In all three cases, there’s an indefinable thing. I want that thing. To create characters like that, give that level of emotional investment and connection to my readers, that’s the goal. Since I write romance, my people are alive and together at the end, but before then, throwing the unimaginable at them and seeing how they get through, how that changes them into who they need to be, seems to be the order of the day.