At the Belasco Theatre on Broadway, Neil Patrick Harris is giving the performance of the season in a role that stretches into someone not even remotely related to “Doogie Howser, MD” or a lad who tells us “How I Met Your Mother”. Both of these TV series endeared him to a very large audience over these past dozen years. His great skills as a master of ceremonies on the Tony Award Show and others have earned him another legion of devotees. He may well be the last entry in the Tony Award sweepstakes in the season just ended, and he should sweep all competition before him.
I have an early disclosure, so let’s get it out of the way. I have big problems, on the whole, with rock musicals on or off Broadway. Though Hair, the grandmother of them all, from the 1967-68 season, threatened everything I held sacred about American Musical Theatre, it also opened my mind to new forms and I liked it enough to invest what was for me then a considerable sum. That it made money delighted me, but I had thought it a fascinating anomaly, and expected rock’n roll to roll right back into the arena venues where it seemed very much at home.
It represented everything that Broadway wasn’t — it had no linear story to follow, it played itself out on a most unspectacular set, it was very low on laughs, it added little funny wires going down the backs of its performers, particularly difficult to hide when they were running around naked, and its hair styles, reflecting the title of the show, were a far cry from any seen before in our Golden Age of musicals. Galt McDermot, its composer, was hailed as the new and the now, and he and his collaborators were supposed to take us all along with them into a new and exciting form of entertainment.
It didn’t happen, but it did spawn a dozen disasters like Dude and Rockabye Hamlet and Soon and Jerry Springer and Aida and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. There were a number of successes as well, shows like Tommy and Rent which at least attempted to tell coherent stories, and to now and then come with something foreign to the genre, songs with melody in them, not just an insistent beat. I really tried to join the bandwagon, and I saw most of them, but eventually I gave up. I simply missed the thrill of live music, I missed the joy of responding to a bright lyric which I could actually hear and understand. I loathed what the ugly mic did to the ladies singing solos when they blasted their high notes, and I missed the humor that so many old time lyrics projected.
I did see one of the original off/Broadway productions of Hedwig and I reacted to it with the sort of curiosity you might use when seeing an odd artifact from an ancient time. John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote its book, played Hedwig and managed somehow to make his sad and gory tale accessible and affecting.
But now Harris dares to tackle one of the most demanding roles in musical theatre history. Hedwig is a boy who underwent surgery to become a girl, and when we meet her, she is somewhat grotesque in that the operation was only partially successful, and she’s been left with a crucial male inch to make her one transgender in a million. Her story is the play, and she tells it to us herself, using ten songs to help her along. Harris meets the challenge head on, and triumphs. He transforms himself into a lip-glossed, extravagantly wigged, outrageously gowned and ungowned female creature in thick golden wedgies. She shrieks of the “Sugar Daddy” who paid for her operation, of the “Angry Inch” that she’s stuck with, of the “Wicked Little Town” that never lets her forget she is an anomaly, constantly seeking contact with someone who can see into her soul and bring solace to her lonely life.
As written by Mitchell and his composer/lyricist Stephen Trask, it’s an intriguing but ugly tale that is honestly drawn and grimly fascinating. I’m glad I saw this revival, for Harris’ risk taking firmly establishes him as an actor of great power, who uses the material to nourish his constantly inventive performance.
The concept is that he is doing a one night showcase to invade the venerable Belasco Theatre by trading sexual favors for the opportunity to use the stage the night after another musical opened and closed “during intermission”, so he plays using the bits and pieces of the scenery scattered onstage, left behind by the departed flop. Michael Mayer has staged Hedwig’s story by using strobe lights, high flying wires, a battered automobile body, humongous speakers strewn hither and yon across the proscenium and a four piece rock band appropriately called “The Angry Inch”. The one other actor is Lena Hall, playing “Yitzhak”, a Jewish transvestite who has been engaged provided he never wears a wig or a gown when appearing with Hedwig, for he’s become Hedwig’s lover and assistant, and occasional partner in song.
It’s a compelling story, if a sordid one, and the artistry displayed by Mayer and the designers and the band and Lena Hall’s performance, all work together to support the incredible work being done by Neil Patrick Harris. I wisely brought along two ear plugs to help me through the more violent musical numbers, and that helped. The noise onstage was matched only by the shouts and shrieks of the wildly enthusiastic audience, who clearly got what they came for, and more.
I remain disenchanted with hard rock on Broadway, but I still felt I’d had a true theatre experience and all I can do is warn you. If you’re not in to the attack of these rock concerts called musicals, beware. But note also that by passing it up, you will cheat yourself of the thrill of watching the most accomplished star turn of the season.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is onstage at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.