Hedwig and the Angry Inch

"Whether you like it or not," Hedwig is on Broadway. The John Cameron MitchellStephen Trask punk rock musical (which was a cult–hit off-Broadway and on the big screen) has taken over the Belasco Theatre under the direction of Michael Mayer and with beloved entertainer Neil Patrick Harris donning Hedwig's many wigs.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch allows us to be the audience as Hedwig (Harris) tells her story (aided by her backing band, The Angry Inch), from her time as a young boy in East Berlin to a botched gender reassignment surgery (what's left is the angry inch) as she fled Germany for the United States, and all the way through her coupling, uncoupling and search for redemption with a now-famous rock star (who, Hedwig claims, stole her songs). But what Hedwig's story is really about is her quest to find her other half—her true love.

What visionary director Mayer (American Idiot) makes perfectly clear in his staging is that Hedwig might have already found what she's been searching for, and that in order to recognize it, Hedwig has to be herself and let everyone around her be themselves. While Hedwig goes on and on about her upbringing, her philosophy on life and love and her issues with Tommy Gonsis (the rock star), bandleader Yitzhak (Lena Hall), Hedwig's husband, is making sure everything goes smoothly. Mayer has Yitzhak acting as stage manager/crew member for Hedwig, taking care to wrap the microphone wire just so or bringing the diva some water after a song. Hall, who was mostly recently in Kinky Boots and is a Tony nominee for her performance in Hedwig, reflects a touching portrait of a loving, doting partner, who makes endless sacrifices so he doesn't have to sacrifice his relationship with Hedwig. It makes Yitzhak's transformation at the end of the show extremely powerful.

For as radical as the show can be, it uses the age-old show-within-a-show device to frame the happenings. Scenic designer Julian Crouch creates a stage that looks like the end of the world. Fitting, since, as Hedwig explains, the previous tenants of the Belasco Theatre were the cast and crew of Hurt Locker: The Musical. (Seriously, make sure you get your hands on one of the Hurt Locker Playbills. The attention to detail is howl-inducing.) You see, Hedwig and The Angry Inch are touring, and the Belaso Theatre is now available—for one night only—because Hurt Locker closed last night, in the middle of its opening night performance. Hedwig has convinced Shubert executives to let her use the Belasco for her gig. And thus, we can watch her story unfold.

Though I simply couldn't get into Hedwig the way I wanted to (I had the same reaction to the film version), I like so much about it. It's dangerous and dirty and unpredictable and punk rock and glamorous and raw, just like our title gal. All those shades are brought brilliantly to life by Harris, who returns to the Broadway stage after nearly a decade. (He's returned to the community several times in the interim, having hosted the Tony Awards four times.) His Hedwig is bitchy-playful with the audience; she's aggressive; she's petulant—it's a bravura performance that rightly deserves all the accolades already bestowed. (Harris is up for a Tony Award for Best Lead Actor in a musical. Look for him to give an acceptance speech.) 

Despite not connecting with Hedwig the way I have with other shows (like Mayer's American Idiot), I'm so glad this is on Broadway, and Harris's presence is the best star casting we've seen in years. I can certainly think of other actors (who would be less of a marquee draw) I'd like to see tackle Hedwig, but Harris delivers in full force, both on stage and at the box office. This show only succeeds commercially on Broadway because of his draw (the ticketholders line was literally around the block), so thank Thespis for NPH.

Shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch don't wind up on Broadway often, which means that shows that are challenging and complicated are seen by fewer and fewer people. I love West Side Story and Anything Goes, but I love that there's room for shows like that AND shows like Hedwig. The Belasco most recently was home (in reality) to Twelfth Night/Richard III (Mark Rylance is name-checked in Hedwig), and I absolutely love that all three shows graced the same stage. That variety, and exposure to all those different lives and points of view, are exactly what theatre is about. Thanks for playing, Hedwig. Stay a while.

Extra notes:
  • The Angry Inch is made up of: Justin Craig (Skszp), music director, guitar, keyboards and vocals; Matt Duncan (Jacek), bass, guitar, keyboards and vocals; Tim Mislock (Krzyzhtoff), guitar and vocals; and Peter Yanowitz (Schlatko), drums and vocals.
  • Kevin Adams's lighting design and especially Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions are sensational.
  • Arianne Phillips's costume design and Mike Potter's wig and make-up design dazzle.
  • Musical staging is courtesy of Spencer Liff, whom I saw in the short-lived Cry-baby. At the stage door of that musical, we bonded over our excellent taste is shoes. We were both wearing Converse.

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