For Hedwig and the Angry Inch to make the leap from the relative obscurity of downtown theater to the bright lights of Broadway, the show needed a few touch-ups and strategic nips and tucks. The transformation clearly did the trick: The production racked up eight Tony nominations, winning four awards on Sunday, including Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical (Neil Patrick Harris) and Best Revival of a Musical. But according to Hedwig creators John Cameron Mitchell (writer-actor) and Stephen Trask (composer-lyricist), as well as the 2014 revival’s director, Michael Mayer, the story about a not-so-sweet transgender singer has been something of a work in progress ever since its 1998 Off-Broadway debut at the Jane Street Theater, and the tweaks keep on coming.
“When I thought about redoing the show, I knew I didn’t want to perform it again,” Mitchell, who originated the Hedwig role, told Vulture in a recent interview. “What excited me was re-conceptualizing it.” The process is apparently continual: When we spoke with Mitchell a week prior to the Tony Awards, he said that he was still adding new lines to the script and texting new jokes to Harris. These changes haven’t been merely cosmetic or intended to smooth out jagged edges for the more mainstream tourist crowd turning up for the revival, either. Many of the bits and songs come across as being more risqué and more aggressive than those from the original run of the show. “I don’t think people realize how different it is,” said Trask. “We knew the direction we wanted to take the show in, but the specific changes came over time.”
In reimagining the character for the big stage, the team behind the musical had to figure out how Hedwig, “an internationally ignored song stylist,” could simultaneously be appearing on Broadway in a glossy production yet self-identifying as an underdog. “It always made sense when she was in a dive downtown,” said Mayer. To get around the problem of upping the ante without losing the rationale behind the character, Mitchell and Trask hit upon the idea of having Hedwig scavenge the stage of a show that had recently closed. “She has her 15 seconds of fame and knows she better make the most of it,” said Mitchell. But they still needed to explain how Hedwig pulled off such a maneuver. And so it came to pass that Hedwig claims that, in return for use of the stage, she fellated Bob Wankel, the president of the Shubert Organization theater chain.
Mitchell originally thought it would be fitting to do the show on the set of the recently closed Rent and incorporate it into the updated Hedwig plot, but timing and logistics scuttled that idea. They decided to make up a musical instead. “We thought it would be more fun if they were striking the set of a movie musical, but every movie we thought of was already a musical, and a bad one,” said Mitchell. Finally they hit upon the absurd concept of a stage production of the sobering 2008 Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker. “But this was not just a one-off gag,” Mitchell said. “We love to work from all the angles. Hedwig’s armor is her dress, and Michael starts peeling away at the Hurt Locker set and at Hedwig’s armor until nothing is left but the stage and her body.” (Mayer says he originally wanted to have stagehands removing the scenery during the performance, but it became a distraction.)
Mitchell and Mayer also wanted to capitalize on the Belasco Theatre’s location; while considered to be a Broadway house, it is situated on the opposite side of Times Square in relation to other theaters in its class, the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. This provides Hedwig with a wonderful insider joke, ad-libbing that the production is “East of Broadway — E-Bra.” Mitchell also played up the story of David Belasco, whose ghost supposedly appears in priestly attire, by having Hedwig address audience members sitting in the box where Belasco purportedly appears by saying, “If you’re touched by a priest, for God sake, speak up.”
Mayer said that a few of these jokes go a long way. “It’s not how far we could push it,” he said, “but how much we need of it.” To keep the story moving along, he made the decision to excise another insider-y bit that played off the car-bomb scene in The Hurt Locker, only in this case, the joke involved the musical itself being the bomb and New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley being carried out in a stretcher.
The passing of time also necessitated some changes. When the original production debuted at the Westbeth Theatre 16 years ago, Mitchell was 35, or roughly five years younger than Harris is now. Mayer said that this meant “the timing of Hedwig’s story had to be fudged a little — we didn’t want people sitting there worrying about numbers.” The time warp also required some updating of pop-culture references. “We’re talking to Phil Collins,” for example, became “We’re talking to John Mayer,” a reference Mitchell deemed appropriate because the two musicians are similar in terms of “being talented but fairly middle-of-road.”
At one point, Mitchell rewrote a line to say that Luther, Hedwig’s ex, ran off “with that bag boy he met on ChristianMingle.com,” but Mayer said that they found out during rehearsals that the website didn’t exist when that event was supposed to have occurred. The bit was saved when Harris added the kicker “… or whatever we called it back then — church.” Mayer singled out that line as the one that “gets the biggest laugh in the show,” and chalks it up to the actor’s improvisation abilities. The actor’s prowess going off-script allowed Mitchell to leave spots in the script where the former How I Met Your Mother star could riff. “He’s disciplined enough that he won’t get tangential,” said Mitchell.
The songs that drive the story were also reimagined in ways both large and small, Trask said. For starters, he made sure the musicians being hired were multi-instrumentalists, so that they could all fill in “making it sound like there are more than six people, since it needed to be much bigger and fuller for a Broadway theater.” He and musical director Justin Craig listened to the cast album and the movie soundtrack, as well as cover versions, mixing and matching along the way. Every song has different arrangements, though some are relatively subtle. But others are “fundamentally different,” Trask said. They lifted backing vocals for the song “Sugar Daddy” from a production in Denmark, but also ditched that song’s country twang in favor of a more “punk-rock” feel Trask thought of while walking down Eighth Avenue one day with Craig. “I just started singing the bass line and drum part to him right there,” he said. Though it might seem counterintuitive to make the music for a Broadway show more aggressive and punk-ish than it had been when playing downtown — he also shifted the riff from “Tear Me Down” from piano to electric guitar — it suited the show.
But according to Mayer, the two most important changes made by the creative team involved the development and narrative arc of Yitzhak, a former drag queen who is now Hedwig’s husband (and simmering with resentment). One came with the decision to have Yitzhak step forward to belt out a song called “The Long Grift.” In the Off-Broadway run, an accompanist sang the main part while Yitzhak merely provided background vocals along with Hedwig. “It was sweet,” says Mayer of the original arrangement, “but there was no tension.” The fresh approach, they realized, would allow for Hedwig to see Yitzhak in a new light and the audience to see how Hedwig has been keeping Yitzhak down. A second change that Mayer cited as being crucial to the revival’s impact was giving Yitzhak a final, full transformation back into a drag queen. That was intended to occur in the original production but, Mayer explained, the metamorphosis couldn’t be done logistically. “It was very smart of John to explore that relationship in a more profound way,” he said. “It really thrills the audience and is emotionally satisfying.”