As Hedwig, a bewigged, be-glittered and bewildered “internationally ignored song stylist,” the performer Neil Patrick Harris — who has been anything but ignored in a protean 25-year entertainment career – doesn’t just rock, and roll, and roar, and rule. He also licks…as a form of tribute — more than once.
Soon after he’s descended onto the stage in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Harris honors the storied history of Broadway’s Belasco Theater: He’s “being supported by the same groaning planks,” he shouts “that cradled Brando’s debut and Barrymore’s farewell; where Tim Curry cracked wise and Mark Rylance batted his eyes.” That’s when he leans down and licks the stage. “Tastes like Kathy Griffin,” he says.
But that’s not his last lick. Later, he lasciviously licks his bandmate’s guitar.
And there we have, in two licks, what is so impressive about this first Broadway production of a show that began life 20 years ago in a downtown drag-punk club called Squeezebox.
“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 (see song list below); the inspired direction by Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”); the trailer-park wigs and glam-punk makeup by Mike Potter; the sexy, silly, in-your-face costumes designed by Arianne Phillips, who is making her Broadway debut but did the costumes for the 2001 movie adaptation of “Hedwig” and – more to the point – is Madonna’s long-time stylist, putting together the look of her concert tours. Particular kudos go to Julian Crouch, Kevin Adams and Benjamin Pearcy – the set, lighting and projection designers, respectively – for brilliantly translating this initially intimate work for the Broadway stage.
I had the pleasure of seeing “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1998 in the then deceptively named Jane Street Theater; it was really more a site specific performance in a flophouse of a hotel in the pre-chi-chi Meatpacking District. We sat just a few feet away from John Cameron Mitchell performing the character he had created, as he sang and spat out Hedwig’s sad/shocking/(deliberately absurd) story:
Born Hansel in East Berlin, he met an American military officer named Luther, who wanted to marry him and bring him home to the United States, if he underwent a sex change operation. It was botched — hence the “angry inch” – and soon Luther abandoned the newly-named Hedwig in Kansas. Divorced, scraping by, Hedwig worked as a baby sitter, which is how he met Tommy. “I had recently returned to my first love, music. I had tried singing once back in Berlin. They threw tomatoes. After the show I had a nice salad. But newly motivated, I bought a cheap electric piano.” Hedwig taught Tommy everything she knew about music. But Tommy, too, abandoned Hedwig, and became a big rock star using Hedwig’s melodies. Now Hedwig and his band, the Angry Inch, were performing in this dive of a hotel while at the same time, coincidentally, his former protégé was holding a giant concert at Giants Stadium (called his “Tour of Atonement,” for reasons you’ll have to see the show to find out.) Tommy’s concert was right across the river, and distinctly audible. The contrast was meant to be humiliating.
In the Broadway production, Hedwig and his band are no longer performing in a downtown dive but at the beautiful Belasco on Broadway, which opens up an opportunity for an elaborate and pretty good joke: They are able to perform at the Belasco because the evening before saw the opening of “Hurt Locker: The Musical,” which closed at intermission. (Parody Playbills of “Hurt Locker: The Musical” were scattered on the seats as we entered the theater.) Hedwig and his band are performing on the set of the shut-down musical, which allows for Crouch’s stunning and hilarious opening tableau: a proscenium full of detritus hanging in the air as if an explosion had been captured by one of those state-of-the-art high-speed cameras.
Meanwhile, now, instead of performing in Giants Stadium, Tommy is holding an outdoor concert in Times Square. Quibblers have complained that this adjustment doesn’t make much sense – the Belasco is hardly a humiliatingly low-rent venue in contrast. But their complaints don’t make much sense to me, because the story makes no sense to begin with; it’s not supposed to make any sense: It’s satire that’s over the top and in your face, a kind of blunt performance art.
The creative team has smartly realized that the way to translate this subversive, foul-mouthed downtown show to Broadway is by turning it into a spectacle.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Neil Patrick Harris is singlehandedly responsible for the thrill of this show, overlooking the excellent Lena Hall as Hedwig’s drag-king husband Yithak, the terrific “Angry Inch” musicians, Kevin Adams’ pulsating light show, Spencer Liff’s sinuous choreography. That is because the wholesome child TV star of “Doogie Howser MD” and adult star of “How I Met Your Mother,” the charming host of Tony and Emmy Awards, the experienced Broadway veteran, last time on Broadway exactly ten years ago in Sondheim’s “Assassins,” seems, for the 90 minutes of this spectacular show, to have become Neil Patrick Hedwig.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Book by John Cameron Mitchell; music and lyrics by Stephen Trask; directed by Michael Mayer; musical staging by Spencer Liff; sets by Julian Crouch; costumes by Arianne Phillips; lighting by Kevin Adams; wig and makeup design by Mike Potter; sound by Tim O’Heir; projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; music supervisor/coordinator, Ethan Popp; music director, Justin Craig; vocal supervisor, Liz Caplan
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Cast: Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig), Lena Hall (Yitzhak) and Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock and Peter Yanowitz (the Angry Inch)
Tickets: $49.00 – $152.00
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is scheduled to run through August 17.
Tear Me Down
The Origin of Love
Wig in a Box
Wicked Little Town
The Long Grift
Wicked Little Town (Reprise)