Though Well-Intended, Riverdale Does Hedwig A Serious Disservice

Finally, welcome back to The CW's Riverdale, and, oh, and they're singing again. While it's debatable as to if every character on the show has gone insane, "spontaneous song" is the name of the game in this week's musical spectacular. Now, don't get me wrong, I like Riverdale, but not nearly as much as I love Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In case you're unfamiliar, it's a concert-format Broadway musical featuring Hedwig, the gender-queer punk rocker telling and singing her life story full of raw emotion, passion, heartbreak, history, and angst. So you may be wondering why I dislike Riverdale's portrayal of it, and that's fair. But after seeing the staged version with Michael C Hall (and yes, it was amazing), nothing in this episode even came close to matching that intensity.

Veronica, Toni, and Betty convince Kevin to perform on stage in Riverdale, courtesy of The CW.
Veronica, Toni, and Betty convince Kevin to perform on stage in Riverdale, courtesy of The CW.

Sadly, it all just fell flat and proved Principal Honey's point that this is very much not appropriate for high school kids to perform – except for me, it was about the characters' (and show's) inability to give it the depth and meaning it deserved. This episode just makes me long for last season's musical episode, where they put on a production of 80s film turned Broadway musical, Heathers. Aah, the simple (and yet somehow more complicated) times of last season. That was a musical perfectly suited to our favorite angsty high school teens. Or even more accurately, this episode makes me want to watch the real Hedwig and the Angry Inch again. Hey, it's been a full two weeks, I think I'm due for another rewatch In case you are unaware of this musical, Kevin is right when he explains it to Principal Honey: it's subversive, rebellious, punk rock AF, and speaks to a generation.

Hedwig is a Vexing Choice for Riverdale

However, as much as it pains me to say this? I really do agree with Principal Honey when he says it's too much for children to perform. It's a "hard R" rating, which may not mean much to some parents of high school kids but for many, watching 17 year-olds making raunchy, dark jokes, and endless sexual references is just a bridge too far. Not that I blame them: I wouldn't want my parents, grandparents, and younger siblings attending a show where I was dressed in drag and grinding on other actors. But then again, I didn't go to Riverdale high, so to each their own. Even just the songs are a bit much at times, with Cheryl hilariously choosing "Sugar Daddy" to perform as a way to prove to Principal Honey that the songs in the show are appropriate. Really, Cheryl? That's your play? You just proved his point for him, you fool. And no, it absolutely does not make it better than a harem of teenage girls are singing a song about wanting a sugar daddy to get them out of this town. Sigh.

There is a very good reason why "Hedwig Jr." doesn't exist, and Riverdale proved that point in another way: aside from not having the musical or acting chops to really dig into the role (not that I blame any of the cast since they're all doing a great job with their own roles and I don't expect them to dig into Hedwig's complicated and messy psyche for a single episode), the story is very much not appropriate for children. I suppose that's why this year's musical episode was turned into a variety show featuring songs from Hedwig because they knew there was no way they could show or even imply that high school children were performing this musical accurately. Yes, I'm referring specifically to "Angry Inch", the song where Hedwig sings about the botched gender reassignment surgery he was coerced into, taking him from six-inches to a singular angry inch. Even just the "appropriate" songs lack the same power when stripped of context.

I mean, just take the "theme song" for this episode, "Wicked Little Town": in the original musical, it's a beautiful power ballad performed by Hedwig at one of her performances to seduce the 17-year-old son of a general she babysits for. It's full of longing, desperation, hope, and brokenness. Even when it's reprised, it's sung by the boy (now a famous rock star) as an ode to Hedwig, the person who was so fundamental in shaping both him and his career, who he's now taken her songs from and left behind. When Jughead opens with it in Riverdale (not well, might I add: Cole Sprouse is many wonderful things, but a singer is sadly not among them), he's not singing those lyrics with any of those same emotions, and all the themes in the lyrics fall flat as he and Betty are simply using as a love song to each other and it to describe the town of Riverdale.

The show and music are about losing yourself and attempting to pick up the pieces and find who you really are. It's about Hedwig's journey into and out of being forced into living a life that she didn't choose and unknowingly doing the same to those she cares about in turn, because it's the only way she knows how to love. It's such a raw, punk rock, passionate show that anything short of that does it such a disservice. I mean, the show even changes wildly depending on who's in the headlining role – each actor brings a different take to the character's personality, but maybe because Riverdale didn't have anyone specifically in the role of Hedwig, it seemed to flounder so badly and become not really a take at all. The vocals were thin, auto-tuned, and powerless, turning the songs into something that had neither bark nor bite when they should have had heaps of both.

The only song that I will argue was appropriate for Riverdale is "Random Number Generation", a song that does not regularly appear in the original musical and as such has no real connection to Hedwig's story. The song is sort of an "emergency track" performed by the band and Yitzhak, in case Hedwig ever has to leave the stage mid-show. It is weird that in a musical full of songs for a male voice, they give one of the very few female-fronted tracks to Kevin, but I suppose it makes enough sense story-wise. Strangely enough, it's a song that Riverdale can easily ascribe to generational teenage angst as they rebel against their principal, which is what they do so well, and honestly, the teenage angst factor is likely the reason Heathers worked so well for their musical episode last season. But I digress.

The real burning question this episode left me with though, and maybe I'm reading too much into it, but since Kevin Keller was the one more or less in the "Hedwig" role, does this mean we're going to see Kevin Keller question his gender identity? Honestly, it would be an interesting move for Riverdale, but is The CW ready to handle that storyline correctly? Again, I could just be reading too much into their selection of Hedwig for the musical episode and it centering around Kevin, but he did say he was trying to come to terms with who he was post-farm, so it does seem like this episode is a kick start for that character journey. After high school is when the real journey of self-discovery starts; speaking of after high school, what will next season be like? Will we get new kids to follow as others leave Riverdale, or will we stick with our favorites even though most of them have plans to leave the 'Dale?

I can't imagine how or why Riverdale got the rights to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but I'm nearly offended at how they managed to warp one of my favorite musicals into something so perverted from the original. I get "art" and that art is subjective and meant to be twisted and built upon, but this episode felt like it did none of that and instead put Hedwig in there as a token "rebellious queer musical" without caring what context there was or what this version was saying about the characters and songs they were mimicking.

Forgive my theater kid rant, but if you're unfamiliar with the musical or film versions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, we have two weeks before the next new episode of Riverdale so please make it a productive break and go educate yourself. I am begging you, it's got a little something for everyone: men in drag, women in drag, comedy, punk rock performance art, heartbreak, and redemption. I'll end this rant before I go off on Riverdale's version of "Midnight Radio" and don't even get me started on the Archies version of it.

About Eden Arnold

With over a decade of writing experience and by-lines in print, books, and online in addition to a lifetime of television watching experience, Eden is passionate about combining the two. Obsessed with all things TV, she is thrilled to bring all of her many television opinions to the masses.

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