When it was announced in 2013 that Hedwig and the Angry Inch — the cult favorite, off-Broadway 1998 hit — was finally coming to Broadway, people had high hopes, of course, but no one was exactly sure how it would go.
Fans needn’t have been concerned. The show, which follows Hedwig, a transgender rocker living in East Germany attempting to realize her faraway rock-star dreams, officially opened on Broadway in April 2014 and has been running to rave reviews since.
“I thought that the content of the show and Hedwig’s experience and the rawness of it would divide and polarize the audience,” Neil Patrick Harris, who originated the role on Broadway, explained. “Actually, each night the audience was unified and regardless of their circumstances could relate to Hedwig’s struggle. And I think that’s entirely because of Stephen [Trask]’s music. It penetrates your mind into your soul and into your bones in a way that regardless of what you’re currently experiencing in your life you can relate in some way to it.”
Now the cast album, featuring Harris and Lena Hall, who both won Tonys in June for their roles in the show, has been nominated for Best Musical Theater Album at the Grammys. Harris spoke to Billboard about the Grammy nod and his long-standing affection for the music — which only grew once he got in touch with his inner-rock star and began belting out “Tear Me Down” and “Sugar Daddy.”
Congrats on the nomination!
Dude, I’m so happy. A large part of my Hedwig experience was living in appreciation of the music and the songs, and I was so bummed when the Tony voting committee deemed it a revival instead of a new musical because I really think that what Stephen Trask has done musically is so strong, and it was never able to be acknowledged.
Absolutely, particularly the lyrics. They’re so poetic and deep.
Well, Stephen has that remarkable ability to write songs that are 100 percent rock ‘n’ roll and yet are story-driven songs. Hedwig is an example of that. When you look at “Tear Me Down,” the first song, it’s not a song about what you’re feeling, it’s a song about circumstance — whereas “Origin of Love,” it’s a moment about emotion. It’s explaining the story and the reason that Hedwig made her decisions. So it’s so smart, because you’re able to appreciate a song as a song, and it also pulls the story forward as a work of art. I think it’s kind of miraculous what they did back in 1998, and then for it to have a resurgence now and potential acknowledgement is certainly worth talking about.
Take me back to the first time you heard the music. What do you remember about that first time you saw the show?
I saw the show at the Jane Street [Theatre] off-Broadway with a friend, and I found it almost like immersive theater. A small, dingy theater that was nowhere near Broadway, that stunk of beer on the floor. And this crazy transgender performer who I knew as a man, only he’s a woman. It was dirty, in every way: sexually, but then also like actually dirty. I went away feeling my mind was open to a type of person I had never experienced before — never anticipating I’d get to do it, just thinking it was such great theater.
I know when it was first announced that the show was finally coming to Broadway, some people were concerned big changes would be made to make it more Broadway-friendly. What were your original conversations with Stephen like to make sure those concerns weren’t warranted?
We were all very intent on making sure it played to a Broadway audience without pandering to a Broadway audience. Tim O’Heir, who did the music design and is one of the producers on the album, was brought in because of his experience. My concern as a quote-unquote musical theater actor who had never fronted a band before was to make sure it seemed authentic and believable that I was living this story for real, and not just playing the character who was doing so. So we worked a lot, initially, for weeks and weeks, on changing vibrato to straight tones, changing vowels, [and making sure you’re] being less precise with diction so that it was more rock ‘n’ roll.
That rawness appears to come off so easily from an audience member’s perspective. How difficult was it when you were actually recording the album away from everything on stage? Were you donning the costume or dancing or anything to help yourself?
[A cast album] wasn’t something we were [originally] going to do. The album came about quite quickly when everyone felt it needed to be heard. And so it was produced in-house by people who had their own recording equipment, and it was done over multiple days. We were well into the run of the show, and so I wasn’t in great voice. In the past when I have recorded albums, I wanted to … be in proper voice, and this was a little bit more of a blowout. In a weird way, it [helped], because there were certain notes I just couldn’t hit, and we’d try again, and do takes that were rough, and I never appreciated that rough was better in certain ways. So it felt very authentically New York recording it.
Was there any particular song that was a challenge for you?
The last song, “Midnight Radio,” is hard to explain. It starts off lyrically with some imagery that is really specific. Rain falls, light. It’s usually been my job to make sure that the audience listening understands where my thought process is with the lyrics, but with rock ‘n’ roll, sometimes you can sing more obscure [phrasing] and have it have almost more impact because it’s a bit subjective. So that one was a bit trickier to sing every night because it meant different things at different times for me.
I think musically the most fun was “Sugar Daddy,” because they didn’t want to do the rockabilly thing because it wasn’t very current. And so [Stephen] wanted a much sexier, funkier, kind of nastier bass line to it. I thought that was exciting for people who were fans of the show to hear a different version of that. And I got to go into the crowd at that point and lick people and have them lick me back, and stuff like that. So that was exciting!
You always looked like you were having such a blast. Now that you’ve left the show, do you find yourself humming any of the songs these days?
Yeah, I miss it a lot. For some reason I thought when I left no one else would be able to accomplish it, and I was incredibly wrong! [laughs] In fact, there were lots of people who accomplished it, and so I miss it more than ever.
Have you spoken with John [Cameron Mitchell, who co-created Hedwig and originated the role off-Broadway] about his upcoming return?
It’s interesting talking to John about his version of it. He was a director himself, and it was filled with both sharpness and curiousness but also radiating love. I don’t know that I’ve met anyone that has more of a tender soul. So getting notes from him was exquisite; getting to watch him do it is gonna be nothing short of hilarious because it’s a grueling ride that we’ve created. It’s much more physical than what he did initially, and now he’s going to have to do it. So we’ll see what scaffolding he’ll actually climb!