Thursday, May 29, 2014

Hedwig: Every “Inch” a Modern Major Musical

 At this point, there have been at least three incarnations of Hedwig and the Angry Inch: the original off-Broadway production starring Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell, the film version (again starring Mr. Mitchell), and now, an honest-to-God, big-budget Broadway production starring TV star, movie star, and ubiquitous host of the Tony Awards, Neil Patrick Harris. What’s remarkable about this show is that it has endured over the past 20 years and its trajectory mirrors that of not only the scrappy protagonist, but of the entire gay rights movement itself. Who could have imagined, 20 years ago, that gays would not only have the right to marry but would become so mainstream that they’re a running joke on both the Tony Awards and the Oscars? Equally astonishing is the fact that a show about a transsexual is now on Broadway, playing alongside not just one but two shows about transvestites (Kinky Boots, Casa Valentina), as well as the usual assortment of gay-themed shows (Mothers and Sons).  Part of the credit may go to the gay rights movement, but the other part belongs to the rock-solid credentials of this show.
In a sea of jukebox musicals (Beautiful, Jersey Girls, Midnight Blue) and original musicals that close overnight (Bridges of Madison County), this is that rarest of creatures: an original Broadway musical with staying power. When was the last time you walked out of an original musical and the songs were truly hummable? I don’t want to take anything away from Mr. Mitchell’s clever book, with its Borscht belt humor (and I mean that as the highest compliment), but I don’t think enough credit has been given to Stephen Trask’s phenomenal, Bowie-inspired score. It now has to rank among the great works of American musical theater, alongside Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Hedwig, in its stage version, is essentially a one-man/woman show, so it’s critical to find an actor with both the musical chops and the comic timing to pull it off. Needless to say, they’ve found that person in Neil Patrick Harris. Harris has proven his musical theater abilities in the recent concert staging of Company, as well as his recent Tony-hosting duties. He’s so effortlessly self-assured in this performance, it’s breathtaking! The one-hour-and-40-minute, intermissionless show breezes by with the immediacy of a rock concert.
There’s only one minor criticism I can think of: Some of the seats on the side of the orchestra (I had one such seat) have a partially obstructed view of the stage. Other than that, it’s hard to find fault with this production. It now takes its place in the musical theater canon as the very model of a modern major musical.

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