PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Hedwig and the Angry Inch — Neil in Heels
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Neil Patrick Harris, John Cameron Mitchell, Lena Hall and Yoko Ono were there. So was Playbill.com.
The original and self-created Hedwig turned 51 April 21, 2014, and the next night at the Belasco Theatre, he and his angry inch turned into a Broadway show.
You know it's a Broadway show because this historically notorious (if "internationally ignored") East German transgender front-woman for a rock band descends from the drafty rafters of that venerable old theatre East of Broadway ("E-Bra" or "Broadway Adjacent"), and director Michael Mayer has made certain every colored light in the joint is decorating the moment of arrival. Landing on stage in gold stilettos without a bobble or wobble, Hedwig goes right into an overdrive strut, decked out in cutoff denim shorts and jacket and topped with a massive mane of Barbie blondeness. If memory serves, the original entrance on that perverse Valentine's Day in 1998 was a simple matter of sprinting down the aisles of the Jane Street Theatre in the West Village and springing on stage.
"Well, it's Broadway — it's the big leagues," said this millennium's Hedwig, Neil Patrick Harris, who has inherited the role from last millennium's Hedwig, the also-tripled-named John Cameron Mitchell. This is Harris' way of explaining his hard-driving, high-octane performance and how outrageousness is defined these days.
"If I'm wanting to commit my time to a run of a show," he said, "I'm glad that it gets to be in something like this where I can really be as full-bodied as I can possibly be."
The truth is that the world is too much with us — all of us — and Hedwig's sad story has lost some of its shock effect. Hedwig tells the tale of an East German "slip of a girlyboy" named Hansel, who falls in love with a U.S. soldier and agrees to a sex change operation so they can marry and officially flee Communist control. Unfortunately, the surgery is botched, and Hansel-turned-Hedwig is left with a dysfunctional inch between the legs, hence the name of the band accompanying her vendetta tour.
"Before, the idea of a guy who is really a transgender woman was considered so hardcore it was almost a freak show in its newness," recalled Harris. "Now, so many years later, there's so much talk of transgender that the subject is virtually diffused. People have finally been able to move beyond the deer-in-the-headlights element, and now I get to play the part and tell the story without having to ingratiate myself so much with the audience. It makes me happy they have advanced themselves."
The opposites-attract principal is what brought him to this part. "One of the best things you can get to do as an actor is to play somebody who happens to be not at all like you. You get to put on your makeup and your wig and grow five inches and learn to carry yourself differently, and then talk directly to the audience. I'm exposed, but I think that kind of exposure is the best way to tell our particular story."
The true silly intent of the story (which was always subversively, snickeringly there) shines like the sun through the plot cracks, but it's nothing producers with deep pockets can't remedy. Hence, Hedwig and the Angry Inch Goes to Broadway.
David Binder, a producer famous for thinking outside the box and bringing improbable people and properties together into a good box-office mix, pitched the part to Harris years ago and waited patiently until "How I Met Your Mother" ran its course. Lest some kind of collective cardiac befall Hedwig's faithful cult-followers, groundwork was called for. A preamble updated by Mitchell and Harris did the trick.
"It was important to explain why Hedwig is now on Broadway," reasoned Harris. "People saw it done in smaller venues. It's really a show that's fit for smaller venues.
"We didn't want to make just a Vegas version that was just bigger and glitzier and more glamorous. We needed to explain why we're here on Broadway, so we had to front-load it with an explanation so we created a fictionalized musical that has recently closed and, through barter, they've allowed her to have one final night before they tear the set down. That conceit allowed for jokes and some exposition."
Apparently, this bogus show — a musical version of the Oscar-winning flick, "The Hurt Locker" — really did, as they say, close at intermission, and left the building in such haste it didn't strike the set. A dusty 1973 Gremlin from American Motors Corporation has been abandoned on stage — something for Hedwig to play on and in.
Other clues of a speedy retreat can be found under the seats — scattered Playbills left by disgusted patrons. Hurt Locker The Musical, with a book by Tony Kushner and Brandon Nipp and words and music by Metallica and Stephen R. Schwartz, starred — for about an hour or so — Bobby Cannavale, Taye Diggs, Michael Cerveris and D'Bree Dazeem, "sister of Broadway legend Adele Dazeem." In a show that lists a running time of six hours and four minutes, songs include "Tic, Boom! (Bombs)," "What's With All These Goats?" and "When Love Explodes," which rates reprises.
Far and away, the best Hurt Locker bio is "ABDUL BATIN (Insurgent/Interpreter/Ahmed/One-Armed Man/Goat): BFA, RADA, MFA,BADA, Ph.D. Oxford, O.B.E. West End: Hamlet (Hamlet), Oedipus (Oedipus), Peer Gynt (Peer Gynt), Medea (Medea). TV/Film: "Homeland" (Terrorist), "House of Cards" (Terrorist),"7th Heaven" (Terrorist), "Modern Family" (Terrorist), "Reba" (Terrorist), "Taken 2" (Owner of Fruit Cart Stand That a Cat Crashes Into)."
One line of credit is given for this in the legitimate Playbill: "Select printed material created by Mike Albo and designed by Stuart Rogers/RED." Albo wrote and starred in a one-man show, The Junket, which recently played the Lynn Redgrave Theatre.
Hurt Locker or no Hurt Locker, Mitchell believes the Belasco was the perfect place for his play to work. It has an air of honorable antiquity to it, something the Phantom might haunt if the role wasn't already taken by David Belasco's ghost.
Hedwig's warm-up acts here include from this season the cross-dressing Brits (albeit, historically accurate men-in-dresses) of Twelfth Night and Richard III and from 2012, MGM's famous burnt-out, drugged-out superstar in End of the Rainbow.
"What I'm realizing, oddly," pondered Mitchell, "is how much of a traditional Broadway show it is in terms of the narrative — the outsider picking herself up. It's an old-fashioned story. It's just that the specifics are unusual — the sex change, the Berlin stuff, the punk rock. The outfit is new. The music is actually old — it's '70s-influenced rock, glam and punk and everything in between — so it's bits and pieces that have been in different venues: Broadway, a musical stage, a standup stage, a drag show. Borscht Belt jokes — I mean, how many Jewish jokes are there? Get in a story about an outsider pushing through, trying to find union, which is really what all kinds of Broadway shows are about. It's like, who am I? Gypsy? I never made it. It's the same story. 'Nights of Cabiria.' The prostitute that's looking for love. How traditional, tried-and-true Hedwig is, and how much of a Broadway show it is."
Creating Hedwig created a new Mitchell, who is now a successful writer-director in Hollywood (he helmed an excellent film adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole). "I was so spoiled by doing Hedwig, so I sorta gave up acting. I acted a little in that Showgirls, but I haven't really acted in 13 years, and I haven't been particularly tempted. Once in a while my phone rings, but I want it to be awesome. I'm working on a sequel to Hedwig so I'll probably play that. It's very dark. It's not ready for Broadway today — maybe Broadway 15 years from now."
Director Mayer, who wound up bringing the show to Broadway, was the best possible person for the assignment, given his history (Spring Awakening and American Idiot), working as confidently in the rock idiom as DeMille worked in the Red Sea. Interestingly, he was in on the ground floor of the project 18 years ago.
"It was very, very early in its development. For instance, there was no character of Yitzhak. There were cover songs that we had. The journey was very similar but a little sketchier. It felt more like a downtown experimental kind of thing. It wasn't the finished product that it became. When they did it downtown — when they had the finished production — they polished it up, and there was much more to it. And it had a full score. But that's not when I was attached to it because I was doing Triumph of Love — the first — so to come back to Hedwig all these years later when it's a beautiful piece of work and to be able to bring it up to the minute in a big beautiful Broadway theatre like the Belasco has been a real thrill."
Stephen Trask's songs created cult converts to the shows, sight unseen — fans who got hooked on the movie soundtrack or the original cast recording. "I think some of them who are coming to the show for the first time — some of them may be thinking, 'What a fantastic staging of the movie,' as opposed to realizing it's actually the other way around. They're thinking, 'How did they come up staging the movie like that?'"
Basically, the score hasn't changed any, save for the Hurt Locker musical parody, he said. "I think things were added and taken away but I think in the end you're in the same place emotionally. And, despite what it looks like at the Belasco, Hedwig is a very fine way of making you feel the Belasco is not the greatest Broadway house to be in — even though it is a fantastic place. Well, Broadway adjacent — and that's enough. We don't have to have junkies O.D.-ing upstairs like we did at the Jane Street Theatre. It still feels real and raw. I think what's different is you have to work a bigger room, but it doesn't really feel that different, otherwise."
Gender-bending a little more, there's Yitzhak, Hedwig's very opposite number — his much-abused bandleader and husband who is always played by a woman.
Here, Lena Hall does the honors. "I saw it at Jane Street back in 1999 with my sister, and we had a religious experience that was so amusing," she recalled. "I bought the cast album a million times, all those different formats. It's been the soundtrack of my mind for so long. So when I heard it was coming to Broadway, I was just like 'I have to be seen. I just have to get in that door.'"
She did get seen, and it got her the part, which she took very seriously. "I did a lot of research on men, just how they stood and how they acted and facial things. You kinda lose yourself when you're in a role. You really lose your facial expressions. You're not really clocking that, but to be a man, I have to be so hyper-aware of everything going on in my body from my facial expressions all the way down to my toes. One wrong move, and it totally gives you away. I did a lot of study on me and how men react with their eyes, how they walked and how they stood. She is so sad and depressed inside but also extremely hopeful. I felt, like, the big shoulders and kinda the hunched-over — it really kinda sold that, but then looking up you can see the hope in her eyes. I really love this character."
Both stars were started by a backstage visit from Yoko Ono, who even ran through the press line singing their praises and the play's: "Oh, I think they were fantastic performers. Everything was spot-on. The music was good. The lyrics were good. Of course, the story — in the end, when it turns around — it just makes you think. This makes you cry."
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