Image: Joan Marcus
Disclaimer: the production I saw was in previews. It was damn near perfect, but here's your disclaimer anyway.
Neil Patrick Harris may make a better Hedwig than John Cameron Mitchell.
Is that possible? Is it hubris? I think I'm allowed to say it. After all, John Cameron Mitchell is the director who knew that Neil Patrick Harris was born to wear the wig. Moments into Saturday's performance, I, an avowed Hedhead, forgot that any other Hedwig had ever existed. Of course, John Cameron Mitchell will always be Hedwig - he created the character, he invented this world I love so desperately - but that's not what I was thinking about as I sat, rapt, on the very corner of my seat, trying to move as close to the stage and to Harris' Hedwig as I possibly could. For one hundred minutes, this Hedwig was my world.
Here's what makes Harris so perfectly suited for the wig:
He's spent much of his career working as a beloved mainstream performer, charming every demographic with his easy, middle-of-the-road appeal. He's gay but he's the sort of mild, non-threatening gay that middle American moms can enjoy and still feel edgy about it. Thanks to his roles as Barney in How I Met Your Mother and as, well, Neil Patrick Harris in Harold & Kumar, everyone from bros to stoners can relate to him. It's almost as if he wants to be something to everyone, and it leaves us entirely unsure of who Neil Patrick Harris really is.
That's Hedwig. She's Hedwig Schmidt, and she's Tommy Gnosis, she's Farrah Fawcett and she's Miss Beehive 1963. She's that little boy singing Lou Reed with his head in the oven - she's standing before us in the divide between East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom. Hedwig is dangerous. She's the first truly risky thing Neil Patrick Harris has ever done, and he fucking nailed it.
The new Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is updated in all of the right ways. The patter that comes between story and song is modernized without feeling trendy. The jokes don't just land; they soar. We're told that the beautifully designed stage, surrounded by a crumbling Berlin Wall with a beat-up car jutting from the wreckage, is on loan from a recently wrapped production of The Hurt Locker: The Musical. We even get to hear Yitzhak (Lena Hall), voice clear and delicate, sing a few bars from the The Hurt Locker, lyrics that would be poignant if they weren't so hilarious.
The animation for "The Origin of Love" is, I think, the biggest change, and though it leaves my long-cherished tattoo obsolete, it's also the best update to the original production. A transparent screen slides down, separating us from Hedwig and on which rolling, roiling sketches drench her as she sings,
And then storm clouds gathered above
Into great balls of fire
And then fire shot down
From the sky in bolts
Like shining blades
Of a knife.
I've always found it surprising that "Origin of Love" comes so early in the performance, only twenty minutes in, as it's the sort of passionate, moving, endlessly singable number that could stop a show for good. It's the kind of song that creates devotees - it's the song that won my heart, only a few minutes into the film the first time I watched it. I was transformed at once, covered in chills, focused entirely on this song, this person, the animation, the lyrics that mean so much to me now and always will. I loved the Broadway performance of Hedwig instantly, but the moment it became something more for me, the moment it became something I'd remember for the rest of my life, is "Origin of Love."
But I'd be remiss if I didn't say that every song thrilled me to the tips of my fingers and toes and down to the ends of my hair. The words "Don't you know me, Kansas City?" kick off the party with a wholly riotous version of "Tear Me Down." Harris wraps a fringe skirt around his waist while singing "Sugar Daddy" and we know what's coming - we're just left to wonder which lucky bastard in the audience will get the car wash this time. A theatre full of shining faces sings along with the bouncing wigs to "Wig in a Box," and when Hedwig says, "This is my favorite part," it's hard not to agree with her.
And, oh, "Midnight Radio." In many ways (although certainly not in number of lines), Hedwig is the story of Yitzhak. Hall spends much of the performance peering meekly out from heavy brow, this perfect manifestation of yearning - and in "Midnight Radio," she finally becomes the diva she was born to be, moving through the audience in a beautiful, violet butterfly gown (the costumes in Hedwig are nothing if not on-the-nose). And as Hedwig strips down to Hansel, to quiet, unadorned humanity, this song hits us so hard, filling us up - and suddenly gone.
Hedwig could end in no other way than "Midnight Radio," one of the great anthems for outsiders. Because this show has always been a story for the misfits and the losers - for those of us who have never fit into an easy box, who stand on our own divide between who we seem to be and who we truly are. The new production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch isn't just fan service to a popular story. It's made by people who want, who yearn - by a group of strange rock and rollers who finally, on stage in front of us, know that they're whole.