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.“
Hedwig is a big hit in Cologne: ”The program is almost like a research paper,“ Mitchell says. ”It has the text of Plato‘s Symposium, Todd Haynes’ glam-rock book, quotations by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Sid Vicious . . .
“The Holocaust jokes don‘t go over well there. The actors love the silence. But in the end, the audience rises to its feet.”
Boston, however, was a different story, with the show flailing in search of an audience, and losing money.
“That production got away from us,” Trask says. “They put it in a theater twice the size of the one in New York, in a town one-eighth the size. Then they advertised it to the people who would see Annie Get Your Gun. The whole production style was just a bit off. If it had been in a smaller theater, it would have done fine business.”
It was after Boston that Mitchell and Trask learned the importance of the theater’s physical ambiance, and of keeping some level of control in order to keep Hedwig‘s authenticity. Says Mitchell, “The look we have in L.A., we are not going to vary from that, from finding a space [like the Henry Fonda Theater] that has its history, and assimilating that history into the show.”
Has Hedwig become a commodity?
“Hedwig would love to be thought of as a commodity,” says Trask. “That’s the goal she‘s looking for — she wants to be that commodity. She wants to be an industry success. Part of becoming successful is commodifying yourself.”
Mitchell’s view is more tempered: “I don‘t have fear of the success so much as the compromises that come with it. When the money gets invested, often the investors want control. This was our baby, and basically we turned it over to one person at a time. It’s reached a level that there are larger corporations involved, and it‘s scary to think what they might do to make it work.”
Example: When he performs in Cheater, Trask wears fake-leather pants. But his replacement in L.A. is wearing real-leather pants manufactured by sponsor Hilfiger — a tiny, metaphoric compromise. “We have no problem with sponsors,” Trask remarks, “so long as people don’t tell us what to do.”
Which may explain why Mitchell is directing the movie for New Line: “They realized we were just too strange for them to give anyone else the $3 million budget. [Because the budget is so modest] the stakes aren‘t that high.”
“So maybe we can make something we’re proud of,” Trask says. “Because of the subject matter, it‘s never going to be Austin Powers.” Adds Mitchell, “I think the show is dense enough to avoid a gross commodification. It’s not like Cats.”
The Boston debacle may have taught them the kind of lesson in integrity that so many producers fail to grasp, that preserving the essence of a show-on-the-rise may look like an artistic decision, but it‘s really a business one.
“If you water it down,” says Trask, “you don’t increase your audience. You only lose your old one.” Hedwig and the Angry Inch is being performed for an indefinite run at the Henry Fonda Theater, 6126 Hollywood Blvd. For information, call (310) 859-2830 or see Calendar.