I think it’s fair to say that one’s first Broadway experience will always be memorable, largely independent of the quality of the show. This is magnified, I expect, by the not-insignificant overlap of first time visits to New York City. Love it or hate it, Times Square is a sight to behold. Descending into the subway below the dark streets of the West Village only to climb out of the Times Square station into the artificial daylight was incredible. The blinding energy of the place is going to stick with me; unsurprisingly much of that night will linger in my memory, from the ushers in their traditional uniforms from a bygone era to the shock at the limited size of the Belasco’s stage.
Most of all I’ll remember Neil Patrick Harris’ blowing my mind. And a microphone.
(Quick note: I saw Hedwig early in August of last year, hence all the references to NPH rather than Michael C. Hall or whoever’s currently leading the cast. Once again, my laziness threatens to make a fool of me.)
Hedwig is one of my wife’s favorite musicals so it’s a familiar story to me, but up until recently I’ve only ever experienced the 2001 film starring John Cameron Mitchell himself. The movie is wonderful- it’s got a slightly homemade, punk rock feel which suits the characters and setting well, but it’s two dimensional images on a screen. I’ve seen live theater before and enjoyed the experience, but most of them were community efforts with small budgets or stories which didn’t explicitly benefit from the format. Hedwig comes alive on stage. There is no better way to tell this story.
Being slightly too young and born in the wrong place, I didn’t benefit from the opportunity to see the show as it was originally performed back in the ’90s. As such I can’t offer a worthwhile commentary on the evolution of the production itself, but I will say that in the spirit of the original this show decidedly colors outside the lines of the stage’s traditional boundaries. It’s somewhat commonplace these days for a show to include audience interaction (Harris took particular interest in a rather amply-endowed woman in one of the balcony seats and later performed what he called “the car wash” to a man sitting closer to stage) but less common, I think, was the roll-down screen upon which lyrics and a bouncing scrotum were projected to aid the audience in a singalong to “Wig In A Box”. One young man in the front row has a story he’ll tell until he’s old and grey thanks to a decidedly PG-13 kiss with NPH himself.
Truthfully, given the show’s reputation I was expecting something closer to the kind of audience participation one finds at a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I was in no way disappointed to be wrong. I think they struck a good balance of comedy at the viewer’s expense without letting the show lose focus.
That focus, by the way, is just as relevant today as it was when the show was first performed. The circumstances are a little dated but Hedwig is about more than just the singer in a punk band from beyond the Iron Curtain. It’s about the search for acceptance and understanding, both from without and within. It’s tempting to think of Hedwig as a show that shouts from the rooftops about a clear lack of equality in our society, but I think (despite the over-the-top sex jokes and appropriately outlandish drag wardrobe) that this show does an excellent job of avoiding preachiness in all its trappings. Never once does the show try to grab you by the collar to tell you, “What’s happening here? This is wrong.”
The titular character rolls with every punch, rebounds from every setback, and ultimately comes to terms with who she is and who she loves with very little whining. Sure, Hedwig is kind of a bitch to Yitzhak, but like Yitzhak we know the attitude comes from insecurity, and it’s understandable if not completely forgivable. Neil Patrick Harris is fantastic in this role in no small part because of his capacity to share Hedwig’s state of being with the audience. I vicariously felt triumphant elation and heartbreaking sorrow in those short hours, and thanks to Mitchell’s fantastic writing I also laughed through most of it.
I didn’t get that when I watched the movie for the first time. Sure, I recognized these emotions in the characters but I certainly didn’t feel them. I enjoyed the journey and understood the underlying social commentary but I wasn’t particularly moved by them. Watching the cast stand shoulder to shoulder with their chests heaving at the conclusion of the show, though, I felt a little exhausted myself. They deserved that standing ovation.
I may not live in New York City, but I will no longer be a stranger to Broadway. Hedwig popped my cherry, and the next show has a hell of a lot to live up to.