How to Be…Hedwig
by Lindsay Timmington
Ask John Cameron Mitchell.
In the span of two hours, JCM’s Hedwig had a near miss with a microphone and an audience member, got the very same microphone tangled in a set piece (resulting in an unscripted temper tantrum), had a major costume malfunction, and got her very literal tail feathers stuck in the a door necessitating the assistance of her husband, Yitzak.
Technically, it was an absolute mess.
Artistically, it was utter perfection.
As much as John Cameron Mitchell’s magnanimous nature allows him to graciously hand off his Hedwig to the multitude of people who’ve played the role around the world, his recent return to Broadway solidifies the fact that there can only be ONE Hedwig.
I wrote “How to Be…A Big Wig, Hedwig” after seeing two of Neil Patrick Harris’s preview performances. I was disappointed, if not a bit angry by the Broadway production. I felt that it missed the mark, cheated the audience and was an overpriced Broadway imitation of the cultclassic.
That’s not to say that the performers that stepped into the daunting role weren’t good. The only one I can’t speak to is Andrew Rannels but knowing his talent and training I’m sure he gave a worthy performance. I have to admit, Michael C. Hall pleasantly surprised me with his portrayal, as he seemed more willing to make Hedwig his own. While NPH won the Tony for his Hedwig (and as much as I love him) I was incredibly disappointed with how the show looked under his leadership. Up until JCM stepped back in, I felt the show missed its mark, cheated the audience, was antiseptically Broadway and largely felt like an overpriced imitation of the genuine article.
While the previous actors in the role all brought a level of youth, athleticism and performative prowess, the missing element was ALWAYS the actor’s ability to entirely give themselves up to the role. While Micahel C. Hall came the closest in my estimation, Neil Patrick Harris in the two times I saw him as Hedwig was simply Neil Patrick Harris AS Hedwig. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work with this piece of art. There’s something about this show that demands the performer deal with the emotional implications of the role instead of just playing the character. If you’re going to play Hedwig, you have to be Hedwig. There’s no in between with this bitch, you either are or you aren’t and John Cameron Mitchell even twenty years later, is still Hedwig. The only Hedwig.
When it was announced that JCM would step back into the very boots he wore twenty years ago, I was ecstatic, but hesitant. I’d thrice witnessed what the Broadway version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch looked like and the last thing I wanted was to see John Cameron Mitchell compromise the vision of the show he’d created with Stephen Trask at the Squeezebox and Jane Street Theatre.
But I should have known. I should have trusted that the Hedwig that has become a cult classic, a siren song for confused, soul-searching and lonely would be back in the right hands with John Cameron Mitchell. I should have trusted that his Hedwig would never let anyone take her song or voice—even Broadway.
If John Cameron Mitchell had Michael Mayer’s steering hand or the guiding principles of Broadway producers, you’d know it only by the physical blocking. From the minute he descends upon the audience it’s his show. Every moment is so grounded, so rooted in the present it bridges a palpably energetic connection between audience and performer that is theatrical magic at it’s best. Judging by the hands in the air mid-song, the rock star-worthy screams in between, and the utter, unmoving silence during the end, it’s safe to say we would have gladly drank the proverbial Kool-Aid JCM sipped throughout the show.
But it wasn’t just that. The very thing I missed in the previous productions was the emphasis on story, the fundamental triangle between Hedwig, Yitzak and Tommy Gnosis. With JCM you get it in spades. The chemistry between JCM and the continually astounding Lena Hall has blossomed from forced, scripted moments to unscripted moments of heartbreaking beauty and pain. In JCM, Lena Hall has found the Hedwig she’s been searching for. The clunky bits constructed in earlier versions of the show are gone. In their absence what remains is John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig, and my guess is, what that looks like changes nightly—as it should.
The superlative accolades surrounding his performance are flying around social media faster than Hedwig whips her hair. New York City is abuzz because the rightful Hedwig has stepped back into her boots and this bitch has hijacked Broadway.
It’s fitting that the show begins with the rock number “Tear Me Down.” Fitting because Hedwig was born on the other side of town, off Broadway. Fitting because he’s now made it over the great divide and is coming for you, for us-on Broadway. But perhaps most of all it’s fitting because at the end of the show he reminds us, reassures us and tells each and every person in the audience:
But I could swear by your expression that the pain down in your soul was the same down in mine.
John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig is spontaneous and messy, raw and raunchy, dangerous and touches nerves that many of us would prefer not to feel. It speaks to the pain of being lonely, the impermanence of love, the lack of connection in our world today and the utter pain of discovery and reconciliation with who you are. If John Cameron Mitchell’s goal is for all of us to feel a little less alone at the end, well then, he’s succeeded.
Lift up your hands.