By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Integrity is a slippery fish. “You can sell without selling out,” insists Stephen Trask, composer-lyricist of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the punk-rock musical comedy about a femme transsexual singer on the skids. In the wake of its smash off-Broadway engagement, the San Francisco--bound Hedwig has toured Boston, is currently in L.A. (at the Henry Fonda Theater) and Cologne, Germany, and is in development by New Line for a film to be directed by its co-creator and original star, John Cameron Mitchell. (Michael Cerveris plays the role in the current engagement at the Fonda.) So with all this commercial activity, and in light of the production’s involvement by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and David Bowie, when Mitchell and Trask speak seemingly in earnest about preserving Hedwig‘s “true essence,” one has to wonder if they’ve been sniffing too much glue.
They met with the Weekly for lunch at Dupar‘s in the Farmers Market -- a homey diner that’s somehow campy without even trying. Which makes it a perfect setting for an interview with these two. The slender, soft-spoken Mitchell appeared exhausted from a sleepless night andor blissed out from a morning sauna, as he slumped into the faux-leatherreal-plastic booth, but managed somehow to sustain a sort of thoughtful eloquence. Trask was considerably more animated, and no less articulate.
Mitchell explained Hedwig‘s genesis -- “a baby sitter who worked for our family in Kansas, named Helga. She was an Army wife who kind of looked like Hedwig. I was 14.” Mitchell tells of going to Helga’s trailer, of singing and acting out “Copacabana” and “Lying Eyes,” and of Helga giving him alcoholic drinks if he was good.
“A tragic pattern that‘s played out through the rest of my life,” Mitchell quips sardonically. “Helga had a lot of dates who came up the driveway, and she wasn’t very cute. ‘Why does she have so many dates, and why does she not like some of them?’ I wondered. Of course, I later understood she was a prostitute . . .
”So Helga became Hedwig.“
As Mitchell and Trask conceived of a musical based on Helga, composer Trask says he wanted her to be a frustrated musician, while performer Mitchell saw her as an actor. She became a little of both. The Fonda production opens with ”girlyboy“ Hedwig prancing onstage, responding to audience applause with ”Thank you, thank you. I love a warm hand on my opening“ -- a line that more or less sets the evening‘s tone. Standing anxiously forlorn in front of beamed images of her LAPD mug shots, Hedwig explains how she was fellating a former lover, Tommy Gnosis, in his limousine when the vehicle struck . . . a child. This most recent in a series of rotten-luck incidents frames Hedwig’s narrative of hisher life, punctuated by Trask‘s muscular songs (performed by a five-piece band named Cheater) and juxtaposed against narcissist Tommy’s offstage, sold-out gig at the Hollywood Bowl. As Mitchell points out, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is really just a gussied-up performance-art piece about a boy who found himself on the East German side of the Berlin Wall and has been trying to cross various barriers ever since. (Hedwig endured a botched sex-change operation in order to escape to the U.S. as the wife of an American GI.)
Explains Trask, ”Hedwig turned out to be a struggling musician with resentment for people who have made it. Combining this with philosophies that John had, we were able to tell our own stories through this improbable character. We workshopped it at a [NYC] club called Squeeze Box, where a punk band would back up a drag queen. A lot of L.A. people came there, too -- Vaginal Davis, Jackie Beat.“ Mitchell performed as Hedwig, though the management was at first reluctant to let him onstage because he wasn‘t a professional drag queen.
”I was learning four to seven songs a week,“ adds Trask. ”I was there every week for a year. It was wonderful training. When we got [around to] comparing the performances, that’s when the song structure came together for me.“
Hedwig evolved over four years. And evolution is not always pretty, as Mitchell elaborates:
”I did one show as Tommy, which was kind of a disaster. It was at a bar. Tommy had an English accent for no apparent reason. And there were a couple of drunks who thought I was real. I did this stage dive, and the idea was Tommy diving with no one to catch him. I had these blood capsules and Chiclets for teeth. The drunks were beside themselves: ‘Call an ambulance!’“
Short of actual audience participation, the reception to Hedwig in different corners of the world has been varied. Mitchell says that the music-biz jokes are working here far better than in New York, probably because L.A. is America‘s rock capital. ”The show has a resonance here that it didn’t have in New York,“ says Trask, probably, as Mitchell remarks, because ”show-biz permeates the life here,“ whereas in New York, as Trask points out, ”the industry is the stock market.“