By Aaron Hicklin

From Doogie to Barney to Hedwig, the shapeshifting career of Neil Patrick Harris is immune to typecasting.

“We always thought of Neil as the ideal Hedwig on Broadway, we really did,” Mitchell tells me. “We already knew he was a triple threat, maybe a quadruple threat, meaning he’s got this kind of...” he pauses, considers — “I don’t know, he’s like a prince. He rules the rooms; he doesn’t crumple under the pressure. All of that attention could have really broken a weak man, but he remains dignified, he remains kind, and he also remains like a little boy loving what he does.”

On a frigid morning in February, Harris, wearing a snug plaid shirt and jeans, is ordering pineapple juice in a New York hotel. (“It makes me feel tropical,” he says, pausing, “and it makes my semen taste delicious.”) It’s the day after his first full Hedwig rehearsal, one spent in fishnets and heels, capped by a Drama League gala in his honor at which he was serenaded by Audra McDonald and Stephen Colbert, among others. “I started rehearsals fucking yesterday, so my mind is all over the place,” he confesses. “I’m thinking, What happens if I get the flu? What happens if I get a nodule on my vocal chord?” Unusually, Harris will not have an understudy, a decision influenced by Mitchell, who recalled performing the show on his back if he felt like it, without the audience being the wiser. “I could dump during the show, I could do whatever I wanted,” Mitchell says. “I went to the bathroom with the wireless mic, just because I could.”

Harris has also managed to persuade his producers to skip the traditional Wednesday matinee, adding a late night show to Saturday instead. “What I didn’t want is to do a matinee and 20 minutes in, have whole groups of people getting up, turning down their hearing aids, and walking out,” he says. “That would distress me, because part of Hedwig is Iggy Pop in all of his fucked-up glory. So I’m looking forward to squatting down in front of the first row and having people spit in my mouth. It’s that kind of show. I’m anxious, one night, to fall backwards and be led on my back by people with their hands outstretched.” He pauses. “I don’t think that will ever happen, but that’s the vibe I’m looking for — that’s the vibe I have to embrace. I don’t fucking care — you gotta go to a nasty place.”


Listening to Harris, you get the sense that Hedwig is the vehicle he’s chosen to liberate himself from the strictures of television, which is pretty much the reason Mitchell wrote the play in the first place — “an opportunity to improvise, to go crazy, to see where the night took you.” Mitchell notes that Harris could have chosen to play it safe for the rest of his career. “A lot of younger actors in the Hollywood system are often the most courageous later on,” he says. “They are either destroyed by it, or they’re like, ‘All right, time for me to rebel.’ They’re the ones who want to try out for Shortbus, or they want to do Nymphomaniac with Lars von Trier.”

Yet the risks almost always appear to pay off. It was a risk, if a calculated one, for Harris to play himself as an outrageous horndog high on ecstasy (“It’s a fucking sausage fest in here, bros. Let’s get some poontang.”) in the 2004 stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, a role predicated on exploding his milquetoast Doogie Howser persona. And it was a risk of a different kind to star as a villain in Joss Wheedon’s pioneering, musical web series, Dr. Horrible’s SingAlong Blog, though one that dovetailed nicely with Harris’s enthusiasm for digital and social media (he’s an inveterate Twitterer and Instagrammer). But the biggest, least calculated risk that Harris took was to come out in November 2006, at a moment when he was established in the public imagination as the winking, womanizing rogue with a reputation for stealing the best lines on How I Met Your Mother. He and his partner, David Burtka, had been together for several years at that point — they met on a New York sidewalk — and the announcement neatly upended preconceptions that a gay man could not play straight. As Harris puts it, “I was equally horned up as Barney pre– and post–coming out.”