I went into the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fully expecting to enjoy myself. What I didn't expect was that I would be so blown away, both by the power of the piece, and by Neil Patrick Harris's electrifying performance.
Harris has emerged in recent years as one of the most charming, appealing, and downright likable performers we have in the theater. Of course, he hasn't been on Broadway in 10 years, but he's ingratiated himself to no end during his numerous stints hosting the Tony Awards broadcasts.
Also, I love me some Hedwig. I include the show in my musical-theater history course as part of my discussion of the evolution of the portrayal of LGBTQ characters, and for the past few years have had my students watch the film version. The context: when you can start portraying the decidedly fringe elements of a societal subgroup, you know that, to a certain extent, that subgroup has arrived.
Beyond its historic significance, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a riotous, affecting portrait of one of the most indelible characters in musical theater. Hedwig the character, as crafted by John Cameron Mitchell, both author and original performer, is by turns sardonic, poignant, and, yes, angry as all hell. The score by Stephen Trask is both hard-driving and melodic, although Trask's lyrics too frequently exhibit poor scansion. For instance, the song "Wicked Little Town" features the lyric "You know you can follow my voice," which places the emphasis on the second syllable of "follow." Despite these occasional missteps, the score is strong and memorable, particularly "Wig in a Box," one of my favorite showtunes of the past 20 years.
As you may have heard, Mitchell has updated the text to Hedwig to include references to the show's move to a Broadway venue, specifically the Belasco Theatre. Most of the updates are in the first 20 minutes or so of the show, and they include a running bit about the ghost of David Belasco, who legend has it haunts the theater that bears his name.
Also, if you've seen the show, you know that Hedwig is essentially following his former lover, the glam-rock star Tommy Gnosis, around the country playing gigs adjacent to Tommy's arena shows. In the Broadway version, Tommy is playing a public concert in Times Square, which gives Hedwig the opportunity to open the back door and vent his frustration in Tommy's direction.
Mitchell justifies the show's move to Broadway by including new back story about how the theater suddenly became available upon the closure of a fictitious musical version of The Hurt Locker. Hedwig proceeds to perform his "one-night only" concert on the Hurt Locker set. Attendees at early performances of Hedwig even received mock Hurt Locker Playbills, which you can read here (click forward to page 11), and I was fortunate enough to snag one that someone had left behind. Let's just say that whoever created the text for this faux Playbill must have had a really good time putting it together. It's a frickin' hoot.
Even without all the changes, Hedwig more than warrants her Broadway transfer with a briskly paced, sharply staged production from director Michael Mayer, and a remarkable cast, including of course the aforementioned Mr. Harris, who displays not only a very facile stage presence, but also tremendous depth in characterization and a fairly kick-ass high baritone. Alongside Harris is Tony nominee Lena Hall as a smartly underplayed Yitzak, who nevertheless can bust out a penetrating rock wail when the occasion calls.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is currently scheduled to run through August 17th, and ticket sales have indeed been brisk. But if there's any production on Broadway this season that fully justifies its steep ticket prize, it's Hedwig.