Word for Word: How Hedwig and the Angry Inch Came to Life Onstage
An oral history of the show's creation, starring Neil Patrick Harris, John Cameron Mitchell, Stephen Trask, Michael Mayer, and David Binder.
In 1998, a show called Hedwig and the Angry Inch took the theater world by storm when it opened at the Jane Street Theatre. Telling the story of an East German transgender punk-rock singer out to prove that someone stole her songs, the production, directed by Peter Askin, instantly made a star out of John Cameron Mitchell, who both played the title role and wrote the semi-semi-autobiographical musical with Stephen Trask. In the ensuing years, Hedwig has been performed around the world and even turned into a film. Now, a show that couldn't have been further from the mainstream is preparing to make its Broadway debut, starring Neil Patrick Harris, beginning March 29 at the Belasco Theatre.
To prepare for Hedwig's triumphant return, TheaterMania spoke with the people who were there (and made it possible).
John Cameron Mitchell (coauthor, original star): Stephen Trask and I met on a plane. We were the only people not watching the movie, which was When Harry Met Sally. We kept bumping into each other over several years and eventually I was seeking a composer for a rock-and-roll theater piece. I wanted someone who wasn't from the theater world, who was authentically rock and roll. Around that time, I went to see [Trask's] band at CBGB and he came to see me in Hello Again at Lincoln Center Theater. We both decided to work together.
Stephen Trask (coauthor): I didn't think we were gonna perform [Hedwig] for anyone other than our friends. I thought it was gonna be two nights with no set and a group of a hundred and fifty friends and they'd applaud and we'd have a commemorative poster and that would be that.
John Cameron Mitchell: The main character was Tommy Gnosis at first, 'cause he was the general's son, which is how I grew up. Hedwig was a small character based on my babysitter, whose name was Helga. I would tell these stories and Stephen was like, "Well, she sounds really interesting." He encouraged me to do a gig at SqueezeBox, where I had to do the female character, because it was a drag club. That first gig was huge. It was an explosive epiphany.
David Binder (producer): It was never presented to me like, "Here's the script of Hedwig." John Cameron Mitchell had the idea of a character and he said, "Come to this club called SqueezeBox and I'll do a little bit of it." There were no songs — just the idea of a character called Hansel who became Hedwig. When I went to SqueezeBox to see it, it was amazing.
Michael Mayer (revival director): My association with Hedwig goes back to the beginning when John Cameron Mitchell started writing. This is '95. I didn't know what the hell it was but I knew he was on to something. When he and Steven had put it together, they asked me to direct it and I was thrilled. We did some workshops and showings of it, and then my Broadway show, Triumph of Love, came into play. It was right when David Binder opted to produce Hedwig, so I couldn't do both. I chose Triumph of Love because that was something I had initiated myself. It was a sad moment for me.
John Cameron Mitchell: Peter Askin became our director and he was wonderful, a really great dramaturg. I can't emphasize enough how important he was in making it a play [as opposed to just] a rock act. He was the one who encouraged the idea of Tommy's show happening nearby and Hedwig checking in on it. He was very, very important in making the idea what it was.
Reviving Hedwig (and Bringing It to Broadway)
Stephen Trask: Part of the impetus for us bringing it back started with a trip John and I took to South Korea, where we performed two stadium shows at the Olympic Park for thousands of screaming fans. We were there for two weeks living in the same hotel and having a blast revisiting the stuff.
John Cameron Mitchell: David Binder said, "Let's do it. The time is right and Broadway is ready for Hedwig, finally." Rock and roll and drag are no longer frightening. They're almost de rigueur for Broadway.
Michael Mayer: This is like a date with destiny, maybe. I stayed very close with John and Stephen, and a few years ago, there was an idea that maybe John would come back to Broadway with it.
John Cameron Mitchell: I didn't want to do the eight shows [again]. Could I share it with someone? Who would want to share? Also, I did it for so long. I'm much more paternal about it. I love to see all my little Hedwigs of the world finding their own joy. I meet everyone who's played it and there's a kinship. The one thing they all say is that, in terms of acting, nothing ever frightened them again.
Neil Patrick Harris (revival star): I got a call asking me about my interest in doing a version of Hedwig on Broadway, which was a very scary thought. But it was three years ago and I was still doing How I Met Your Mother, so I said I'd love to do it but I couldn' t do it for three years. And I knew they wouldn't wait. Then they ended up pushing it back.
Michael Mayer: When it turned out that How I Met Your Mother was ending, it seemed like perfect timing.
Neil Patrick Harris: So here we are. It's a nice next step after the TV show.
John Cameron Mitchell: The wonderful thing about Neil is that he's so engaging to all kinds of people. He is loved and accepted by moms, by little kids, by people my age. I think of him as a quadruple threat.
David Binder: Neil makes it accessible. People are ready to go on any journey with him.
Stephen Trask: I think that Broadway is gonna embrace this show. I'm not worried about our ability to fill a theater. That's not really a problem. And if the music isn't big enough, we'll just turn it up.