Hedwig’s Stephen Trask: There are Thors all around us

Stephen Trask photo by by Bruce Gilkas.

Stephen Trask photo by by Bruce Gilkas.

Hedwig is an iconic fictional character divided by gender, born out of one divided nation and now living in another. Birthed from two creators who imagined a world where from its earliest form, love itself was violently divided by an angry and capricious god of lightning.

Her two makers, Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell, have been divided throughout their own lives by their own forms of otherness. Yet for the past 18 years, their cult-favorite rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has told the rocking, wrenching and ultimately healing story of a woman seeking wholeness.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch was born in a raucous gay New York nightclub called Squeezebox. It grew into a seminal off-Broadway production that ran for nearly three years before being made into an underground phenom movie. Finally, in 2014, Hedwig arrived tattered and triumphant on Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards including best revival. Now, as it embarks on its first tour of the American heartland, Trask sees the opportunity for a divided America to stop shouting and start singing … fist-pumping and full-throated.

“I’d like to see a world where people don’t have to spend as much mental energy dividing us all into categories of us vs. them or as a series of ‘others,’ ” Trask said on the eve of Hedwig’s arrival in Denver on Dec. 6. “I hope people can come to understand that the categories we have grouped ourselves in are really just states of mind. I hope we all will be able to love each other more and share the planet better.”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock concert, during which our heroine intermittently reveals the intimate details of her shocking life. Hedwig was born a boy in communist East Germany and underwent a brutal sex-change operation to marry an American soldier who takes her to Kansas and abandons her there. Now she travels the country following a young boy named Tommy Gnosis whom she believes has stolen her music, her fame and half of her soul. The origin of her emptiness – indeed of our universal human emptiness, she believes – is explained in the song “Origin of Love,” which tells of the petty god Thor, who used lightning bolts to split prehistoric man in half, damning all descendants to an unending search for our “other half.”

And in the wake of this bitterly fought election season, Trask sees plenty of Thors in our world who are creating divisions in every direction.

“In the opening song, Hedwig comes out and she says very defiantly that she’s right in the middle of all of these divides,” Trask said. “And it’s not just gender divides. It’s a lot of divides. But she tells us, ‘Hey, there ain’t much of a difference between a bridge and a wall. And without me right in the middle, babe, you would be nothin’ at all.’

“What she means is, you can look at that thing that is dividing you, that wall, and say that’s actually a connecting point. The thing that is dividing us is actually also what makes us have stuff in common. What’s binding us is our common humanity. And if we tear down those mental constructs as much as possible, the whole world just opens up in a way that makes life better – not just for other people, but for yourself.”

In advance of Hedwig’s arrival in Denver starting Dec. 6, Stephen Trask opened up for a wide-ranging conversation with DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore covering how he and John Cameron Mitchell first conceived the Hedwig character, how he approached writing the seminal song “Origin of Love,” and much more – including his blunt response to the blunt question, “Do you feel like you have gotten your share of the credit over the years?” Along the way, Trask references Barbra Steisand, Dr. Seuss, The Clash and The Justice League of America, among others. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

John Moore: The Hedwig story really starts at Squeezebox, where you were the bandleader. What was going on in your life and in the world that made that the right time and place for Hedwig to be born?

Stephen Trask: I was a gay singer-songwriter trying to disguise my softer side in punk-rock music and glam-rock music. I had a band, and I think people were interested in what we were doing because the songs were melodic and the music was fun and the lyrics had meaning. But people were pretty put off by the idea of an outwardly gay singer-songwriter, particularly one for whom it wasn’t really a political thing. For me it was political to not be political. Sometimes I might write a song about an issue, but we were not political in the way that The Clash were political. Politics was not the point of our band, so there really wasn’t much room for us in the music scene. I got to be friends with Pat Briggs, who was one of the co-founders of Squeezebox. We both bonded over the fact that there really wasn’t much space in the rock world for gay people, and there wasn’t really a space for rock music in the gay world. He and Michael Schmidt decided to start this club and asked me if I would be the bandleader of it. It had reached the point where enough people now wanted to see a drag queen singing a real rock song instead of lip-syncing to a Barbra Streisand song. Or who wanted to hear a DJ who was playing rock music of all eras and punk rock and new-wave. And it turned out that there were a lot of people who wanted this. Squeezebox was a hit from the moment it opened its doors. Every week we put on a different show with a drag queen. I was leading a four-piece rock band, and it was basically the same lineup that’s in the Hedwig band. That was also my band outside of the club.

So at the same time, John and I were working on a new show. There was no female character in it yet, but we started inventing her together – and I emphasize ‘her’ because if this character were to be a woman, and John were playing her, then that would mean I could get us a gig at Squeezebox. Hedwig was partly drawn on somebody John knew, and partly drawn on my experiences as a frustrated musician, which is part of her story, too. We thought she was going to be a minor part of this show but we kept getting gigs. And so we slowly developed this original show.

John Moore: So the idea for John to play this failed rock star was really yours?

Stephen Trask: Oh, yeah. That was my idea. We had a rock-star character in our story that was loosely based on John who later became Tommy Gnosis. But frankly, and no offense to John, but he wasn’t really that interesting of a character. Now, I am sure if we really wanted to make the story about John, we could have made it very interesting, but it wasn’t really a subject we were getting very far with. I had taken a class in biography in college, and they taught us how to interview people. So I got my notebook out and I started interviewing John. I thought we would find some biographical material that we can use. And sure enough, he started telling me about this babysitter he had as a kid. And I just said, “John, why don’t we take her and make her into a failed rock musician who used to have a relationship with our central rock-star character. But he went on to become famous, and she is left singing in dives, and she is bitter about it, and that’s what she talks about. I’ll write “Wicked Little Town,” her song of bitterness over never getting out of the town. You’ll write a monologue and you’ll play the character. We’ll get her a wig and we’ll put her in Squeezebox.” And so that’s kind of how it happened. We just sort of invented her right there in the room.

John Moore: I’ve gotten to interview John a couple of times and one of the most meaningful stories I ever got to write was an interview with his parents, who were living in Colorado Springs when the first production of Hedwig was being staged down there. So I knew John’s father was the high-ranking general based in Berlin who stood behind Reagan when he called on Gorbachev to tear down the wall. Now all of those biographical details seem to equate John’s life more directly to the character of Tommy than Hedwig.

Stephen Trask: Right.

Mitchell and Trask: The two halves of Hedwig’s whole

John Moore: And so that would make you the internationally ignored sing stylist?

Stephen Trask: That part’s me. Absolutely. The person looking for her other half? That’s John. And the internationally ignored song stylist? That’s me. We just kind of mashed it together. She’s an odd character. Her biography is a bit of a fairy tale, but we were able to make it feel human because we were able to both tell our own story without being self-indulgent. I can talk about being a bitter rock star. I’m not actually bitter, but when you are a struggling musician, you want to make it. You don’t want to be singing in dives. I can relate.

John Moore: So do you feel like you have gotten your share of the credit for creating this character over the years?

Stephen Trask: No. Not one bit. No, not at all.

John Moore: So speaking of Hedwig as of two halves of a whole, I guess the fair way to say it is that Hedwig really is half of both of you.

Stephen Trask: Yeah, very much so. Yeah.

John Moore: Well speaking of that very thing, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to ask you about the origin of “Origin of Love.” When I was a reporter at the Denver Post, I wrote a column called “The 10 Most Gut-Scraping Songs of the Aughts,” and I put “Origin of Love” on the list. I cheated a little bit by citing the Rufus Wainwright cover, because that put me in the right decade, but I specifically called out the song for your line, “I was looking at you. You had a way so familiar, but I could not recognize. ’Cause you had blood on your face; I had blood in my eyes.” I just want to know what gave you the confidence that you could distill everything that is going on in that story into a pop song and communicate all of its depth and complexity in three minutes.

Stephen Trask: I first heard of the story because John bought me that book, “Plato’s Symposium.” He said to me, ‘Can you write a song about this?’ I was very into ambitious narrative songwriting. I was also obsessed with Lou Reed at the time. He had that huge mythic song called “Last Great American Whale,” but he had tons of other songs that were just as hugely ambitious. And there was the Townes Van Zandt song “Pancho & Lefty.” Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard did a spectacular cover of that one. I had been trying in different ways to write songs that tried to cover a lot of subject matter. So when John gave me this story, I knew this was something I could really sink my teeth into. The big thing I knew I was always leading up to was telling the story as a myth and then turning it personal at the end. Doing the whole thing in a way where you set up this really fascinating story and then make it gut-wrenching. It started out with me figuring out that I could get in by describing it in a kind of Dr. Seuss language. I had this book called “Happy Birthday to You” when I was growing up, and there is this really strange world described in this book. The drawings were these really spectacularly strange creatures. So I thought, “Well, let’s describe this world before humans were cut down into their current size when there were just these big, huge two-faced, eight-limbed beings, and how can I tell this story like Dr. Seuss?” Once I figured that out, it came out almost all at once. It was just:

When the earth was still flat,
And clouds made of fire.
Mountains stretched up to the sky.
Sometimes higher.

It’s very sing-songy. You can even imagine where the pages of the book turn, and what the pictures would look like.

Folks roamed the earth.
Like big rolling kegs.
They had two sets of arms.
They had two sets of legs.

I imagined it from the start as an animated children’s book. I asked myself, ‘So who else would the gods have thought were threatening that they would have cut down, like dinosaurs into lizards, and cut the legs off of whales? I just imagined these vengeful gods taking these giant rival creatures and cutting them down to size. I also imagined kind of like The Justice League of America where the gods of all the religions all had one clubhouse together. A place where Thor is like a member of the Justice League. Where creatures from different myths all occupy the same space. It just unfolded like that, just trying to be extremely visual so that I could imagine this picture book that people could listen to and follow along the whole way.

John Moore: The idea that we all have predestined soulmates is somewhat refuted by my favorite song in the score, “Wicked Little Town.” So I am wondering: Do you believe that we have predestined soulmates or are you more the “Wicked Little Town” kind of a guy?

The film version of the ‘Wicked Little Town’ reprise.

Stephen Trask: I am a more the “Wicked Little Town Reprise” kind of guy, actually. John is the one who was very into the ‘other half’ idea. He’s the one who gave me the Plato. When the show was oriented around a character based on John’s life, we did explore this idea of, ‘Who is my other half?’ But that kind of went away. And so when I wrote what Tommy says to Hedwig, it was also me writing to John, saying, ‘I don’t actually believe in this concept of the other half. I think it’s more the love you create with the people around you and the relationships you create with the people around you, rather than searching for the person you are destined for.

John Moore: So what did it mean to you when the show finally got a chance to be seen on Broadway after so many years?

Stephen Trask: It was life-changing. It definitely put the work out there in a bigger way. It’s one thing to have people go, ‘Oh, I love that show!’ every so often. It’s another thing to actually have a lot of people who have seen it. I assume some people don’t like it, but for some people, it’s clearly life-changing. I tend to gravitate toward the people for whom it is life-changing. When you are doing something like that, you are talking to people. You are trying to put out these ideas, and they aren’t, ‘Oh, I wish I were a rock star.’ Instead it’s a discussion about how we construct our world into a series of dualities, and how the lines can be blurred or erased depending on your perspective. The discussion about love and whether love is something that is destined, or whether it is something that you find and recognize and nurture in the way that Tommy also sings about Hedwig. The reprise in “Wicked Little Town” is inspired by the idea of found objects becoming art. It’s not just love as something you find as opposed to are destined for, but I believe the world is the thing that we make of it, and it’s not really our destiny so much as what we do with who and what we are presented. So you want to get into a discussion like that, and you certainly don’t want to be shouting off into the dark. So Broadway brought all of that to a wider audience. When people actually respond to it, and it begins a conversation, and it either has a profound effect on people’s lives, or it begins a discussion or an argument, it feels good to have been a part of that.

I also want to say that we ran the Broadway show as a year-and-a-half-long fundraiser for the Harvey Milk School. We ended up giving them more than $600,000. We are their biggest donor ever. Bigger than car companies. And so, if you feel like you are trying to create some good in the world, then that certainly did it.

John Moore: Tell me about solving the specific problem of telling the story on Broadway when the whole idea of the story is based on Hedwig playing in dive bars and bowling alleys? I saw the show on Broadway, and you guys clearly had a lot of fun acknowledging that this really isn’t a Broadway show. It’s more a Broadway takeover.

Stephen Trask: Yes, on Broadway, the idea was that Hedwig and company are squatting on the set of the disastrous fictional production of Hurt Locker the Musical, which closed after one performance the night before. And that particular conceit is one that you can only do in a Broadway house when the joke is that big. I mean there we have an entire joke set. You are literally going to a Broadway house and there is the set to an entirely different show. We also made Playbills for Hurt Locker the Musical and scattered them around the theatre as if they had been discarded by patrons who hated it as they left at intermission. There is no end to how much you can tell this joke. It all started when John was visiting my house in Kentucky where I live with my partner, and the two of us were trying to come up with a funny Broadway show title that had closed after one night. We were naming one after the other and my husband actually came up with Hurt Locker the Musical. We just cracked up so much that we knew it was the right one. So then I wrote a song for it, and it’s not even necessarily a bad song. The concept is that it’s the kind of song that a good writer would write if they agreed to be hired onto a project called Hurt Locker the Musical, and approached it sincerely. The problem isn’t the song, per se. The whole idea is wrong, and that’s why it was so fun. Everything about that was a blast.
John Moore: So how do you do that on the road?

Stephen Trask: We definitely loved the Hurt Locker concept, and the jokes work great, and we didn’t want to lose it. So we thought, ‘Well, the road is where Broadway shows are being developed.’ So on the road, Hurt Locker is not a Broadway show. It’s a pre-Broadway run like you would have in cities like Denver,  where the producers are hoping for it to go to Broadway. But it failed. So we found a different context to tell the same jokes.

John Moore: So even though Hurt Locker the Musical died on Broadway … it lives on the road, in cities all across America.

Stephen Trask: It lives. It lives.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: And what can you tell us about the new musical you are working on, This Ain’t No Disco!?

Stephen Trask: I’ll tell you, it’s not really like anything that anyone has said about it so far, except that it vaguely relates to Studio 54. It’s about young people who come to New York in the late 1970s and early 80s to find themselves and each other in the nightclub culture of the time. It takes place partly at Studio 54, partly at the Mudd Club, and also in artist spaces and on the streets of the city. What’s interesting is the way that people in these cultures find themselves forming found families that are not biological or nuclear. I am writing it with Peter Yanowitz, who is the drummer in the Hedwig band. We developed the story with Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) but it’s a sung-through musical, so there is no actual dialogue. The music is a mix of choral and gospel and punk and rock and disco and new-wave and soul and R&B. Rick came up with this great concept of Studio 54 as a church and (Studio 54 founder) Steve Rubell a street preacher.

John Moore: In closing, now that you are this Broadway big-shot, do you think it might be time for you to embrace your birth name of Stephen Schwartz, and go ahead and let people confuse you with the Stephen Schwartz who wrote Godspell and Wicked?

Stephen Trask: I remember the first check I mistakenly got for writing “Defying Gravity.” I said, “What the hell is this?” I didn’t know the songs to Wicked, so I had no idea why I was getting it. And it was actually a really small check, unfortunately.

John Moore: Did you have to give it back?

Stephen Trask: I called him up and we compared things that he has gotten of mine, and things I have gotten of his, and it was within, like, $10. So we agreed if something big comes in, we’ll tell the other person. But it’s not worth it to call him up and say, “Hey, I got $3.87 for this.” And he’s fine without it.

John Moore: Final thoughts on Hedwig?

Stephen Trask: It’s going to knock your socks off, I can assure you.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Denver: Ticket information
Hedwig and the Angry Inch Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the genre-bending, fourth-wall-smashing musical sensation, with a pulsing score and electrifying performances, that tells the story of one of the most unique characters to ever hit the stage.
• Dec 6-11
• Buell Theatre
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 10
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Mitchell and Trask: The two halves of Hedwig’s whole
Casting: Euan Morton to don Hedwig’s wig on national tour
Hedwig named to Denver Center’s 2016-17 Broadway season
Hedwig creator’s parents are tearing down a wall

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