'Hedwig' Mastermind Stephen Trask Tells Us Why Neil Patrick Harris is the Best Woman for the Job

Hedwig and the Angry Inch premiered off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998, spawning a film version in 2001 that has since reached cult status reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Next month the production heads to the Great White Way with a bigger budget and a huge star under that famous feathered wig. Frontiers spoke with Hedwig’s original composer/lyricist Stephen Traskabout the show—its genesis in a rock ‘n’ roll gay bar, bringing the show to a Broadway audience and how he really feels about Doogie Howser in drag.

Trask on ‘90s gay rock bar Squeezebox, birthplace of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and its influence on the show’s creation...

In the beginning, [John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig co-writer and star] and I had been working on a show about a rock star. ... I was the music director at Squeezebox, and we were stuck for material. I took out my pen and said to John, “Tell me some interesting stories about your life, and we’ll try to find some material here.”  

John told me about this babysitter woman who lived on the Army base—John’s father being a general, he spent lots of time on the base in Germany—and I said, “Let’s make her a rock singer who sang with the rock star, and now she’s singing in dives and he is successful.” The whole idea of Hedwig sprang from there. Hedwig didn’t so much change at Squeezebox as much as Hedwig only exists because of Squeezebox. Since this was a rock bar with a live band that performed with drag queen singers, if I didn’t work there, it would have never occurred to me to suggest that John do this as a drag character.

On the casting of Neil Patrick Harris as the show’s new lead on Broadway...

I’ve wanted Neil to do this role since 2003, maybe earlier. I had met him at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998 when he came to see the show, and I was very taken with him—really into him as a performer.  I liked the way he talked and the way he carried himself. In the discussions after we knew John wasn’t going to play the role again, Neil’s name came up very early.  He always seemed to be ‘the guy.’

On the importance of Hedwig being played by a gay actor...

I guess very and not at all. If you pull it off ... it’s just important to me that it be pulled off. The ‘gayness’ that Neil brings to it is informed by that conflict that exists inside gay people—the butchness and femme-ness that you can’t escape if you’re gay, and the top-ness and bottom-ness and all that crap. I think that a lot of the straight actors who play gay can get most of the outward symbols or gestures, but there is more to it. Michael Cerveris replaced [Hedwig] in the original production, and he was great. We’ve had many, many straight actors play the role, and they’ve all been great.

On bringing the show to a Broadway audience...

I have a couple of trepidations, but none of them are about the changing of the audience, because in general I think Broadway audiences have changed. If we were ahead of our time in ’98, we’ve caught up with our time now—we’re in sync. People are used to hearing rock music onstage. When we did our show, there had been some pop musicals, but nothing that sounded like rock music and followed the rules of rock music. People are now ready for drag queens, obviously. When we did it before, theatres turned us down—empty theatres that had been long empty turned us down.  The drag queen factor, rock ‘n’ roll music, the sex change operation, the intergenerational love story, the whole fucking thing—it was a whole package that people didn’t want. But now I think people are ready for it.

If you could have any pop singer perform one of the songs from Hedwig, who would it be?

I love the way Spoon did “Tear Me Down,” and I’d love to hear it live. I bet Madonna could do a great job with “Wicked Little Town.” There’s a song on the movie soundtrack called “In Your Arms Tonight” that I always wanted to hear Michael Stipe sing.

On finding a dream replacement for Neil Patrick Harris come August...

I would genuinely like to see Justin Timberlake do it.  The person who does it has to be a real entertainer, and he seems to be an all-around entertainer.  Did River Phoenix sing? If he did, he would’ve been good. Honestly, I can’t think past Neil. He is spectacular.


Hedwig and the Angry Inch has begun previews and opens April 22 at NYC’s Belasco Theatre. For tickets and more info, visit hedwigbroadway.com.