It's Hedwig's first time on Broadway, but it's her second time with Michael Mayer.
The Tony Award-winning director, who has helmed the rock productions Spring Awakening and American Idiot, as well as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Uncle Vanya and A View from the Bridge, is returning to his rock roots directing Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
The Broadway premiere of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's musical about the "internationally ignored" singer/songwriter marks a reunion for Mayer and Hedwig; he had been involved with the musical prior to its Off-Broadway debut at the Jane Street Theater in 1998 but had to leave the production in order to direct another show.
Mayer talked with Playbill.com about returning to
Hedwig almost two decades later, his affinity with rock musicals, and leading man
Neil Patrick Harris' ability to turn the Belasco Theatre into his living room.
Tell me about your history with Hedwig.
Michael Mayer: No one knows this. John and I had just done a play together at the Atlantic Theater Company called Missing Persons, and we became great friends. He brought me the very beginnings of the sketches that became Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I knew Stephen as well from when he was with Cheater, and the two of them asked me if I would help them with the show when they were first trying to get a production together. I did, and we had a wonderful time together.
And then, right when Hedwig had its first full production, another show I'd been working on called Triumph of Love had its first production. I had sort of started that up, so I had to let Hedwig go. There was no way to do both, and I chose the show that I had been developing myself. But I always followed Hedwig. I saw the show in every incarnation. I loved it. I saw it over and over again and was a devoted fan of the show. So many years later, when it came back to me, I was thrilled and really honored that I would get a chance to work on it because it's incredible material.
How did Neil Patrick Harris come to be cast as Hedwig?
MM: My first thought was, "Oh, wow, I get to direct John reprising his role," but when they said it's not going to be John, I wouldn't be directing John, my first thought was Neil. Immediately. And I said, "Neil Patrick Harris." It flew out of my mouth.
And they were like, "Yeah, we love him, but he's on a TV show. How are we going to make this happen?" It was a long period of sort of figuring out how to do it practically. What we came up with was a very unusual rehearsal process, which was a week in September, a week in October, a week in November, a week in February, two weeks in March and then tech and previews. It had to accommodate his shooting schedule.
It's funny. ... [what's] so great about him and this role – there are so many things. One, it's bringing him back to Broadway where he belongs. It's been way too long since he's actually done a Broadway show. Two, I feel he's uniquely qualified to play this role. He's so funny, and he's so inventive and he's so charismatic. And he's a wonderful actor, wonderful singer, wonderful dancer. He's like a quintuple threat. It's more than just the triple threat. But he also has a relationship to an audience, and he knows how to do that. All of those years of hosting shows gives him an unbelievable skill set of intimacy with a large audience. And that's something that I'm sure John Cameron Mitchell can do as well. I've no doubt about that. But at the Jane Street Theater, it was already intimate. You didn't have to create intimacy. But Neil has the ability to take a giant room and make it seem like everyone's in his living room.
You've directed so many productions that feature rock music. Can you tell me about your technique for staging rock shows in Broadway houses?
MM: Many years ago, around the time I started working on Spring Awakening, I think it was 1999, I became fascinated with the idea of going back to the roots of what Broadway musicals were, which was contemporary music attached to narrative. So it was that that started me really on my journey, and I've really been committed to it. I've enjoyed so much finding different ways to take rock music or alt rock music or whatever kind of contemporary music that we're actually listening to on the radio or our iPods and understanding how that can be used in relationship to story. And, this is a perfect example of how that was done.
Hedwig has such a devoted, passionate fan base. What is it about the show that speaks to so many people?
MM: I think the beautiful thing about Hedwig is, as crazy as the story is and as wacky as the character is, John and Stephen have written a show that is, at its very core, a completely universal story of a human being who wants to be seen for who she really is, who's looking for recognition, who's looking for love and trying to find the missing half of her person. And, I think that's something that we all relate to and always will. I think that's why Hedwig has been so successful all over the world, for all these years, and I think for decades and decades to come, it will be.
Also check out Playbill.com's Booking It! feature with Mayer, in which he shares professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists.
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)