John Cameron Mitchell on the ageless appeal of Hedwig

John Cameron Mitchell Quote. Photo by Nick Vogelson.John Cameron Mitchell photo by Nick Vogelson.

John Cameron Mitchell knows the impact his underground rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has had on a generation of misfits over the past 20 years. It’s not overstating to say his musical has saved lives by giving those who have felt divided or separated a place to belong.

But even now, after Hedwig’s long journey from a gay New York nightclub to off-Broadway to a cult-hit film and on to Broadway before now its first, Denver-bound national touring production, Mitchell thinks perhaps he’s perhaps not the best person to assess the show’s lasting cultural impact.

“I feel wonderful when people say it has changed their lives – and I am assuming they mean that in a good way,” Mitchell said from San Francisco in advance of Hedwig’s Dec. 6 opening in Denver with Euan Morton (Taboo) starring as Hedwig.

“I think the most common positive effect I hear is that the show is so specific about someone who is so unique that it creates space in people’s lives to find themselves. I think that ‘s one of the important things about any good, fictional narrative piece: It’s true enough that you can buy its logic. Obviously you have to care. And ideally you have metaphors and ideas that resonate in your life.”

Stephen Trask: There are Thors all around us

Hedwig and the Angry Inch has a big idea at its core: Co-written by Stephen Trask, the show is essentially a rock concert featuring a genderqueer singer who is following a rock star and former lover named Tommy Gnosis around the country. Between songs, Hedwig tells the harrowing details of her shocking life, including how she was born a boy in communist East Germany and underwent a botched sex-change operation to marry an American soldier who then abandoned her in a Kansas trailer park. Now Hedwig seems doomed to search (or stalk) the earth for her “other half,” who may or may not be Tommy Gnosis.

There is an ambitious metaphor running underneath all of this as well: The story is steeped in “The Origin of Love,” a cautionary tale related by Aristophanes in “Plato’s Symposium.” It’s about about how the vengeful god Thor long ago split the three sexes of human beings down to two – damning all descendants of prehistoric man to an unending search for whatever is missing in us.

“ ‘The Origin of Love’ is a myth that can be interpreted in a lot of ways,” Mitchell said. “What your ‘other half’ is can be many things. It was originally talked about in a romantic way, but it’s flexible enough that you can think of it in a religious way, too. You can also think of it in a personal, internal way of seeking a certain wholeness. That idea is really strong for a lot of people.

“Everyone is a misfit and a loser – or they have felt that way. Everyone is fighting a battle, and Hedwig’s battle is particularly hard. But she laughs at it, and that makes it a communal thing. That resonates, especially in this cyber, anti-empathy moment that the industrialized world is in right now.”

How so?

“Let’s just say that looking at screens has not done much for people’s compassion. When you can’t see a face, you tend to not really hear what people are saying.”

The video above shows John Cameron Mitchell singing ‘Origin of Love’ in the 2001 film version of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’

Hedwig and the Angry Inch was inspired in large part by Mitchell’s visits to his parents’ home in 1980s Cold War Berlin. John’s father, Army Maj. Gen. John H. Mitchell, was in charge of all U.S. military forces in West Germany and stood behind Ronald Reagan in 1987 as the president famously demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The character of Hedwig was specifically inspired by a real woman who babysat Mitchell when he was a boy. She was an actual German, divorced U.S. Army wife who moonlighted as a prostitute from her trailer-park home in Junction City, Kansas.

From 2005: Mitchell’s parents are tearing down a wall

Although Mitchell created Hedwig onstage, Tommy is the character based on Mitchell himself. Both are gay, the sons of an army general and from deeply Roman Catholic homes. Hedwig became the story’s protagonist when Trask encouraged Mitchell to showcase their earliest material in 1994 at a drag-punk nightclub called Squeezebox, where Trask headed the house band and Mitchell’s longtime partner, Jack Steeb, played bass.

It would be 20 years before Hedwig would make it to Broadway. And by then, at age 51, the right person to play Hedwig was no longer Mitchell, who instead happily handed the wig over to the man he calls “America’s sweetheart,” Neil Patrick Harris. He was followed by a steady stream of bankable stars including Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss, Taye Diggs, Andrew Rannells and, for three months … John Cameron Mitchell.

Yes, after the show was an established hit on Broadway, Mitchell decided to step back into Hedwig’s heels and bring his personal journey full circle. He says he took on the challenge as a way to shake himself free from the complacency he felt stuck in following the deaths of Steeb in 2005 and his father, from Alzheimers disease, in 2012.

“It was just like the old days, but somehow better because there was less at stake,” said Mitchell. “I was just having fun.”

Here are excerpts from more of John Cameron Mitchell’s wide-ranging conversation with DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore covering, among other things, Mitchell’s time in both the original Broadway cast of “The Secret Garden” and the DCPA Theatre Company’s “Peter Pan.” 

John Cameron Mitchell Books

John Moore: When we last talked in 2011, even though there had been talk, you thought there was no way Hedwig would make it all the way to Broadway. What changed?

John Cameron Mitchell: The world changed. And Broadway changed. The idea of rock ‘n roll on stage, the idea of drag and the idea of an unusual story became less frightening. It was just time, and we wanted to make sure we had the right person playing Hedwig, so we waited until Neil Patrick Harris was free to do it. That was the right move because he was America’s sweetheart. That allowed people to not be afraid of it. It was just the right time. And now we are on a national tour, which seems crazy because back in the day, people weren’t ready for it.

John Moore: After so many years, what did it mean for you to finally be able to play Hedwig on Broadway?

John Cameron Mitchell: It was very exciting. I hadn’t really performed onstage in 15 years, so I was kind of nervous. I knew it would turn out right but it was physically really hard and I was sick during rehearsals, and my voice wasn’t what it used to be. I had to lower some keys. So it was definitely hard. And then when I got in front of an audience, it was awesome.

John Moore: How was the crowd response?

John Cameron Mitchell: It was a very loving audience the whole time, so we could do anything. I tried to not be pandering. I don’t want it to become a Rocky Horror, where you are winking at it too much. So it was wonderful – but it was hard. I was used to doing someone else’s choreography, and I hurt my knee. I had to do a lot of it in a leg brace. But that was just an opportunity for more rewrites, which was fun, too.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: You created that character at such a specific time in your own young life that I can’t help but wonder – has the character fundamentally changed with the passage of time?

John Cameron Mitchell Quote 3John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah. We kept the story happening now, as in today, which means we pushed up when she met Tommy to the 2000s. And that meant instead of grunge jokes, we have Creed jokes. Because Creed was the horrifying progeny of grunge – the misshapen, deformed child of grunge. It was fun to rewrite some jokes but the structure of the show was still very solid, and it still works. But yes, the character can age. The story can be told at any time. It’s a role you can do at any age.

John Moore: So does the story hit you differently with 22 years under your boots?

John Cameron Mitchell: Some of the things were just more important than others in terms of what the story is now. I felt more compassion for Hedwig’s (bleeped)-up parents.

John Moore: What has it been like for you seeing a steady stream of celebrities playing your signature character?

John Cameron Mitchell: I don’t feel possessive about it in any way. I love seeing other people do it. And every Hedwig has a different take on it. Darren Criss, who just did the role here in San Francisco, is quite young, so his performance was very ebullient and super-improvised. When someone is older and beat cancer like Michael C. Hall has, it has a different feeling. We will always tailor the role for the actor. 

Euan Morton John Moore: When we talked about Hedwig’s road to Broadway, it was a given that it would have to be star-driven, or it just wouldn’t have happened. But the road is different. Euan Morton is a Tony Award-nominated actor, but he isn’t a household name. How much does it matter that when it goes out on the road, people in Denver might not have heard of him?

John Cameron Mitchell: The pressure on Broadway was harder because you had more seats to fill, and the ticket price was higher. You had to have some kind of name or you were going to close. On the tour, we are selling “the show.” So there is a certain release in being able to cast the best, as opposed to someone who is really good that is also famous. I have to say that I am really, really excited about Euan. His audition was spectacular. It was the best that I have ever seen for Hedwig. I am going to be talking special care with him to give him the benefit of what I know and help him out along the way – because I have a sneaking suspicion that he could be spectacular. 

John Moore: How much freedom does each actor playing Hedwig have to make the role their own? 

John Cameron Mitchell: They are actually required to make the role their own. That’s part of the process. I don’t do that for them. Some people are more comfortable with improvising than others. And some might over-improvise. I am very clear with them that there are some sections where they might find it easier to improvise and it won’t mess up the internal structure. Neil Patrick Harris came up some jokes that were so good I kept them in the script. And then there were some new things that I came up with. The script is a living document, like the Constitution, only with different Founding Fathers adding their lines to it. It’s the pursuit of unhappiness in our case. That’s what I love about it.

DSA students join 25th anniversary Secret Garden concert

John Moore: A left turn before we go: The DCPA Theatre Company is about to stage a 25th anniversary production of The Secret Garden, and since you originated the role of Dickon on Broadway in 1991, I have to ask your thoughts on that show now.

John Cameron Mitchell: I saw a concert performance in New York earlier this year and Daisy Eagan, who won the Tony Award playing Mary Lennox, played an adult role in it. She was great. But it’s funny. It’s interesting going back to things that you were in when you were young and look at what still resonates and what doesn’t. I am still am very touched by it. There are some corny moments, but there are some gorgeous moments as well. I am a sucker for the orphan trying to find her way. I love Oliver. I love Annie. I love orphans – especially in British settings. I can’t help it.  

Peter Pan John Cameron Mitchell. DCPA Theatre CompanyJohn Moore: I also wanted to let you now that next summer, an acclaimed local theatre company called Phamaly, which makes performance opportunities available for actors with disabilities, will be staging Peter Pan in the very same Stage Theatre where you starred for the DCPA Theatre Company in 1996. What do you think?

John Cameron Mitchell: Whoa. I think a sword fight with wheelchairs is something that I would fly to Denver to see. I am kind of dorky, physically, in real life, but when I am on stage, I suddenly gain superpowers. As Peter Pan, someone could throw a sword across the stage and I could always catch it at the hilt. Whereas in life, I throw like a girl and drop a ball like a little boy. So there could be some surprising physical things that happen when that adrenaline is flowing. I don’t know if anyone in a wheelchair is going to be picking up a Toyota off a child, but let them know that if you believe, and you clap your hands, strange things are going to happen. It sounds like a beautiful idea. The idea of Lost Boys being all kids who are challenged is an amazing metaphor, isn’t it?

John Cameron Mitchell Quote 2(Photo above right: John Cameron Mitchell starring as Peter Pan for the DCPA Theatre Company in 1996.)

John Moore: It is. Part of that company’s whole philosophy is: We all have disabilities – only some of them, you can’t see.

John Cameron Mitchell: That is very true, and the mental and emotional disabilities that otherwise able-bodied people are experiencing can be much more destructive. You can see that happening in politics right now.

(Note to readers: The Radical Faeries describe themselves a group that “tends to be gay men who are looking for a spiritual dimension to our sexuality; many of us are healers of one kind or another. Our shared values include feminism, respect for the Earth, and individual responsibility rather than hierarchy.”)

John Moore: The last time we saw you in Denver, you were on theJohn Cameron Mitchell Nick Sugar road with the Radical Faeries. You stopped by Lost Lake on East Colfax to DJ a dance set and meet the cast of a local production of Hedwig. Do you still pop in and do that kind of thing?

(Photo right: John Cameron Mitchell with one of Denver’s past Hedwigs, Nick Sugar, at Lost Lake in 2011. Photo by John Moore.)

John Cameron Mitchell: Yeah, we still do a party in New York once a month. We have about five different DJs. We did a party in Austin and we did Halloween at a place near San Francisco. Next, my new composer and I are going on a road trip for a month to write for my new musical.

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

John Moore: And how much can we know about your new musical?

John Cameron Mitchell: Nothing. Because I am still figuring it out.

John Moore: OK, so, last question: Have we seen the last of John Cameron Mitchell playing Hedwig?

John Cameron Mitchell: I am sure I will do it one more time when I am in my 70s – in a chair. I’m just sure the keys will be very low.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. 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
Hedwig’s Stephen Trask: There are Thors all around us
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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