Gender Bender: An Oral History of 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

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Broadway, Baby
Mayer: One summer on Fire Island, I had brunch with David Binder and we were walking on the beach. He said, "I really want to try and do Hedwig on Broadway with John starring in it. Would you be interested in directing it?" I said that it would be amazing and I would love to. Then nothing happened. Because at that point John's directing career had really taken off after Hedwig the movie, and he was concentrating on other stuff. 

Binder: John, Stephen and I started talking about a Broadway show about five or six years ago. There was a point where maybe John was going to do the show, and then he decided that that was not something he wanted to do. 

Mitchell: Stephen, the producers and I had been concocting this plan for years. The producer came up and said it might be about time. Then it was more about who would play Hedwig. He wanted someone who could bring in people who wouldn't know about it, which is understandable as you've got to sell 7,000 to 8,000 seats a week. I had pretty much quit acting after the last run because it's so taxing — and rewarding. But I felt like nothing else really came close to the excitement of it, so I started focusing more on writing and directing. I haven't really acted since then, except for a few episodes of Girls. Now I'm retired again. 

Mayer: I never heard another word about it until about two years ago when I got another call from David and he said, "Look, we really want to do Hedwig on Broadway." And I said, 'Oh my god, John wants to do it?' and he said no, that it wouldn't be John. And I said, 'Oh, wow. Yes, I'm interested. And it's going to be Neil Patrick Harris, right?' That was my first thought. Immediately. And he said, "Well he's not available," so they had already been talking to another actor. I got on the phone with everyone and it didn't take me long to convince them. Neil was genuinely interested, but just not available because of his TV show. I said: 'Well, let's wait for him. That's really the thing to do.'

Binder: We always wanted Neil — always. It was an ongoing discussion with him for years. But Neil was on a TV show that he had committed to, and then three years ago he had the twins. It took us a long, long time. He wanted to do it, but he just had obligations — personal ones and professional ones. I mean, he has twins! It really became a waiting game. 

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Mitchell: There were other actors who we knew would be great but they had a really strong instinct about Neil. I had known him socially enough to say hello to over the years; he came to Hedwig and it was intense for him. It was the antithesis of L.A. in some ways — it was dirty and ugly and messy, and I could see his eyes glowing. But that was 15 years ago. So when they suggested him, I thought that was a fascinating idea. We were basically on a death watch for How I Met Your Mother, because there was no way he could do it with the show. 

Mayer: He's got all of these amazing skills that work so brilliantly for this: the acting, the singing, the dancing. He's an incredible host, and Hedwig is sort of the host for the evening. Neil's great at improvising — we've seen him do that at the Tony Awards — so he's got that great rapport with the audience. I just loved Neil's integrity as an artist, and his bravery as a gay artist. I had an instinct that this would give him an opportunity to just dig into parts of himself that he's never needed to access before for his work. 

Mitchell: There were other wonderful people we talked to, but when he became available, the producers were like, 'This is the guy.' And they were right — he was the guy. But he didn't even know that. He said, "I've never done rock, I'm not very girly.' I'm like, look, this is a role. You're a great actor and an incredible performer in many ways. This is going to scare the shit out of you. And it's exactly what you need to do after nine years of playing the same guy. This is perfect. This will clear the slate and burn up your insides. In my view, it has reinvented him as an actor who can do anything.

Mayer: I have a ton of respect for what Peter Askin did in the original, so it was really important to me that I not duplicate any of his work to the best of my ability. If you're doing a revival of something that's been done a million times — like if you're doing Hamlet yet again — you can do sort of anything you want. But this is a beloved show and has a real following with a lot of people devoted to it. I knew they would all be coming to see it, so it was important to me that I approach this like a new place, not as a revival.

Mitchell: The schedule was dicey — he had to rehearse in bits and pieces. We only had three weeks from when his show was over until the first performance, which has never been done on Broadway. But he's such a quick study that he made it happen. Michael Mayer, who I had had a long association with, just pulled everyone together beautifully. I was in charge of little things, like the animation, but I kept in the background to let Neil and him really find the character. I didn't want to upset his process as the old guy breathing down his neck. But it was in great shape as soon as I saw it, so I was thrilled. It's a totally different experience, but you leave with the same feeling.

Mayer: We didn't make any changes to the show to make it more mainstream. We changed the production values so that people who were going to be paying the big, Broadway dollars to come see the show wouldn't be disappointed in the physical production. John came up with a really great concept with this failed musical of The Hurt Locker — and a certain amount of oral "inspiration" from Hedwig performed onto a key member of the Schubert organization so that she could get one night only. All of that I think was really, really smart. It allowed us to have a real Broadway set, to do some fun stuff; we could fly Hedwig in, we could have lifts, we could have some major lighting and visuals that would enhance the whole evening and make it feel like a Broadway show without violating the truth that was Hedwig's story. 

Binder: We've always wanted to lots of incredible looks for Hedwig and really embrace the drag, and now because we have a bigger budget, we can do that. So I think the show has become more rock and roll. It's become more of what it is: rougher, wilder, embracing what it is even more.

Hedwig's next chapter
There are other stories to be told through Hedwig's voice. If I wanted to make a lot of money with Hedwig, I could have spent all my time on it. But that's boring. Some people end up becoming just a conservator of the one thing they did and making sure they get their merch out and all that. What's interesting is that some of the things I'm interested in talking about is a story which has to do with the second half of your life, which can be told through Hedwig's voice because she's older. If the timeline is consistent, she's as old as me. So we've been working on a sequel. I think it's going to take multiple forms — though in what order, I'm not sure. My goal is to do a trilogy and when I'm 70 to do the final chapter. 

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