Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not…Hedwig and the Angry Inch is back in New York City! How I Met Your Mother star and Tony host extraordinaire Neil Patrick Harris is stepping into the transgender rock star’s high-heeled boots, where he’ll be rocking out all summer long (without an understudy) at the Belasco Theatre. So put on some makeup, turn on the eight track, and read below to find out how Hedwig transformed from a late-night dive bar act into an internationally beloved rock musical.
The creators met on a plane
The story of Hedwig begins at an altitude of 30,000 feet. John Cameron Mitchell, an actor who had appeared in Big River on Broadway, struck up a conversation with Stephen Trask, a rock musician, while on a flight from Los Angeles to New York in 1989. “We were united by a common aesthetic right from the beginning,” Trask told New York magazine. “John was the only other person on the plane who didn’t have his headset on, watching When Harry Met Sally.”
Tommy Gnosis was the main character
The pair became friends after touching down in New York City, and Mitchell went to see Trask and his band Cheater play at SqueezeBox, a punk-rock drag party at the SoHo club Don Hill’s. Mitchell approached Trask and asked if he would help him compose music for a character named Tommy Gnosis, the son of a general who, like Mitchell, was raised in a strict Catholic household. In 1994, Mitchell brought Tommy to life for the first time, accompanied by Trask and his band.
Hedwig is based on a real woman
The duo continued to play at SqueezeBox, and soon, a character based on Mitchell’s childhood babysitter, a woman named Helga, evolved. “She was a German army wife but also a prostitute,” Mitchell, an army brat whose father was a general, told the BBC. “She provided the visual inspiration for Hedwig.” In real life, Helga was a biological woman, but Mitchell’s Hedwig was an an East German rock singer with a botched sex-change operation and a wild hairdo made from toilet paper rolls wrapped around a synthetic wig. Hedwig quickly became a more popular character than Tommy, and was soon the focal point of the act at SqueezeBox.
The score is a rock collage
As Trask developed Hedwig’s songs into a full-length musical, he was inspired by a variety of different rock musicians. “The Hedwig score is in many ways just one big Lou Reed mash-up,” the composer told Out magazine. The musical namechecks Reed, as well as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Toni Tennille, Debbie Boone, Anne Murray and many more. The musical also draws inspiration from Plato’s Symposium—the lyrics to the song “Origin of Love” are loosely adapted from the philosophical text.
It couldn’t find a theater
Hedwig transferred to New York City’s Westbeth Theatre Center in 1997, and was billed as “part Ziggy Stardust concert and part Marlene Dietrich cabaret.” Mitchell, who was now an alum of Broadway’s The Secret Garden and Six Degrees of Separation, played the title role, featuring Trask as the show's musical director Skszp and Miriam Shor (in drag) as Hedwig's downtrodden husband Yitzhak. It shuttered after a short run. “We’ve always been sort of the ugly kid on the block,” Mitchell told New York magazine. After briefly considering a transfer to a steakhouse on Wall Street, Mitchell discovered the Hotel Riverview, a hotel with a ballroom that once housed the surviving crew of the Titanic. It was a perfect fit.
Stars flocked to the show
Hedwig and the Angry Inch opened at the Jane Street Theatre on February 14, 1998, and it was both a critical success and a fan favorite. “Parker Posey has seen the show four times, Glenn Close twice,” New York magazine reported. “David Bowie blew off the Grammys for a night with Hedwig, an actress-model on each arm; Danny DeVito scaled six flights of stairs to meet the young phenomenon; Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson made out as Mitchell sang a love song (‘I took it as a compliment,’ he says).”
Everyone wanted to take a stab
Hedwig quickly became the toast of the off-Broadway theater scene, winning an Obie Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway musical before closing off-Broadway on April 9, 2000. When Mitchell left the production, actors couldn’t wait to try Hedwig’s inch on for size. Former off-Broadway Hedwigs include Michael Cerveris, Kevin Cahoon, Asa Somers, Donovan Leitch, Ally Sheedy and Matt McGrath. Anthony Rapp, Constantine Maroulis [pictured above] and Jinkx Monsoon also played the role regionally. (Fun fact: Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland once played a concert in full Hedwig drag!)
Miss Hedwig became a movie star
After the success of the off-Broadway production, Mitchell began working on a screenplay for a movie adaptation of Hedwig. Filmed with a $6 million budget, Mitchell directed the film and reprised the role of Hedwig, with Michael Pitt (Bully, Boardwalk Empire) as Tommy Gnosis. Mitchell and the band opted to record the film’s score live (over a decade before the Les Miserables movie did) to give the songs a grittier, rock concert sound. It paid off—Hedwig took home the Best Director and Audience Awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and Mitchell garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
The world wigged out
After the success of the film, productions of the musical popped up all over the globe, including Puerto Rico, Prague, Brazil, Korea and Japan. Hed-Heads (a term for Hedwig fans coined by Mitchell) declared their love by getting Hedwig’s signature tattoo, based on the love story from Plato’s Symposium. Hedwig “shadowcasts,” where actors perform along with a movie screening a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show, continue to play all over the United States.
Hello, New York!
14 years after its final off-Broadway performance, Hedwig is back in New York City, in a newly reimagined production directed by Michael Mayer, featuring Lena Hall as Yitzhak and starring How I Met Your Mother favorite Neil Patrick Harris in the title role. “[Hedwig] is such a left turn from what people have been seeing me do recently, which is an alpha-male womanizing dude on mainstream TV,” Harris told Broadway.com. “Hedwig is such a complicated role in almost every way: Physically transformative, emotionally damaged, bizarrely funny and rock-and-roll in a way that I’ve never been. It’s challenging me on a bunch of different levels. And I like challenges.”
See Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco Theatre.