It’s been 16 years since John Cameron Mitchell donned the iconic wig to play the titular role in the first off-Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Jane Street Theatre in the West Village. The eponymous aspiring rock star who undergoes botched gender reassignment surgery to escape East Berlin breathed new life into the rock musical genre. Soon, Mitchell’s play inspired a cult following and a legion of loyal Hedheads.
But Mitchell isn’t just the original Hedwig: He also wrote the musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, and reprised his role in the 2001 film adaptation. When he and I meet in late March, Neil Patrick Harris is days away from taking the stage in the starring role as Hedwig and the Angry Inch makes its big Broadway debut at the Belasco Theatre.
The first question I ask Mitchell, he throws back at me: “Why bring Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Broadway now?” Suddenly on the spot, I’m not sure how to answer.
We’re downstairs at Whynot Coffee & Wine on Christopher Street in the West Village, and I take a moment to appreciate the fact that the name of this establishment is perhaps as good an answer to the question as I can offer.
“I mean, I’m interested in knowing,” Mitchell presses. “Does it feel too soon? Too late?”
It’s not only the timing that has me questioning the revival — it’s also the venue. The musical about an “internationally ignored” transsexual rock star has always felt more underground than Great White Way.
“It just seemed like Broadway caught up with us in terms of having rock ‘n’ roll and drag,” Mitchell finally answers, “and they were just ready for us.”
It’s not as though rock and drag on Broadway didn’t exist in 1998, when Hedwig and the Angry Inch was bringing down the house several subway stops west. Rock musical Hair hit Broadway in 1968, and George Hearn was performing “I Am What I Am” in a sequined gown when La Cage aux Folles debuted in 1973. But Hedwig’s innate queerness was ahead of its time, even in the late ’90s.
The musical offers a mythology in which sexual identity is secondary to the search for our other half. And sure, it’s based on Plato’s Symposium, but it remains a radical approach to thinking about human connection. Add to that the lines Hedwig herself blurs: “Standing between you in the divide between east and west, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom.”
In 1998, Broadway was also in the midst of its much maligned Disneyfication: The Tony Award winner for Best Musical that year was The Lion King. And while saucier fare like the steamy Cabaret revival with Alan Cumming (the first time) offered more adult entertainment, a show like Hedwig was still firmly outside the mainstream.
“Drag wasn’t really on Broadway,” Mitchell says. “It was considered low-class. There was Rocky Horror hundreds of years ago, [but] Rocky’s much more — it’s a different beast, more campy.”
Cut to the 2013 Tonys, where the award for Best Musical went to Kinky Boots, based on the film of the same name about the owner of a shoe factory partnering with a drag queen named Lola to produce custom women’s footwear for men. There have been major strides over the past 16 years — strides in sparkly thigh-high boots, no less — creating an environment where a big Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch doesn’t feel too far removed from the norm.
And yet, the show remains more subversive than most of what Broadway is offering. Consider the fact that 2013’s other Best Musical nominees were all family fare: Bring It On: The Musical, A Christmas Story: The Musical, and Matilda the Musical. And Lola, as out and proud as she may be, has nowhere near the raw, sexualized power of Hedwig, who raunchily opines, “In reflecting upon the people whom I have come upon in my travels, I cannot help but think of the people who have come upon me.”
As culture moves forward toward edgier entertainment, it also regresses into its comfort zone — “six inches forward, five inches back,” to quote Hedwig — which is why it’s essential to keep pushing the envelope. Hedwig still has the power to unsettle audiences unfamiliar with its brand of full-fledged, balls-out queerness. Why bring Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Broadway now? Because Broadway is ready. And also because, in so many ways, Broadway is not.
To be fair, Hedwig never really went away, as Mitchell notes. Various productions have brought the show across the U.S. and beyond since its debut. But New York was the holdout, as Mitchell and his partners spent years discussing how to revive Hedwig for a Broadway audience.
As conversations about the revival became more serious, the question turned to who could fill Mitchell’s substantial shoes. It’s a highly challenging role for what is nearly a one-woman show. The actor playing Hedwig plays all the other roles: While Hedwig recounts her life story, she adopts the personas of her mother; her first husband, Luther; and her protégée Tommy Gnosis, finally tearing off her drag to sing “Wicked Little Town” as Tommy at the show’s climax.
“It’s an ancient theater tradition, and a cost-effective one!” Mitchell says. “I have seen productions where they bring in other actors for Tommy and other stuff too, which can work, but there’s a real coup de théâtre where Hedwig rips the drag off and becomes Tommy, so that can’t be reproduced when you have two actors, and it really makes the play special.”
Mitchell considered taking on the role himself but nixed that because he “didn’t really feel the need to do it.” The part eventually went to Neil Patrick Harris, fresh off a nine-season run on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which aired its series finale just as Harris was finishing up Hedwig rehearsals.
“We thought it would be great to have someone who’d do it really well, but also the audiences would be welcomed by and not frightened of,” Mitchell says. “Neil Patrick Harris was our first choice, so we waited for him to be free.”
And it’s clear why Harris was the ideal Hedwig: He’s an out gay man who has made no secret of his identity and his engagement to David Burtka. But he’s also someone mainstream America knows and loves, from his child stardom as the titular doctor on Doogie Howser, M.D. to his slightly less wholesome role as serial womanizer Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. He’s a gay icon, but he’s nonthreatening.
Hedwig, on the other hand, is far from “nonthreatening” — but that’s part of the brilliance in casting Harris, who draws in his own fans, many of whom are likely unfamiliar with Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He brings a more mainstream crowd than Mitchell would, which only adds to the show’s subversive power: Give audiences the star they know and love, but not before transforming him into a nearly unrecognizable trans rock goddess.
“They’re going to be surprised at how different he is,” Mitchell notes. “He’s found his rock star. He’s found his woman, and that’s not something he’s shown before. And it’s something he’s nervous about and excited about. It’s really his queer side. His most famous roles are straight roles, and this is trans-y, queer — it’s as different from him as you can get.”
Broadway’s Hedwig is doing Mitchell proud. The production is a stunning adaptation, creating a spectacle big enough to fill the Belasco Theatre without losing the rock ‘n’ roll intimacy that makes Hedwig such a unique theatrical experience. (It’s earned a well-deserved Tony nomination for Best Revival of a Musical.)
Harris, whom Mitchell calls “kind of a superhero,” is phenomenal. It’s a star-making role — or it would be, were he not already a star. But it’s also such a significant departure from the work he’s known for that it feels like a complete and deliberate reinvention.
“This is just a natural next step, big step, into showing other parts of himself that he hasn’t shown,” Mitchell says of the actor, who has been earning rave reviews — not to mention a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.
This Harris is loud, filthy, and unapologetically queer. Theater attendees looking for Barney Stinson will be shocked, yes, but even those familiar with Hedwig and Harris’ theater work will be taken aback. Like the original production, the new Hedwig and the Angry Inch pulls the rug out from under its audience in the most satisfying way possible.
And while not everyone is ready for Hedwig — it would be a fruitless effort if they were — Mitchell is confident young audiences are more than prepared. They’ve been primed by tamer forms of LGBT representation and rock ‘n’ roll: Now it’s time to push the envelope further.
“This Glee audience has grown up,” he says. “American Idiot, Glee, and Spring Awakening — which is kind of a merging of pop, Broadway, a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll — it’s a new audience that didn’t exist back then. And they’re totally ready for it.”
“This mixes sex and rock and transgender ideas in a way that is probably quite unusual,” Mitchell continues. “That Glee audience is gonna be lapping it up. They’re ready. They need more.”
Now that Hedwig has returned, bigger and bolder than ever, some have wondered if Mitchell might reprise the role he created. It’s not happening any time soon, but either way, he and Hedwig remain inextricably linked.
“[Hedwig] feels like an extension of myself, but something separate too,” he says. “And I love when other people interpret it. Anyone who’s done it, I feel kind of a kinship — this becomes a brotherhood or a sisterhood, because these people understand how hard and how deep it goes to do it. It’s lovely. I’m still very proud of her.”
As for Mitchell pulling the wig down from the shelf, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. While he passed on the current Broadway production of Hedwig, he’s tinkering with a sequel that would catch up with Hedwig many years down the line.
“It needs some work,” Mitchell admits, though he says a reading he did in the winter “went well.”
“It might be on stage. It might not,” he adds. “We’re developing it. And because it’s the continuation of this very rich character, that’s something that I would probably want to do … But I want to do it for me; make sure it’s fun for me. Doing Hedwig was so hard that I kind of burned out on acting.”
The idea of a sequel is thrilling to Hedwig fans, though there are, of course, concerns that it won’t live up to the original. A lot has changed since 1998. But as Mitchell suggests, that’s all the more reason for an older, wiser Hedwig to emerge.
“It just felt like time,” he says. “I had enough new things that could be examined through the voice of Hedwig that I just said, ‘Why not? Why waste this mouthpiece?’”
Hedheads shouldn’t expect anything in the near future, but in the meanwhile, they can content themselves with the brilliant current production and the perfect 2001 film, both as important now as they have ever been. Because, if they recall the words that Hedwig herself heard a moment too late, “Good things come to those who wait.”
An earlier version of this story referenced Neil Patrick Harris’ marriage to David Burtka; the two are engaged but are not yet married.