Neil Patrick Harris stars as an “internationally ignored” East German transgender rock singer in the first Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask that began life 20 years ago in a downtown drag-punk club called Squeezebox.
The musical’s name is also the name of the band, whose lead singer, Hedwig (Harris), tells his over-the-top story in some dozen rock songs and the monologues in-between. Harris, best-known for his roles on the TV shows “Doogie Howser MD” and “How I Met Your Mother” and for his hosting duties on the Tony and Emmy Awards, has performed in three previous Broadway productions.the last time in Sondheim’s “Assassins,” which opened April 22, 2004 ten years ago to the day that “Hedwig” is opening at the Belasco.
What did the critics think?
Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a cleverly satirical, layered (and lewd) work of theater steeped in both popular culture and Western tradition (The song “Origin of Love” is based on Aristophanes’ speech from Plato’s Symposium.) But it is simultaneously a thrilling rock concert – exciting enough on its sequined surface to satisfy glam-rock fans (or Neil Patrick Harris fans) who don’t speak a word of English. Everything works in concert here: Harris’s high-energy performance; playwright John Cameron Mitchell’s updated script; Stephen Trask’s 10 loud, tuneful, propulsive songs; the inspired direction by Michael Mayer…
Rex Reed, New York Observer: “a pile of toxic swill..pointless androgynous freak show …Mr. Harris has many talents, but I have no idea what attracted him to this creepfest, staged by Michael Mayer with a G-string sledgehammer.”
Ben Brantley, New York Times: “Do not be alarmed by recent reports that Neil Patrick Harris, an irresistibly wholesome television presence, has fallen deeply and helplessly into the gap that separates men from women, East from West, and celebrity from notoriety. There’s no need to fear for his safety, much less his identity. Quite the contrary. Playing an “internationally ignored song stylist” of undefinable gender in“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Mr. Harris is in full command of who he is and, most excitingly, what he has become with this performance. That’s a bona fide Broadway star, the kind who can rule an audience with the blink of a sequined eyelid…while Mr. Harris may let you see him sweat as he struts, slithers and leaps through this shamelessly enjoyable show, rousingly directed by Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”), he never makes it feel like heavy lifting.
Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: Director Michael Mayer has been twice blessed. He has an undervalued score — some of the 10 songs here like “Wicked Little Town,” ”Origin of Love” and “Wig in a Box” deserve to be on iPods everywhere — and a stunning leading man who is willing to eat cigarettes and lick the stage ….Rarely does a role fit a performer so well. Harris is funny, twisted, poignant, outrageous, bizarre, silly and very, very human.”
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: The screaming starts when a bespangled Neil Patrick Harris parachutes onstage in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and doesn’t stop until he’s back in his dressing room. That’s the kind of rock-star performance he gives in this spectacular revival… It’s astonishing how polished a physical performance Harris gives. Channeling his inner Rockette, along with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed by way of the Ramones, he carries off some advanced dance and acrobatic moves, while showing a lot of shapely leg.”
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: “Harris is beyond fabulous, holds nothing back and plays it any way but safe in Michael Mayer‘s exhilarating production…As to the other question of how the scrappy, subversive 1998 cult performance piece about gender identity, transformation and pop mythology would sit on Broadway, the show, its protagonist and her pulse-pounding band tear up the Belasco stage like they own it. If screaming rock concert-style veneration is not your thing, stay home.”
Elizabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: 3 out of 4 stars: In cutoff denim shorts, teetering platforms and gigantic blond hair, he relentlessly prowls the stage, occasionally lunging into the audience for a lap dance or two. But it all feels a little too rehearsed, and Harris doesn’t look entirely comfortable clambering over the bombed-out set. Only when he finally clicks with the material — as on the heartbreaking “Wig in a Box,” about the process of becoming someone else — is the show suddenly worth the effort he’s poured into it.
Matthew Murray, Talkin’ Broadway: “With Hedwig less a has-been on the way out than a hasn’t-yet-been on the way up, the emotional surge that should drive the show is absent.. [Neil Patrick Harris’s] aching sweetness and deft ad-libbing about everything from drum fills to David Belasco’s ghost draw you in….For what’s supposed to be an acquired taste, this time around [Hedwig is] certainly content with being as bland as her surroundings allow.”
Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: A- “Purists may balk at Harris’ punk-lite vocals on Trask’s infectiously rockin’ score — he’s less Iggy, more pop — and his threats to ”cut you, bitch” come off with more of a wink than actual menace. But in a bravura performance, the actor proves the perfect instrument for Hedwig’s transition into world-class superstardom. He’s honed his showmanship on four Tony Awards gigs, of course. But he’s looser here, and lewder, more spontaneous and quick on his pumps.”
Matt Windham, AMNY, 3 1/2 stars out of four: “While no one can doubt Harris’ fierce theatricality, strong voice and expert handling of the comedy aspects, his Hedwig has yet to come together as a fully-developed, vulnerable character. But given the role’s extreme complexity and grueling physical demands, that’s more than understandable. Chances are that his performance will improve as the run continues. The new setting affects the show’s credibility. Would a strange, struggling performer really be invited to perform on a Broadway stage? But as it is, this remains a wildly enjoyable production of one of the most exciting and inventive rock musicals of all time.
David Cote, Time Out New York, five stars out of five: “Harris makes Broadway rock harder than it ever has before….”
Brendan Lemon, Financial Times, four stars out of five: “Audiences….have come to see Harris, a major American television star owing to How I Met Your Mother, give glam rock a workout. But the evening, even with the longueurs of its storytelling, manages to make us think about not just gender-based aspects of love but also the cold war, cheap American pop music, and the price of fame.
Here are photographs from the production. Click on any one to see it enlarged.