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Sex, Drag and Rock & Roll: Neil Patrick Harris Talks 'Hedwig'

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Neil Patrick Harrisattends the "Hedwig And The Angry Inch" Broadway cast photo call at The Empire Hotel in New York City.
Neil Patrick Harris attends the "Hedwig And The Angry Inch" Broadway cast photo call at The Empire Hotel in New York City.
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

A week before his first preview performance in the most flamboyant role of his career, Neil Patrick Harris is striding across the stage of the New York Theater Workshop in skinny jeans, a T-shirt that says "Rude Boy" and a newsboy's cap, holding a take-out coffee cup. He doesn't look anything close to his character, the title glitter-rock diva in the rock musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch – except for his gold-foil alpine-heel shoes and the saucy punctuation Harris puts into his hips and shoulders as he sings Hedwig's dress-up anthem "Wig in a Box."

See 5 essential musical moments from 'How I Met Your Mother'

But in or out of drag, Harris is the perfect wild card in Hedwig, which opens April 22nd at the Belasco Theater in its first Broadway production, directed by Michael Mayer. One of America's most popular television stars, Harris, 40, got his break in the late Eighties as the precocious teenager with a stethoscope in Doogie Howser M.D. A week after that Hedwig rehearsal, he was on screens across the country as Barney Stinson in the top-rated finale of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Harris also has plenty of musical theater under his belt, including appearances in Rent, Company and Cabaret and four stints hosting network broadcasts of the Tony Awards.

But in Hedwig, Harris is challenging himself and his mainstream appeal in a loud, acidically funny tale of emotional trial, blurred sexuality and rock & roll salvation originally born way off Broadway, at the Jane Street Theater in 1998. He belts and croons the show's gamut of glam, punk and introspection – the full-tilt anguish of "Tear Me Down" and "Angry Inch"; the exile's ballad "Wicked Little Town"; the empowerment finale "Midnight Radio" – with unexpected strength and depth, showing off his pre-rehearsal research of Tina Turner, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie records and YouTube clips. And when Harris isn't singing, he recounts the many injuries to Hedwig's heart and career in a pissed-off-Garbo accent between insults to her solid-rock band and lover-roadie, Yitzhak, played in reverse drag with moving resentment by Lena Hall.

"It's like peeling an onion," Harris says of Hedwig one afternoon before a preview. "You're learning about the music, how it affected that generation. You're also learning about the history of drag and transgender issues." In the Seventies, at glam's creative and commercial peak, "it was utterly shocking to see guys with guitars and dresses," notes Harris, who came out as gay in 2006. "It's different now. But that weirdly makes Hedwig's story a more personal journey."

Sex, Drag and Rock & Roll
Written by John Cameron Mitchell and composed by Stephen Trask, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the anguished and hilarious memoir of a lifelong outcast born in the former East Germany who suffers a botched sex change, gets stranded in a Midwest trailer park, starts a rock band with her teenage lover and is abandoned again when he becomes a star on songs they conceived together. "The show is about Hedwig's search for power her whole life," says Mitchell, who originated the role at Jane Street and directed and starred in the 2001 film version. "She stumbles on it for a minute, then she's destroyed, dragging herself forward in the dust."

That is a good metaphor for Hedwig as well. The show was a cult hit at Jane Street for two years but couldn't get any traction uptown until two years ago, when Mayer – who worked with Mitchell and Trask as they developed the character, story and songs in the mid-Nineties – agreed to direct. His first choice for the lead: Harris, who saw Hedwig at Jane Street and stayed in touch with the creators over the years. "We were like on a death watch of How I Met Your Mother," Mitchell cracks. "In effect, we waited for him for six years, for his show to end." Harris will play Hedwig at the Belasco until August 17th.

"The similarities are it's rock music, a live performance, incredible energy and the songs are fantastic," Mayer says, comparing Hedwig to his Broadway-hit adaption of Green Day's American Idiot. "The difference is American Idiot was more like an opera – the narrative was in the songs." Hedwig is "a wonderful one-character play. We're watching, in real time, this character decompose in front of us, then resurrect as a whole person."

Mitchell, Trask and Mayer have updated Hedwig's story to explain how she got to Broadway at all – no spoiler alert here, although there is a sly nod to the premise of Mel Brooks' The Producers. But Hall, a Broadway vet who came to Hedwig from Cyndi Lauper's show Kinky Boots and fronts her own band, the Deafening, is delighted that the Hedwig she saw at Jane Street got up to the Belasco without compromise. "They didn't take these awesome rock songs and sugar them up for Broadway," she says. "The music is real true."

So is the star. "I rehearsed with the band for awhile before Neil came in," Hall says. "When he joined us, it was solid. He's a household name. But he knows what he's doing. I thought, 'This is not going to be Broadway. This is authentic.'"

Despite the stamina he needs nightly for Hedwig, Harris – who is on stage talking, singing or jumping in heels for all of its 90 minutes – gave up part of his dinner break to talk about the show for a story in the current issue of Rolling Stone. Here is more about how he met Hedwig, the cult mother of rock musicals.

What parts of Hedwig appealed to you as an actor? And what parts, as someone coming from outside rock and drag, did you have to grow into?
I've always been one to strive for precision in what I do, whether that means building an IKEA bookcase or through my love of magic, of juggling. It's precision-based stuff. Barney Stinson [on How I Met Your Mother] had to do the craziest stuff and ground it in an authenticity that didn't undermine the pathos around him.

Hedwig is the opposite in every way. The makeup is supposed to get messy as she goes on. The awkward postures are more effective than the pretty ones. It's not a show where everything is locked and set in stone. That alone has been very challenging for me.

I've never walked in heels, really. I guess I did in Cabaret for a hot second [laughs] but certainly not at this level. There have been body awareness things for me as well. But I like to do physical stuff. I love Cirque du Soleil and [the New York interactive show] Sleep No More. The things I've been most impressed by involve some sort of dexterity.

Stephen Trask told me that for awhile, in rehearsing your entrance – where you jump from the hood of a car – you were leaping from the roof instead, in those heels.
I realized very quickly that although I could do that, I probably shouldn't night after night. If I get a stress fracture in my toe, I'm kind of fucked.

Were there songs that took awhile for you to conquer? Hedwig has a variety of voices for a gamut of styles: ballads, punk bullets, epic pounders. And you weren't coming into this as a seasoned rock singer.
Stephen is a fantastic musical mentor. He loves explaining his decisions in the music, the people who helped define who he was. I could ask him, "Who are you using as your inspirations here?" He would tell me – "A little bit of B-52's and Ramones here" – and I could research them individually.

Michael Mayer said that you watched a lot of Tina, Iggy and Bowie videos. What did you learn about the physical expression in rock singing, especially for a woman?
It's a lot more frowning and a lot less looking up at the spotlight and smiling [laughs]. Musical-theater performers have that wistful, earnest look, right at the horizon. I love watching it and doing it. But this is not the show for that. When you look at Tina, she's in it – sweaty, twitching her mouth making oooh's while her legs are making aaah's.

During rehearsals in New York, you played a surprise club gig with the Hedwig band, minus the makeup and heels, at the Mercury Lounge – your first rock show for a paying crowd. What was that like?
That was rad – far nastier than I thought it would be. The buildup was terrifying – going out as myself. I need some sort of story or structure. Just singing songs was revealing too much of the fact that I didn't know what the fuck I was doing.

You and everyone else who's ever been in a band, going on stage for the first time.
That's what I learned. You notice it on American Idol, when someone who is very talented is unsure in their own core. You want to shake them and say, "Do whatever you want to do. You're gonna be fine."

At a rock concert, they're not sitting there with their arms crossed. They're out for a fun night. They've got four drinks in them, and they want to dance, to have fun. What I thought was a ton of pressure was void of pressure. You could jump around, point to someone, throw water, do whatever you wanted. It was a nice exhalation.

If there's one odd aspect of Hedwig as theater, it's that the audience watches it sitting down. Even at Jane Street, when Hedwig and the band were kicking it, my instinct was to get up and move.
We've talked about that a lot. The people in the mezzanine and balcony are more of the diehards. You can see them leaning forward, shaking their shoulders. They want to get up. But it's not the right time. I would love to have a show like that – maybe a Saturday-night late show.

Take the seats out.
That would be crazy town – have them up the whole time.

It has to be exhausting for you in any case – you are on stage the whole time, the center of the story and action. When you're not singing, you're railing in that German accent.
It is exhausting, but only the following day. But the exhilaration of getting to do it – it's a train that doesn't stop. As a piece of art, it is profound. But I'm allowed to be the train conductor – slow it down, go out of control, veer around. And Neil enjoys that power as much as Hedwig. It's fun to be there, in a giant number with strobes and massive craziness, then get to do something small and slight and have people affected by that.

I just hope I don't destroy my body before my committment is done.

Iggy Pop has survived a lot worse.
That's true. This is worth a couple of bangs and scrapes to do this every night.

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David Fricke

Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke has more than 10,000 albums in his New York apartment. His first record review for the magazine was Frank Zappa's 'Sheik Yerbouti' (RS 290).

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