PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Cameron Mitchell, on Bringing Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Broadway

By Carey Purcell
28 Apr 2014

Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Neil Patrick Harris just wrapped his TV show "How I Met Your Mother," and then Hedwig opened. Tell me about the rehearsal process and bringing it to Broadway so quickly.
JCM: We had a strangely truncated rehearsal schedule because of Neil's TV show, and I don't know how he did it. I guess it's from doing all those Tonys shows. He can get things together so fast. Just the technical element, which tends to take other people much longer. He... thrills to the tasks that are technical — accent, voice training, finding his body, choreography, getting the singing right — all of that was done right before. He snatched time periods throughout the last six months.

We really only had three weeks to get from the beginning of real rehearsal to the first audience — including tech. That's never been done on Broadway before. I'd just never heard of that. Luckily, the show is less technically difficult; the lighting is the hardest thing. It was a really short tech. So the first audience was a surprisingly together show — and a psychotic audience. They were so supportive. I've never felt more confident about being ready, in a theatrical experience, ever.

It seems like if there are any world records left to break, Neil Patrick Harris will break them at some point in his life.
JCM: It's not always the most desirable one — I can rehearse that in two-and-a-half weeks! — but because of the Tony deadline, we had to do it. And he was game, and the show was ending. Also [to] avoid the post-partum and go straight into something — [to avoid being] bummed out by the end of nine years of a series. The best way to do it is jump into a show. He's having a blast.

He's got also more energy than I did. I want to make it easier for myself. He likes to make it harder and a challenge. He's like, "I want the heels higher. I want to have the microphone wired as opposed to unwired," which complicates choreography. In the day, I was like, "Lower the heels. Get rid of the cord."

It's fascinating that one of the most ubiquitous performers in America is playing a character that's described as "internationally ignored."
JCM: There's a great advantage to being the favorite secret thing, because it never gets ahead of itself. It never blows itself out of proportion. You don't get backlash when you're the underdog. And Hedwig is that. And in this case, there's an unusual situation where it's still Broadway; it's still a matter of a few thousand as opposed to millions. Broadway's still the fringe thing in terms of audiences, compared to Hollywood or TV. But it's really interesting to have someone who's, in the U.S. and U.K., a major star, embodying, in effect, a loser in many ways and bringing it to a larger audience of people who didn't expect to be moved by this bizarre story. We've got fans there, but we've also got all these new people because of Neil, who are being told, "It's okay to check this story out and realize, 'Wow. I can relate to a real marginalized person. And maybe it's because I felt that way, too.'"

It's so interesting to hear about how the show became what it is. I love hearing about the actors that have played Hedwig.
JCM: I love that it's a true musical in that all kinds of people can interpret it in different ways. In Korea it's more of a mainstream thing. They had a reality show to find the new Hedwig. In San Francisco, they just did it with 12 Hedwigs — one for each song. I love that people feel free. In our publication of the script, we encourage people to feel free and put improv in certain moments and use the venue they're in and stuff like that. We've continued that tradition with our Broadway production, which I've custom-fit to explain why she's on Broadway today. I've updated some of the references and allowed Neil the leeway to mess with the audience and play with this moment in time, and he's brilliant at that.

Mitchell congratulates Harris on opening night.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

When you were creating this, did you think that Hedwig would become such an important character to so many people?
JCM: We really didn't. We knew it was important to us and to our friends. When you try to make it important for too many people, it changes it. You lose your instincts and what you love about it. And, of course, that's the story of most of our pop culture — someone else trying to figure out what a million people want to see, which tends to blur your own instincts. It was always so odd, there was no way for it to be corrupted. When something is closer to the norm, it's easier for it to get corrupted, because you're like, "Oh, if you just shift it that way, then you can make that actor a giant star. It won't hurt it!" and then it sort of does and you're like, "Ugh." It's easy to stick to your guns when you're already a freak.

And it's wonderful that we're able to do it when shows like Spring Awakening or American Idiot or even Rent... It's interesting because I was auditioning for Rent when Hedwig was being developed, and I was offered the original role of Angel. I was flattered but I was like, "I'm already doing this drag role," plus I'm not very Puerto Rican. It was very flattering but I was like, "Thanks guys, but I've got to work on this other piece." And it would be weird to do both. God bless Rent. They went on to bring much love and emotion to the world. But we're not that.

But Rent [and] American Idiot made Broadway safe for us or let people know that we weren't quite as crazy as they thought. We're now here at the perfect time, with the music, with the drag — the issues are mainstream. There was never any talk of Hedwig going on Broadway since the century began. It's only later in the 2000s that people barely thought about it. It's the perfect time for it. The fans are ready for it. It's been all over the world. People with Hedwig tattoos come but also people who like "How I Met Your Mother" who didn't know, and they're all having a blast together.

Have you worked with Neil on developing the character of Hedwig? Or has he been working independently?
JCM: I wanted to let he and [director] Michael Mayer have their relationship. The last thing I would want is the original guy breathing down my neck. So I really stayed away. I certainly worked on the adaptation on the script. We did some back and forth on that. But I wanted to really let him find his Hedwig with his director. When I come in, I tend to want to direct. I can't help it. I withheld myself, knowing that I'm overenthusiastic, and came in at key moments near the last stages and said, "How can I make myself useful? Here are some ideas I have." At one point I was starting to give too many notes, and Michael was like, "Just pass them through me," and I said, "Of course! I'm sorry. I'm not directing." I get too excited. We've had a great relationship — Neil, Stephen, Michael and I — and the producer, David Binder, who did the original workshop, has been wonderful, too.

There's something really exciting about a show, especially a rock show, that provides new insight or new education to the audience.
JCM: It really is surprising. When we first did it at the Jane Street, the cross-section of audience was unexpected. There were the young, hip kids. Even the rockers were like, "What? Theatre? Lame." Then they were like, "Oh, a narrative!" I was like, "Look. This is a conventional narrative. It's a Broadway musical structure, even though it's a monologue, mostly. There's a beginning, middle and end, an  11 o'clock number. It's still very much Broadway, but the music's different, the subject matter's different." 

The veterans — Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Anne Meara, Bea Arthur — would all come and be in tears. Charlotte Rae is the biggest Hedwig fan. And they're not known as punk rock bonafides. They were just feeling it. And then you'd have the Lou Reed, the David Bowie, the Marilyn Manson, sitting next to Barry Manilow, and all loving it. And we were like, "Yes!" We're bringing together everyone we love and the kind of aesthetics which ultimately are just about doing it right and doing it with soul. And doing it [with] multiple influences in mind and not shirking any of them. Making sure we have the drag queens, too, are like, "Yes." That was very important to me. I was most nervous when I saw the real drag legends come in, like, "Oh, f*ck. I'm not a real drag queen." And they were like, "Yes." Now there will be even more people coming to the theatre and hopefully saying, "Yes."

There will always be some people who are like, "Wait a minute. It's not like it was." Of course, nothing's like it was. We're all doomed to loving what we saw at 20 years old more than anything else. But it's time for new memories and a new way, and Hedwig's story is still relevant. There's nothing dated about her feelings.

It's exciting to think about all the progress that has been made in the last decade or so with regards to gender identification and equality.
JCM: It's interesting. Hedwig has never been representing anybody but herself. She's not a trans activist. She's not a gay rights [activist]. She's had her own accidents of fate that were connected to violence, misuse of power, and she's done her best with it. And that's the universal story. She doesn't stand for anyone else and would find it outrageous to say she is an example. But when she sings to all the strange rock and rollers in "Midnight Radio" and sings, "Hold onto each other," she's singing it to the audience. Neil — I love how he does this. He's saying, "We're all in this together." And rock and roll and theatre and drag are all the same thing. They're ways to remind yourself that you're not alone.

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

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Neil Patrick Harris
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