The Imperfect Casting of Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig Makes Perfect Sense

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After Neil Patrick Harris’s fourth time hosting the Tony Awards was a resounding success, it’s clear that the Broadway community has found the perfect poster boy to market to Middle America. Harris, who has starred as the womanizing Barney Stinson on the last eight seasons of How I Met Your Mother (and, of course, charmed the pants off of everyone as a teen prodigy with a medical degree on the TV series, Doogie Howser, M.D.), brings a fresh, irreverent take on the typically stodgy world of musical theatre. His experience on Broadway in edgy productions like Assassins, Rent, and Cabaret also gives him the chops to stand as musical theatre’s liaison to the rest of America: he’s the gateway drug, bringing white-boy joke rap to the same table at which he also serves enough inside jokes to keep the Broadway nerds satisfied. It comes as no big surprise that he’s been tapped to star in the first Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, donning the wig as the titular East German transgender rock star.

Harris’ casting in the role says much about his status as the ideal middle-of-the-road Broadway performer. He’s an actor with the overwhelming talent to entertain the tourists picking seats at TKTS and the theatre nerds catching multiple performances (and keeping their Playbills after each one). But does his squeaky-clean, lovable image make him the right choice for Hedwig and the Angry Inch?

There’s a lot of disagreement, at least in the online commenting world, on whether or not this is inspired casting. The original production, which starred John Cameron Mitchell, had its roots in the downtown punk-drag scene; Mitchell started by performing as Hedwig at venues like Squeezebox, where he sang covers of songs by Television, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, and Cher with reworked lyrics to tell Hedwig’s tale. By the time the musical premiered off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theater, Hedwig had become an extended monologue with interspersed songs. Backed by a full band and a single supporting character (Miriam Shor, who reprised her role as Yitzak in the film adaptation), it was more like a rock show or cabaret performance than a Broadway musical. Neil Patrick Harris, of course, held a rapt audience at the massive Radio City Music Hall this month, so it doesn’t seem too big of a deal for him to work the crowd on a Broadway stage. Whether or not the show will succeed in such a large space, however, is another question.

In terms of casting, though, Harris seems like a smart choice. It’s a tricky show, for sure, to sell to a mainstream audience. Sure, the original musical and its big-screen adaptation have received cult-hit status, but a hard-edged show like Hedwig doesn’t exactly have the family-friendly subject matter that the biggest hits on Broadway feature. (This year’s Tony winner for Best Musical was Kinky Boots, to be fair, but that drag queen-fused musical featured songs about accepting and loving yourself and others. Hedwig, on the other hand, features a song about a botched gender-reassignment surgery.) Perhaps Harris’ involvement will give the show a bait-and-switch appeal; expecting the feel-good comic efforts of his typical work, the audience will then get a one-two punch of identity politics.

And it’s the perfect opportunity for Harris, who could possibly drop the vanilla-ice-cream personality he’s taken on for himself. Sure, he once played the Emcee in the dark and sexed-up revival of Cabaret on Broadway, as one of Alan Cumming’s many replacements — but so did people like John Stamos and Jon Secada. (Cabaret is remarkably tame compared to the edgier shows that have graced Broadway stages.) Harris and his family are regularly touted as the most adorable things in the world, certainly making a case for the normalcy of gays and lesbians in this country. But a starring role in Hedwig would rough up his fans a bit and give him the chance to push forth the less mainstream and straight-friendly elements of the non-heterosexual world: the grit, the pain, the sex, the anger. It’s a political move, and as long as the show isn’t watered down for a mainstream audience, it could work. Let’s hope the production team takes the next few months to figure out how to nail the landing.