Put on some makeup, turn up the eight-track, and pull the wig down from the shelf, because cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is coming to Broadway for the very first time. But does a swanky new setting mean this version of the show will be kinder, gentler, and altogether less gritty?
In a word: nein. ”I don’t want the Broadway version of Hedwig to be all jazz hands,” says star Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the musical’s titular gender-bending rocker. “It needs to be rough around the edges at all times.”
That said, Harris and his cohort – director Michael Mayer, book writer (and original star) John Cameron Mitchell, composer/lyricist Stephen Trask, and costar Lena Hall – have made a few necessary alterations to Hedwig as they prepare to mount the production, which begins previews March 29 and opens April 22. Here’s what fans and Hedwig virgins alike can expect to see from the show:
1. A “sexual Hedwig”
Not that John Cameron Mitchell’s version of the internationally ignored song stylist was asexual by any means – but Harris promises that his Hedwig’s dirty side will be very much on display. (He calls his 2003 run as the Emcee in Cabaret “great preparation.”) ”It’s modern-day Hedwig, so it’s a different character,” Harris explains. She may also be a little less glib and a little more messed-up than the Hedwig we’re used to: “What’s exciting for me is that the damaged elements of Hedwig, the gross elements of the show, of the character, need to be honored and embraced by me as Neil.”
The show’s creative team is fully on board with that. Both Mayer and Trask say that Hedwig’s trip to Broadway wouldn’t be happening at all if not for Harris’s involvement. In fact, the show’s been in the works for several years, waiting patiently in the wings while NPH fulfilled his commitment to How I Met Your Mother – and finally had an opening in his schedule. “I think the salient feature here is that he can talk to a thousand people and have it be as intimate as it was when John was talking to a couple hundred down at the Jane Street [Theatre],” Mayer explains. Adds Trask: “Like, you check off the list of people that can do [the part] and then can sell a sh–load of tickets, and it’s like ‘Oh, it’s that guy.’”
2. A new-ish backstory
Hedwig is structured as a concert being performed in a dingy dive that happens to be just steps from a much grander venue, which is simultaneously hosting a show featuring Tommy Gnosis – the ex-lover who stole Hedwig’s songs and broke her heart. But how does that premise work when Hedwig itself has taken residence in the glitzy Belasco Theatre? Take it away, Mayer: “The idea is that Tommy is doing a giant live concert on Times Square. So he’s right outside the door. So she had to be near him, and the nearest venue she could find was the Belasco. And the way she got into that theater I think is really fun, and the reason that theater is available is also fun. And I don’t want to spoil that joke.”
3. A brief new songlet
Trask’s catchy original tunes are all intact, and he assures that he’s never felt tempted to tinker with any of his lyrics. There will, however be one “new piece of musical writing,” Mayer teases – though Trask cautions fans not to get too excited: “I wouldn’t make too big a deal of it. It’s a joke moment, not like, an actual song.”
4. A bolder Yitzhak
Hedwig’s put-upon backup-singer-slash-husband will share a bit more of the show’s spotlight this time around. He’s going to have a dark, brooding, James-Dean-meets-Marlon-Brando vibe. We’ll get to hear his take on “The Long Grift,” one of Hedwig’s more plaintive songs, as well. And actress Lena Hall, who’s currently wrapping up a run in a very different drag-themed show (Kinky Boots), couldn’t be more excited to tackle the beefed-up role: “You get more of a sense of the pain of his situation, and more of a sense of his unrequited love for Hedwig,” she says. Good thing Hall’s prepared to dive into all that angst; she won the part by devising a Kickstarter campaign in character as Yitzhak, complete with a video monologue, then presenting it to the show’s creative team. “It was either going to be amazing, or it was going to be the worst thing ever. So lucky for me, it was amazing – or they thought so,” she says with a laugh.
5. A fuller sound
Hedwig’s cast includes exactly six people: Harris as Hedwig, Hall as Yitzhak, and four musicians – including music director Justin Craig – as Hedwig’s band, here called Tits of Clay. But thanks to some clever arranging and band members who all play multiple instruments, Trask says the music will have more texture than ever. Backup singing from Tits of Clay will round out the show’s vocals as well. “It will sound sometimes like seven people,” he explains, “because there’ll be the sort of stuff you do in a studio.”
6. Lots of improvisation
Hedwig is designed to be loose and endlessly adaptable, and even a trip to Broadway won’t mean calcification. “We’re not setting a lot of the choreography, and there’s ad-libs aplenty,” assures Harris. “It’s going to be a bit of a free-form show. But I think that’s what will make it exciting. Like, ugly is pretty in the world of Hedwig. Tragic is sexy.” The songstress couldn’t have put it better herself.