Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Some actors just want to give you pleasure, and they’ll do anything it takes. Part of the fun of watching them is seeing just how hard they’ll work. Neil Patrick Harris is one such performer, particularly when he hosts awards shows, and his hosting skills are definitely called upon in this Broadway revival of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s downtown cult hit of the late 1990s (through at least August 17). As Hedwig, a transgender singer with a broken heart and a bitter edge, Harris works the audience from the moment he’s lowered onto the stage, tossing his Farrah Fawcett hair and grimacing at his own threadbare double entendres.
Mitchell has spruced up the book with some sharp topical references, and Harris gets his laughs, but he also does much more. As the show builds in intensity and the full scale of Hedwig’s tragic outsiderdom is made clear, Harris has to access emotions he’s not usually asked to play: shame, doubt, rage. And he takes the audience with him into these uncomfortable feelings as surely as he landed his earlier jokes. Strikingly, it doesn’t feel like Harris is stretching himself. Rather, it’s as if finding these darker places frees something powerful and touching in him that he’s always kept out of his work.
Harris delights in getting down and dirty, jumping on top of men in the audience and hurling himself precariously up and around the sides of the stage so that sometimes you worry he might fall and hurt himself. (There aren’t too many other people on stage aside from Hedwig’s mostly silent band and Hedwig’s partner Yitzhak, played by Lena Hall.) At one point, Harris kissed a guy in the front row, and it was clear to me that this guy was very heterosexual and had probably been taken to the show by his girlfriend. But he just nodded his head as if to say, “All right, I’m going with this, sure. Do your stuff.” I watched this guy throughout the rest of the performance, and he looked impressed and involved.
Hedwig drew a devoted cult audience in the late 90s, and now here it is on Broadway with an out gay star without having been dumbed down or modified in any way to make it palatable to a mass audience. In 2014, what was only for downtown has moved into the mainstream without losing any of its edge or its point, and I’m just old enough to consider that a minor miracle. Hedwig is based on the style and hurt of all those downtown icons like Kiki and Herb and the whole drag-punk Squeezebox milieu, and Harris has made a career-changing triumph out of it by fearlessly bringing it right out into the open for
everyone to see.