An Evening with Hedwig and Her Angry Inch
A couple months ago while doing my hostly duties at my company’s BEA party, I found myself in a fantastic conversation. It began when a friend/colleague apologized for being unable to hook me up with an interview with Neil Patrick Harris. He’s got what looks to be a wonderfully creative biography coming out in October that’s styled like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. The apology happened to come at a moment when I was chatting with actor Cary Elwes, who’s also anticipating a book release in October, and with whom I’d enjoyed an interview earlier that day.
I, of course, would have loved to talk to NPH about Choose Your Own Autobiography, but I confessed to my friend that there was one question that I personally feel like I need to know the answer to: Is there anything he’s actually not good at doing Elwes, as funny and as charming as this next sentence implies, quickly answered, “I bet he can’t ride a pennyfarthing bicycle.”
Fast forward to this past weekend. After idiotically turning down a free ticket to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch during BEA, I achieved a combination of luck, persistence, and willingness to spend far more than I typically would for a Broadway play in order to see the show before NPH’s departure August 17. Worth. Every. Penny.
I’ll admit, I was skeptical, even after seeing his recent performance on the Tony Awards. I never saw the original play back in 1998, and I’ve never seen any of the several other actors (and actresses) who have taken on the role. In my mind, the transgender “internationally ignored song stylist” Hedwig simply is John Cameron Mitchell in the 2001 movie. Or she was. From the moment the show began and Harris made his fabulous entrance from above all the way to then end as the final note was lost in the cheers and applause, there was no moment that a comparison to JCM crossed my mind.
Of course, that’s not to say he wasn’t a constant presence, after all, he not only originated the role, he wrote the story — the original, the movie, and now this production which has incorporated within it some clever timely and localized references. Or perhaps some of them are ad libs from Harris; it’s hard to tell. There are certainly improvised moments in the show, some blatant as he talks directly to an audience member, others seamless to a one-time attendee. This play may have won the award for best revival, but the telling certainly feels new. On the other hand, the songs are familiar old friends, though experiencing them in this setting felt like the difference between hearing a record and seeing a band live. There’s just nothing to compare to that shared experience, the musicians in front of you, tearing it up, their raw notes hitting you and coursing through you.
Likewise, there were moments of great artistry in the live performance that could only come from the stage. Where in the movie a dialog between Hedwig and her mentee/nemesis Tommy Gnosis would be a flashback, here Harris performed a solo dialog (as I assume all who play the role on stage do). He shifted flawlessly between the two characters within the span of seconds, imbuing each with her/his own aura and demeanor, as well as voice. Harris’s acting was truly mesmerizing in the scene.
And though there was more to come after, and plenty to impress throughout, it was that scene that stuck with me as we dissected our experiences in the cab on the way home. I won’t rehash the details here. Suffice it to say, I’m more confident than ever that there’s nothing Neil Patrick Harris isn’t good at, and there’s no question in my mind that he can, in fact, ride a pennyfarthing bicycle.
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