Whether you like it or not, Hedwig has returned to the New York theater scene, and this time, it’s on the great White Way, and carrying the star power of Neil Patrick Harris to bring in all new audiences.
Launched as a small production in an abandoned ballroom of the hotel that housed the Titanic survivors, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” was first performed in 1998 by book writer/star John Cameron Mitchell. It originally ran for two years at the Jane Street theater, eventually spinning off a Los Angeles, London, multiple Asian companies, and an original cast feature film adaptation.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is presented as a rock concert. Cheated out of the songs she wrote by the Justin Bieber esque former lover Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig has launched a companion tour, in this case playing the street outside his New York show to tell the story of leaving behind her male self to escape East Germany, and the universal quest to find our lost other half.
Upon entering the Belasco Theatre and seeing the set, I was immediately impressed. Costing at least five times the original show’s $30,000 budget, the urban street setting, complete with haphazardly parked car feels both Broadway and rock n roll at the same tine. After the customary warnings about flash photography! cell phones! and the special place in hell they will guarantee you! Hedwig herself drops in like the Archangel Gabriel to the strains of a Hendrix-esque rendition of “America”, and launches into the raucous opening number “Tear Me Down”.
Neil Patrick Harris has talked a lot about having to unlearn the Broadway style for this show. So many jukebox musicals like “We Will Rock You”, or “American idiot” are doomed before they start, because the songs are never meant to be sung with heavy emphasis on vibratto and dramatic choral sections. Composer Stephan Trask was apparently quite the taskmaster to ensure his baby wouldn’t see the same fate. Compared to a short clip released a few weeks back, Harris has taken the lessons well, embracing the inner Rock god he never knew he had, literally climbing the walls to expel the demon of punk.
Experienced HedHeads will notice new arrangements at play, some of which like “Sugar Daddy” play to Harris’ voice better than the original. The live band is hot, with a greater emphasis on the bass than the cast album or movie recordings. There’s a great club grittiness that sparkles and celebrates Hedwig’s origins at the Squeezebox, giving the concert aspect of the show the exact same standards and feel as a straight up rock show. Special mention should be given to the effects crew, who enhance Hedwig, not only with the usual rock accoutrements, but with animation like the movie. Especially impressive is “Origin of. Love”, where the gods, hammers, and giants dance, swim and flow around Hedwig, creating a magical, Fantasia-like number that is just delightful. Hedwig takes advantage of it’s comparably huge Broadway budget without going overboard, enhancing without removing the focus from what is really a show more akin to The Fantasticks than Guys and Dolls, scaling from a shoebox to the grand stage almost effortlessly.
Neil Patrick Harris is at his best during the quiet parts, when he’s alone on stage, alone in the spotlight baring Hedwig’s soul to the audience. NPH had virtually no experience with drag shows before signing into Hedwig, and he’s obviously still learning the moves, the banter, and the shoes of the genre. This new Broadway rendition of the show is at least 30-40 percent new material, and he’s obviously still learning and evolving during this preview period (The show officially opens April 22), but his instincts are promising. A scream at the mention of Anne Murray’s name lead to “Oh Ann, I didn’t see you there, thank you for coming!” to raucous laughter. Co-star Lena Hall does an amazing job stepping into Yitzhak’s beard, her powerful voice delivering the lost lyrics of the fictional Hurt Locker: The musical (the play that opened and closed the previous day) with power and passion.
I discovered Hedwig through the film version when it came out on DVD, and regretted not having been able to catch the original cast who I had the chance. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway is a whole new show, taking the clay of the original and re-firing it with a new glaze. Veterans, of which I was one of the fee by the reaction to various in-jokes eill see the shoe through new eyes, and NPH’s following, who seemed to make up the majority of the audience will tell their friends about this raucous new show that most people have never heard of. It’s new for everyone, and that the best thing a revival can be, better than Cats, and at $50 for the balcony, one of the best bangs for your buck on Broadway.Purchase Hedwig and the Angry Inch on DVD From Amazon