Hedwig and the Angry Inch lyricist Stephen Trask was itching to collaborate when a friend gave him some pivotal advice: “Reach out to someone whose work you admire.”
An avid fan of teen TV shows Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Trask dropped a line to series developer and CCO of Archie comics Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, inquiring if he might contribute music to the Archie reimagining. What resulted was perhaps one of the most ambitious and strange musical episodes of a TV show to date — after Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 2001 opus “Once More With Feeling,” of course.
“I love [Roberto’s] vision. He brings a lot of the elements in of Douglas Sirk-style melodrama with a telenovela kind of thing and also Americana and the teen drama thing,” Trask tells Rolling Stone. “It’s walking a tightrope to bring those things together and have them sing. I reached out to him to just kind of meet and see if we could do something together and said what a fan I was of Riverdale. It turned out that they were, at the time, looking for a musical to do.”
Aguirre-Sacasa, who made his Broadway debut with the book for the musical American Psycho in 2016, was an equally huge fan of Hedwig. He saw the original Off-Broadway production in the late Nineties with its playwright John Cameron Mitchell in the titular role (before he wrote, directed, and starred in the 2001 film adaptation). “I thought it was so funny, and moving and I thought the songs were incredible,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “I never would have in a million years thought about it for Riverdale.”
Still, he soon found parallels between season four of the popular show and the musical. Hedwig tells the tale of Hedwig Schmidt, a German trans rock singer who trails after the more popular musician Tommy Gnosis. Replete with glam rock bangers reminiscent of David Bowie and T. Rex, the musical is all about defying gender norms, binaries, and definitions of love.
At this juncture in Riverdale, the characters are also battling with their identities and relationships. For any non-regular viewers may be lost here, but those following along know that Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) has just extricated himself from Stonewall Prep, an evil private school at which he joined a secret society and staged his own murder — before said society could murder him first. The episode sees him rejoining his public high school just as resident theater nerd Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) lobbies the principal, Mr. Honey (Kerr Smith), to perform a song from Hedwig at the school variety show. In the meantime, someone is sending out mysterious VHS tapes to residents of Riverdale — showing merely the outside of the homes — and Kevin has found himself tangled up in the sordid world of tickle porn.
“The big thing with Jughead and the episode is he spent all this time at Stonewall Prep that was traumatizing in so many ways. He kind of has PTSD,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “And with his re-entry to Riverdale, he’s still kind of wrestling with that. There’s a lot of unrest in Hedwig and it felt like Jughead’s state of mind as well.” Sprouse, an avid Hedwig fan (“Origins of Love” is his go-to karaoke song), performs a scalding duet of “Exquisite Corpse” with his girlfriend Betty Cooper (“Lili Reinhart”). Other standouts include a cast performance of “Wicked Little Town,” the Archies’ rendition of “Midnight Radio” and Cheryl Blossom tearing through “Sugar Daddy.”
In particular, the episode created a showcase for Kevin, Cott’s character, as one of the three lead LGBTQ residents of Riverdale (including Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz). Cott performs “Tear Me Down” and “Wig in a Box.”
“I definitely knew quite a bit about Hedwig; in college, I majored in acting and musical theater,” Cott tells Rolling Stone. “It’s almost an experience; it’s a rock concert and a storybook and almost like a Broadway show all mixed into one. I think Riverdale is similar in that there are just a million things happening at once that at any given moment. Part of the hilarity of Riverdale is the complication of the script, all the madness that’s entering this one little town, these crazy high school kids. It’s almost a standalone episode that celebrates all the beautiful qualities of Hedwig. It’s a celebration of the incredible themes and tones and messages of Hedwig, beautifully displayed in this unique little variety show Riverdale episode.”
“I think this is going to go down is a really cool turning point for Kevin — I think both within the world of Riverdale and outside of the world of Riverdale,” he adds. “Kevin unleashes a new side in this episode: confident, flashy, excited, different, but also really vulnerable, you know, sad and lonely inside. I think it’s given us all permission to reach many layers.”
As for Trask, he finds the musical he wrote so many years ago as relevant as ever — especially within the eco-system of Riverdale. “The episode is about teenagers breaking away. And that’s what Hedwig is about — breaking away from the binary worlds of straight and gay or cis or trans or male and female,” he explains. “I think that kids today, that teenagers, really relate to that. [I have some] very good friends whose kids and their kids’ friends are just very much not binary. Hedwig is described in the opening as being a manifestation of the divide between a whole series of binaries.”
Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on the CW.