Hedwig Co-Creator John Cameron Mitchell Says "We Need Punk Now More Than Ever"
Darren Criss stars as Hedwig in the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Hollywood Pantages.
She should be playing the county fair by now. It’s been a good 16 years since Hedwig and her band The Angry Inch had their heyday rocking out in the West Village’s Jane Street Theatre, and according to the laws of rock stardom, the old “slip of a girlyboy” should be pulling her wigs out of boxes and dusting off her golden oldies on the nostalgia circuit. The East German call girl has always been a bit ill-fated, what with the botched sex change and that accident with the bus full of deaf children.
Only a funny thing happened on the way to the fairgrounds. On Nov. 1, after becoming the Broadway sensation of 2014 thanks to fans of Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig will be performing not for cows and carnies but for all the folks who had to buy Pantages season tickets to have a snowball’s chance in Encino of seeing Hamilton. Fortunately for Ham fans, with Hedwig and the Angry Inch they’ll catch a Tony-winning revival of a truly groundbreaking show. Hedwig’s integration of rock song form into theater narrative helped tear down the walls over which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s juggernaut later stormed. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: There are second acts in American lives — or at least in the lives of apocryphal transgendered Eastern European refugees–turned–trailer-trash punk stars.
“There’s always been a small, interesting group of weirdos, nerds and punk rockers who loved it and nurtured it,” says John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the book for Hedwig and the Angry Inch and originated the title character off-Broadway in 1998. “We never tried to exploit it and make it into something it wasn’t. I moved on to other things and then it was time for Broadway. Broadway came around to us, we didn’t come around to Broadway.”
In form and substance, Hedwig was ahead of its time. When Mitchell, already a veteran of Broadway, and composer Stephen Trask, leader of East Village band Cheater, tried to find a home for their glam drama, the traditional theaters and producing organizations told them they were too loud. This was years before American Idiot, Passing Strange and Spring Awakening proved that Broadway stages and audiences were open to modern rock music. “The people who were going to pay that kind of money to go see theater didn’t want to hear rock music or theater music with a rock tinge,” Trask says.
So in true punk DIY fashion, Hedwig’s originators built their own home, renovating an old ballroom in a hotel near the Hudson River. The show had a successful two-year run at Jane Street, garnering a cult audience of fans who rivaled Rent-heads for their zeal. The show was smartly, hilariously based on classical philosophy and dramas; Mitchell’s star turn was a career-defining performance; and Trask tunes such as “Origin of Love” were fated to become alternative wedding staples. Nonetheless, Hedwig failed, like its lead character, to transition out of the box in which it was stuck.
Hedwig co-creator John Cameron Mitchell
Perhaps it wasn’t just the brashness of its sound but the audacity of its subject that kept Hedwig from moving from off-Broadway to the Great White Way. The show tells the story of Hansel, whose attempt to become a woman in order to escape the Iron Curtain leaves him/her with an angry inch of flesh and his mother’s name. The show plays with and destroys binaries such as male/female and East/West, long before gender fluidity, genderqueer and gender nonconformity were household terms — when Hedwig was just queer punk.
“This musical is in the moment where people are really dealing with gender and sexuality,” Trask says. “Gay people and differently gendered people are at the point right now that black people were at in the ’50s. People are ready to cross this line and have rock ’n’ roll let them do it.”
That quote is from 1998, when this reporter interviewed Trask and Mitchell for a Village Voice feature. Back then, in the era of George W. Bush and anti–gay marriage propositions, the songwriter was engaged in wishful thinking, or perhaps prophesying.
“I don’t think people had thought through gender to that point where they could absorb it,” Trask reflects now. “You need people who are ready to hear that material.”
Mitchell directed a film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), which also became a cult hit. Stands were mounted in several cities worldwide. But Mitchell moved on to filmmaking (Shortbus) and acting (Girls), and Trask began writing film scores (Dreamgirls).
Meanwhile, Broadway and the world were changing. Punk bands were writing hit musicals. Gay marriage was legalized. A transitioning punk singer came out in Rolling Stone .
After staging Hedwig for tens of thousands of screaming fans in Seoul, Trask and Mitchell began wondering if there was new life for the old girl. The original producer, David Binder, came back on board. Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) signed on as director. And once Mitchell decided he was not interested in trying to recap the exhausting role eight times a week, they began looking for a new star. Early on, the search focused on Neil Patrick Harris.
“He could be the ultimate ambassador to people who think it’s going to be scary,” says Mitchell. “He had this sly Hedwig in him. Hedwig was safe but could still be subversive, could bring some downtown to midtown.”
On April 22, 2014, Hedwig finally made her Broadway debut, at the Belasco. On June 8, 7 million people watched as boy-next-door Harris, in full drag, bumped, ground, mouthed and rocked various male celebrity audience members on the Tonys broadcast. The show grabbed four awards that night, including Best Revival. Time had come today.
“From a Broadway perspective, we were fitting into a type that we invented to some degree,” says Trask. “When I first hung out with Lin-Manuel [Miranda], one of the first things he said was he discovered the Hedwig cast recording when he was a theater kid, and it taught him that you can be true to a musical form and do it in a theatrical context.”
Actors from Taye Diggs to Michael C. Hall have now put on Hedwig’s makeup. The touring version, which launched in San Francisco on Oct. 4, stars Darren Criss (Glee). Hedwig continues to break new gender territory. Lena Hall will reprise her Tony-winning turn as Hedwig’s husband, Yitzhak, but on Sunday nights, she will become the second woman (after Ally Sheedy) to play the lead — a woman playing a former gay man–turned–drag queen turned (spoiler alert) rock androgyne. Hall says playing Hedwig is much easier than playing Yitzhak.
“I’m closer to a Barbie than I am to a dude in my own life,” she says. “Getting to be something completely different from myself required a whole lot of focus and observation. I watched men. I would watch men walk and how many different ways they would walk.
“As Hedwig, I had something no one else got: I have a deep understanding of other ideas of the story. I have sat and listened to every single version of the same story told to me multiple times. Each person does it differently. Each way a new thing comes to light for me. It’s like I’ve done some crazy thesis project on Hedwig.”
Trask also bowed out of performing in the revival. Instead he assembled a band that he calls “brilliant.” He’s busy writing a new musical, with Hedwig drummer Peter Yanowitz, about New York in the 1970s and ’80s. Mitchell is also writing a new show and directed a film version of Neil Gaiman’s short story How to Talk to Girls at Parties, also set in the 1970s, that stars Elle Fanning. Both of Hedwig’s parents have been drawn back to the origin story of punk, when expectations around form and gender were upended – the music in which Hedwig found her salvation.
“Anger is so constructive,” Mitchell says. “We need punk now, we need it more than ever. We need rebellion by youth.”
In the move to Broadway and then the road, Hedwig has been tweaked but not altered. The writers and actors often add site-specific jokes. For instance, the revival takes place in the wreckage of a failed musical version of The Hurt Locker. Its sexual provocations aside, Hedwig is funny, fun, rocking, smart and has a big heart. It’s great theater.
"There’s nothing more Broadway than Hedwig,” says Mitchell. “It’s very family-friendly. There’s innuendo and stuff, but not more than you’d see on TV.”
Hall saw the Jane Street show and its emotional depth left her sobbing. “Hedwig’s story is universal,” she says. “The botched sex change, that’s just a vehicle for a universal story about finding your other half and finding out your other half is in yourself and you are whole and complete.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs Nov. 1-27 at Hollywood Pantages, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. hollywoodpantages.com.
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