“Hedwig” Director Michael Mayer on Why Neil Patrick Harris is “Uniquely Delicious”

MIchael MayerThe Tony Awards are less than a week away so the nail biting will amp up this week as we all wait for the envelopes to be opened and winners revealed.

One of the current Broadway shows with a slew of nominations is the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Lead Actor in a Musical nominee Neil Patrick Harris. With 8 nominations (second only to A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder), the show clearly has that ‘wow factor’ and is also up for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by an Actress (Lena Hall) and more for sound, lighting, costume and scenic design as well as a Best Direction of a Musical nod for Tony-winner Michael Mayer, who last won for Spring Awakening in 2007.

Mayer talked to TheBacklot last week to find out more about putting the show together with Harris as well as just how important he thinks the Tonys actually are for a show and an individual career.

TBL: I’m curious if you have a preference between revivals or original works since you’ve done both? How do you approach what you gravitate towards?

Michael Mayer: I feel like the great thing about doing a new show is that it’s new and that I’m a director who tends to work very closely with the authors, if I’m not even one of them myself. I function in a way like one, often, and build the thing from the ground up. That’s always really fun and exciting because you’re creating something brand new.

With a revival you’re always a little bit in dialogue with the original production so it’s a different thing. It can be very rewarding, in particular when you feel like you have something new to bring to it, or the show speaks in a new way to an audience than it did the first time around. So, something like Hedwig, for instance, it’s thrilling that we live in a time where this story feels comfortable on Broadway. Because when we first started working on it a million years ago it was very much an outcast. It was theater because the music people didn’t like it, it was too theater-y. The gay people didn’t like it because it was too rock and the rock people didn’t like it because it was too gay. It didn’t fit anywhere.

So, the thought that we live in a world now that can completely embrace Hedwig in all of her complexities and all of her contradictions is really exciting. Politically, there’s a giant international discourse about gender and friends’ gender and what that all means. That was kind of unimaginable 15 years ago. That’s an enormous amount of progress. There’s a cultural reason to do Hedwig at the moment that makes a lot of sense.

I was just thinking about the fact that Laverne Cox is on the new Time Magazine cover. That’s huge. That’s mainstream.

MM: Exactly. In that regard it’s nice to do a revival when it seems to be speaking to the culture at large. You don’t always get to do that.

John Cameron Mitchell, Mayer, Lena Hall, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Trask, Spencer LiffJohn Cameron Mitchell, Mayer, Lena Hall, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Trask & Spencer Liff (Getty)

When did Neil actually become attached to the project? I don’t know the story of how he actually came into the picture.

MM: It’s a funny thing. I think the producers had conversations with him quite a while ago because I know when they were serious about moving forward with production and they asked me if I would be available – this was two years ago – I said ‘I assume it’s going to be Neil Patrick Harris, right? That’s who it must be.’ They said, ‘He’s not available. We love him but he’s really not available because of [How I Met Your Mother].’ Then I said, ‘You guys, we have to wait for him. It’s crucial. This is who we have to do it with.’ There were other really terrific actors on their list and people they’ve been talking to and stuff. I just was very pigheaded about it. Luckily, it didn’t take a whole lot of convincing to say it’s only going to get better for Hedwig, so why not wait for the perfect way to launch it? So, that’s what we did. Neil was on board happily once he knew that we were willing to wait for his TV show to end. That turned out to be two years. So, it was longer than everyone had sort of anticipated originally. But no regrets.

I talked to Spencer Liff a few weeks ago so I know his take on it, but once Neil actually did step into the role, were there adjustments or was it kind of like him just falling into the role as is?

MM: Oh, Neil is an extraordinary actor in many respects. He’s one of the rare big picture actors who really, really wants to understand precisely how I envision certain choices communicating the larger story. So he’s very invested in the big story, not just in his performance, but how it informs everything. The process was very much about floating ideas, discussing them and then once you understood what the intent was, then he would just dive in fully and try anything if he understood what the purpose was. So from that point on it was very easy to make adjustments because then we were talking with the same effect that we were going for.

There are a lot of actors who I love working with also who will just try anything and they find it through the trying of it, which is an equally valid approach. I just didn’t know what kind of an actor he was. He’s one who really, really wants to get it and understand it. So then when he does he’ll try absolutely everything. He’s completely fearless.

What do you think of a straight actor playing a role like Hedwig?

MM: The thing about being an actor is that you’re creating an illusion. Acting is illusion. So I have no problem with a straight actor playing Hedwig any more than I have a problem with a gay actor like Neil playing that character, Barney, on his TV show. I have no issues with black actors playing traditional white roles if the show isn’t explicitly about racial dynamics…if it doesn’t violate the story then I think any actor should be able to play any role and gender as well. I embrace that fully.

The fact that Neil is gay and an out, gay actor and has the position in the community that he has and has the name recognition that he has and the familiarity to lots of different groups of people make him uniquely delicious in this role because he can make it safe for the people who might be afraid of it. He can demonstrate his incredible range to the people who have very high expectations of somebody playing this part. He can access incredible reservoirs of emotion and get a personal experience related specifically to issues that Hedwig is facing. So it can become a very personal performance where he can bring so much of his own life into it as well as his sensational imagination. So it’s the whole package with him, in a big way.

But could a straight actor play this part? Has a straight actor played this part? Absolutely. And brilliantly…but there is a definite plus when there’s a deep spiritual connection. That doesn’t hurt.

Talk to me about Lena Hall a little bit. She does such amazing work in the show, too!

MM: She’s such a tour de force and so gorgeous in it. I was hoping she would [get a nomination] because what she does is incredibly special. Aside from the crazy voice of hers, which really is astonishing, she’s also doing some very beautiful, subtle acting playing a character that I think in other hands can be rather one note and kind of a joke. She’s got this beautiful ability to carry the hope that this man, Yitzhak, has in him and his longing that mirrors Hedwig. I just love the delicacy of their relationship and I love the subtlety of the way that she renders him. Because she’s also a knockout, that transformation and you get such a big bang for your buck because she looks so sensational as a woman and so, so believable as a man. It’s a great hat trick.

I was going to say, when I wasn’t looking at Neil I was looking at her because I just wanted to do see what her face was doing.

MM: She’s a very compelling actor. It’s a joy to watch them. They have such great chemistry too. They have a similar sense of humor so it’s really fun. It was enormously fun to work with them. We laughed a lot. We had a really good time.

Lena Hall with Neil Patrick Harris
Photo: Getty

Since the Tony Awards are coming up, how important do you think it is for the show and a career to get that Tony?

MM: I’ve been down this road so many times. This is my fifth nomination. I have been the outsider just coming in who is lucky to be nominated. I’ve been the frontrunner who didn’t win. I’ve been the winner. I’ve been the loser. I’ve been the person who didn’t get nominated even though everyone thought he should. So, I’ve been through the gamut of this thing.

Honestly, after I won I realized that the fun of it and the joy of it is just being invited to the party. I know that’s the catch phrase, but I honestly think it’s true. Once you’re a Tony nominee then you’ve got a wonderful recognition from the community that just says ‘we are actually taking your work seriously to acknowledge it in this form.’ From that point on, it’s all kind of a really fun game. I don’t think it has any huge implication in terms of a career. It’s not like the Oscars or the Emmy where once you win one of those awards there’s this built-in bump and your next quote is so much higher and stuff. I don’t think it works that way because in the theater we’re all doing it because we love it. None of us are in the theater to make money. None of us are doing theater to become rich and famous. We do it because we love telling stories using this form.

Does it have an effect on a career? I think you get those meetings that you might not get otherwise, and I think you get a lot of attention. I think more than the actual award I think really it is the nomination…I remember when I was nominated for the first time for View from the Bridge, a lot of people really loved that production but nobody really knew who I was. I hadn’t really done much of anything at that point. But being in the Tony circuit and your name is out there, you’re at these ceremonies, your picture is in the paper and even though I didn’t win I had a lot of interest in me as a result of that extra publicity. I’m sure it’s the same thing for the actors and for the designers. It’s great on your calling card to put “Tony Award winner.” It’s a great thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, believe me, but it’s not the end-all and the be-all, I really believe that. As lovely as it is, it doesn’t ultimately make the difference between how you spend your life. It’s the way you choose to live your life and the work that you want to make.

That said, if we want that revival it doesn’t help tickets necessarily but it really helps down the road literally on the road. Like if we were going to do a tour of Hedwig, which I would love to do. It’s easier to sell it when you say “the Tony Award-winning revival.” It also makes it more attractive to people to replace. Neil’s not going to do this show forever. He’s done in the middle of August and at that point, I’m sure we’re going to want to try to keep the show going with other actors. I think just getting all these eight nominations makes us a very attractive company to be a part of.

If you’re in New York City, Hedwig runs through August 17th at the Belasco Theater. For tickets, go to the website. The Tony Awards air Sunday night at 8pm on CBS.