Tonys: How the 'Hedwig' Team Turned Neil Patrick Harris Into a Bona Fide Rock Star
Stephen Trask is adamant. "It's not stunt casting!" the composer affirms over and over about bringing the musical ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ to Broadway with headliner Neil Patrick Harris. "There are plenty of people that if we just wanted to do stunt casting, we could have cast. Stunt casting is easy; we waited for the right guy."
The drawn-out saga of courting Harris to take on the role of East German transgender band frontwoman in the cult musical, which premiered at the Westbeth Theatre in 1997 and transferred to Greenwich Village's Jane Street Theatre off Broadway in 1998, practically began the moment Harris saw the show downtown. However, it was around 2007 when producer David Binder, who has been with the show since its first incarnation, called Harris to talk about the possibility.
"Neil was at the very top of our list," Binder says, adding that they initially tried to make it work around the filming of “How I Met Your Mother,” but that proved impossible. "It was absolutely worth the wait. I've worked in the theater a long time. Generally I find in the theater that all good things you must wait for."
However, not everyone was initially convinced. "I didn't think about him at all because he's not very rock 'n' roll," admits John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the show's book and was the original star both onstage and in the 2001 film, which he also directed. "Well, he's not known for that, and he would admit it himself. But they were right. He's f---ing amazing. He's a real rock singer."
Once Harris' contracts were signed and sealed, the real fun of transforming this lovable star into the in-your-face, saucy she-rocker started. While Harris is no stranger to Broadway -- he won three Primetime Emmys as host of the Tony Awards and his fourth turn is eligible for consideration this year; he also starred in the 2004 revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, among other shows -- rock 'n' roll is a completely different language from show tunes.
Trask put together an inspiration playlist, which included songs by Alex Chilton, the Ramones, David Bowie, Lou Reed, the Undertones, Wreckless Eric and John Lennon. These were artists Trask and Mitchell found influential when they were first writing the show. Harris jokes of going over some of these musicians with Trask: "He referenced bands I had never heard of, to which I quickly said, 'Oh yeah, they're the best!' 'Cause I'm an actor and I lie a lot."
Trask also compiled videos of live performances, such as an Iggy Pop show in San Francisco, Lena Lovich at Studio 54, a Clash concert and one of Tina Turner. "If you spend two days in Louisiana, you'll get a Southern accent; you don't have to try," the composer explains. "If you just start listening to rock music, it will become a part of the vocabulary of who you are."
It wouldn't be long before Harris got a taste of what these performers deal with, when Trask and director Michael Mayer had him perform rock concerts. Back when Trask and Mitchell were first developing the show, they would perform material in front of concert audiences, and with Harris, they were able to do two surprise concerts.
"It was a sort of hot-house version of what we did," Trask says. Due to Neil's busy schedule, they were only allotted two weeks of official rehearsal before previews began, so the shows were also a way to gradually introduce Harris to the language of “Hedwig.” The band, which goes by the name Tits of Clay, would also get together and jam beginning late last year because theater union rules dictate that they could only have about a week of official rehearsal together.
It was at these concerts that Harris' rock voice, which he honed with the show's vocal supervisor, Liz Caplan, came to life. "He said, 'I know there's something different about being a rock singer and being a theatrical singer, and I want to figure it out from an audience that wasn't invited,' " Trask recalls of Harris' impulse to do a second show, which was booked for the Mercury Lounge after rehearsals began. Harris was not announced as a performer, and instead surprised the audience.
"He sang two songs, and the audience is clapping, and he looks over at me, and I say, 'You don't want to get off that stage do you?' He's like, 'No!' He just picked up another song. He forgot the lyrics, and we kept shouting the lyrics in his face. I thought he was going to stage dive at any moment. He did five songs. This was a hardcore crowd," notes Trask. "They would have smelled it if Neil wasn't delivering the goods."
Luckily, he was. However, he still hadn't incorporated one of the crucial elements: He had to become a woman onstage. "The assignment wasn't to turn Neil Patrick Harris into a rock star," says director Mayer, who is nominated for a Tony for his work on the show. "The assignment was for him to play this character, who is a rock singer and a woman."
Mayer started this transformation with the choreography, by Spencer Liff, as movement was crucial to his believability in the part. Costume designer Arianne Phillips built Harris a pair of heels in October so that he had time to practice.
"My first meeting with Neil, he said, 'I love costumes. I love quick changes. I love magic. Bring it on,' " recalls Phillips, who also designed the costumes for the “Hedwig” film. "And I was kind of like, 'Who is this guy?' Most actors are like, 'Don't give me too much to do. I already have a lot to worry about.' So he raised the bar initially and inspired me to really make it count."
While Harris expressed enthusiasm at the process, he admits that the femininity was the hardest part of the transformation for him to crack. "It's tough to strut around in high heels and not feel a fool, tough to manage a full wig of hair, to cock a wrist, to embrace a bra and not feel like you are somehow going to be exposed," says Harris, who also lost a lot of weight for the role, given that it requires him to be a "slip of a girly boy," as “Hedwig” calls herself early in the show. "But in a role like this, you have to commit. You can't tiptoe, you have to bulldoze. And the more I trusted, the further I went, the better it felt. Now her mannerisms seem second nature."
With Harris' contract set to expire in August, the real question remains: Will “Hedwig” live on without its current star? Would Mitchell do it again? ("I'm thinking about it," he says.) Or will they find a replacement? Harris has mentioned that Joseph Gordon-Levitt might be a prime candidate. "We'll find someone to follow Neil," Trask says, "or we'll just convince him to stay for a while."
- This article originally appeared in THR.com.