Contributor Lindsay B. Davis revisits Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway in its powerful revival starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell and Steven Trask’s glam and punk influenced rock musical that originated in 1994 at a drag club called the Squeeze Box, has reinvented itself on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre. The stunning new production is the recipient of eight Tony nominations, including “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical” for its star, the formidable Neil Patrick Harris. Hedwig is back, and better than ever.
I saw Hedwig off Broadway at the (now closed) Jane Street Theater where it ran from January 1998-April 2000 and earned Obie and Outer Critics Circle awards for Best Musical. John Cameron Mitchell originated the titular role and the show’s concert-like intensity, beauty and grit (with its voraciously ambitious but unlucky in love and life transsexual heroine Hedwig at the epicenter) was a far cry from anything I had seen uptown.
The communist East Berlin-born Hansel’s transformation into Hedwig, an aspiring performing artist diva backed up by a band—the Angry Inch (its name derived from a botched sex change operation that gave Hedwig an inch-long nub)—is what you might’ve called “unconventional” for the late 90s musical theater scene. But what made it transformational was not just that it took a few dares. With an impressive score and realization of character done with such incredible sensitivity and intelligence, it left you with no choice but to fall in love.
Cut to 2014 and Broadway’s Belasco Theatre and I had a few reservations: Would the power of the story’s intimacy that punched the guts of myself and audiences in a 300-person theater transfer well to a theater that seats over 1,000 people? Would Hedwig be whitewashed or Disney-fied or in some way watered down to appeal to Broadway audiences? And most importantly, could Neil Patrick Harris pull off Hedwig? All three questions were answered within minutes of the show’s flashy opening number “Tear Me Down” that kicks off as Hedwig is lowered from the rafters in a white gold glitter jacket and pants ensemble (courtesy of costume designer Arianne Phillips of Madonna fame) like a fusion of Elvis and Gaga.
The girl has been waiting 15 years for this moment.
Based on an uproarious crowd that erupts before Hedwig’s gold platform heels touch the ground, so have Broadway audiences. In the world of Hedwig, a few jigs to the storyline had to happen. Number one, the imagined musical Hurt Locker opened and closed in a day, leaving an empty theater waiting to be filled and two, Bob Wankel of the Shubert Organization was willing to be bribed with fellatio. As embodied by the now sinewy Harris and with lady luck on her side, Hedwig seizes the moment and fills the stage from the get go with presence, pelvic thrusts and other impressive gyrating antics. Her desire is fresh and as she struts amongst the scrap heap of the leftover Hurt Locker set (including a beat up old car and blown out brick walls as conceived by scenic designer, Julian Crouch) you get the feeling Hedwig herself has risen from battle and boy is this bitch back.
Joined by Yitzhak (Lena Hall of Kinky Boots, Tarzan, 42nd Street and Cats), her Croation émigré “husband and man Friday through Thursday” and backed by her band The Angry Inch (under the musical direction of Justin Craig and including Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, and Peter Yanowtiz), Hedwig tells the story of her troubled life without a dose of sentimentality, repeatedly saying, “I laugh because if I do not, I will cry.” Despite a German mother who slaps her for watching Jesus Christ Superstar on TV, an abusive American GI father, a lover turned sugar daddy named Luther who is the engine behind her sex change operation and provides an escape route from East Berlin to Kansas before abandoning her, boyfriend number two Tommy Gnosis who with his own rock and roll success story becomes a source of betrayal, angst and jealousy, and the ups and downs of a new life with Yitzhak—you never pity Hedwig. Instead, you laugh along with her as she wistfully peppers the tragic details of her life with humor, like the time she wrote a paper on rock & roll’s communist influences entitled “You Kant Always Get What You Want, But You Just Might Find You Get What You Nietzsche.”
Then there is the music. Hedwig’s life is driven by a search for “completion” or her “other half”, which provides the thematic fodder for “The Origin of Love” the musical’s second number that re-imagines Plato’s creation myth “Symposium” as a ballad. As performed behind a scrim with animation, it is heartwarming to the point of tears. Life with Luther inspires the third number “Sugar Daddy,” a song performed with struts that would make Mick Jaggar proud and tongue wagging that would give Miley a sense of her ancestry. In a skirt lit up like a Christmas tree and a gold disco ball descending from the ceiling of the Belasco, Hedwig grinds a few audience members when she’s not spitting on them. She’s a punk sister, yes, but now reads more as pop punk, a diva that could appear on Viacom’s MTV rather than tear down the establishment.
Harris has his crowd in the palm of his manicured hands and for the show’s second act (Hedwig is performed without an intermission but has a two-act structure) enters darker territory and the details of the troubled relationship with Tommy Gnosis and tension with Yitzhak. In “Hedwig’s Lament,” a gorgeous number sung under emerald green spotlight, one feels the intense exposure of Hedwig’s vulnerability. Baring her soul to such a large mass, you almost long for Hedwig to be back in a dingy little club—darkly lit, and more protected.
But this is Broadway and Harris is the kind of performer who makes it a safe space for Hedwig to express herself fully and carry on, which she does to brave and soul-stirring effect. With the “Wicked Little Town” reprise and “Midnight Radio” closing number, you feel like a little piece of your heart is on the stage with Hedwig, who has so generously bared her own. Based on his previous Broadway experience (Cabaret, Assassins and Proof) and four years as an Emmy-Award winning Tony Awards host, Harris clearly has the mastery and precision to make this character into even more of an icon than she already is, and that is no small feat. From head to toe, Harris is all Hedwig.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch Belasco Theatre 111 West 44th Street Through August 17
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist living in New York City.