Picture 1990s New York, West Soho — long before the area exploded with zillion-dollar condos. The place? Don Hill’s and the event is the weekly gay/bisexual/drag queen/freak rock ‘n’ roll party, known as Squeezebox!.
Don Hill’s place offered an alternative at a time when the muscle boys of Chelsea defined the rigid and conformist gay scene in New York. His was a 70s-style androgyny, which wasn’t exclusively gay, but rather a polysexual free-for-all. Don Hill’s certainly wasn’t about bottle service for celebrities and fashion models. At its heart, it offered a sense of community and an alternative reality to escape to with its clutch of witty, weekly events like Squeezebox!, Bitch, Rock Candy and Beaver… each creating the anticipation that something unexpected was always going to happen.
It was here, at Squeezebox!, where the character (and “internationally ignored song stylist”), known as Hedwig Robinson, was conceived. Co-creator, John Cameron Mitchell, explains: “What was happening at the time is that drag queens who had never sung before were realizing that they didn’t need to sing well to be real punk-rock stars. They were finding their voices, having lip-synched for so long, and it was just amazing…” Once the Muse visited him after what he witnessed on stage at Squeezebox!, John started to develop the character Hedwig — loosely based on a German female babysitter/prostitute who worked for John’s family when he was a teenager.
Stephen Trask, John’s close friend and the ‘sort of’ musical director of Squeezebox’s house band, encouraged John to showcase his early material. John then approached Michael Schmidt, Co-Founder of SqueezeBox! about his idea for Hedwig. Schmidt says: “I was concerned the other drag and transgender entertainers wouldn’t tolerate an actor who wasn’t really interested in being one of them. I explained that these other performers’ drag personae were an extension of their lives, that they make their livelihoods from entertaining in drag, and that they take their craft extremely seriously. I told him essentially that this couldn’t be a lark for him. He couldn’t play Hedwig; he had to be Hedwig.”
John: “So I started thinking more about the character and the transgender aspect — the sort of castration angle — and the involuntary sex change just came to me… I was thinking about the origin of love; I was thinking about Berlin, where my parents had lived; I was looking at the performers and it was just sort of like, yes. This is the metaphor: To walk away, you’ve got to leave something behind.”
David Binder, the producer for one of the first productions at the Westbeth Theatre, reminisces and tells how a lot of the elements in the first production were different. For example, Stephen hadn’t written the end of the show yet, used to end with a German glam rendition of Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life.
At Westbeth Theatre the set was TGI Fridays, so the walls were bric-a-brac and there were red and white tablecloths on tables that the audiences could sit at — a far cry from what the show is today, having recently received 8 Tony Nominations including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical (Neil Patrick Harris) and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Lena Hall).
The first full ‘version’, as Michael Mayer the director of Hedwig on Broadway put it, was a series of monologues (bits and pieces thrown together by John and Stephen) that ultimately became Hedwig… and there was a band — Cheater. No artistic director wanted to touch the show. “It was too rock and roll for the gay people and too gay for the rock and roll people… too music-y for the theatre people and too theatre-y for the music people. It was just in-between everything, in the same way that Hedwig is in-between genders” says Mayer. However, they continued to workshop their material at numerous venues for another four years before premiering the completed musical at the Jane Street Theatre, on February 14, 1998. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an instant cult hit, running until April 9, 2000 after 857 performances and won the Village Voice Obie Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.
Since then, the show has been performed on stages all over the world, including the Playhouse Theatre (London’s West End), Frankfurt, Berlin, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Prague, Rio de Janeiro and Bremen. In the summer of 2012, a production at Boxcar Theatre, in A San Francisco, featured twelve actors, male and female and of multiple ethnicities, portraying Hedwig in each show. Stage productions have played for many years in Japan and in 2008, Korea hosted a popular televised Reality Show about the search for a new star to play Hedwig. A revival of the production, in December 2012, featured eight actors nightly in the lead role.
Finally, on 22 April 2014, two decades after its first conception in the backstreets of SoHo, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre. For this latest production, John Cameron Mitchell has slightly reworked the 95-minute show and the end-result is a more polished version of the anguished and hilarious memoir of the East German “slip of a girlyboy” named Hansel — 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 the back of songs they wrote together.
After nine seasons in a suit and tie in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, the Emmy winner, Neil Patrick Harris goes glam with fishnets, glitter and a giant blonde wig in Hedwig. In this funny tale of emotional trial, blurred sexuality and rock & roll salvation, Harris is challenging himself and his mainstream appeal by belting and crooning the show’s gamut of glam, punk and introspection… a performance that trula has taken Broadway by storm.
Rolling Stone magazine called it “the Best Rock Musical Ever“.
Variety Magazine said: “It’s astonishing how polished a physical performance Harris gives. Channelling his inner Rockette, along with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed by way of the Ramones, he carries off some advanced dance and acrobatic moves, while showing a lot of shapely leg, in this spectacular revival of the 1998 musical.”
Time magazine called it: “… the most exciting rock score written for the theatre since, oh, ever.”
The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Harris milks maximal variation from what is merely a serviceable tenor. His dance moves feel like such a natural extension of Hedwig’s confrontational personality that you forget that they’ve been carefully choreographed (by Spencer Liff)… The man playing Hedwig never loses control, though. With this show, Mr. Harris joins an elite club of musical-comedy male supernovas that has exactly one other member these days, Hugh Jackman.”
Hedwig is Harris’ first appearance on Broadway since he starred as The Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald, in the 2004 Tony-winning revival of Assassins. His other Broadway credits include Proof and Cabaret. He recently wrapped production for the final season of How I Met Your Mother and has been honoured with four Emmy Awards: three for his acclaimed hosting of the Tony Awards and another for his guest-starring role on Glee.
The film of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, won the Audience Award and Best Director Awards at Sundance. Mitchell won the Best New Director from the National Board of Review, the Gotham Awards, and the LA Critics Society.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1 hour 35 minutes) plays for a limited engagement at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, Manhattan. The run ends on 17 August 17.