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

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Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell Stephen Trask

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a 90-minute rock narrative that tells the story of an East Berlin boy who dreams of finding his other half. But while the biographical details of this extraordinary tale are shockingly unique — the desperate boy submits to a brutal (and botched) sex-change operation to marry a soldier who takes her to Kansas and abandons her there — this underdog and largely underground phenomenon has made a profound impact on a generation of audiences seeking their own kinds of individual wholeness. For Hedwig, it was the dream of connecting with her believed soulmate, a pimply boy named Tommy Gnosis who instead grows up to steal her music — and her fame.

“The most common positive effect I hear from people is that our story creates a space in their lives for them to find themselves,” said writer John Cameron Mitchell. “Everybody is fighting a battle. Everyone is a misfit and a loser. Or has felt that way. Hedwig’s road is particularly hard, but she laughs at it. And that’s what makes her story a communal thing.”

John Moore’s 2005 interview with John Cameron Mitchell’s parents

Speaking of two sides of a whole, the fictional Hedwig is very much the two halves of her own two creators — Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask.

“The person looking for their other half is John,” said Trask. “And the internationally ignored song stylist is me. We just mashed her together into one.”

Hedwig Stephen Trask QuoteHedwig — both the character and the theatrical rock concert — were born after New York was gripped by AIDS, but not yet by terror. Trask was the bandleader at a new gay nightclub called Squeezebox, which fully embraced punk, new-wave and glam-rock at a time when, he said, “There really wasn’t much space in the rock world for gay people, and there really wasn’t a space for rock music in the gay world. But it turned out there were a lot of people who wanted it.”

Squeezebox was a hit from the moment it opened its doors. Gone were the days of drag queens lip-syncing to Streisand. In their place was a full-throated Hedwig and her band.

Mitchell and Trask first began working on a show about a rock-star character loosely based on Mitchell — the now unseen Tommy Gnosis. “Frankly, and no offense to John,” Trask said, “but he really wasn’t that interesting.” So they focused instead on inventing a female character Mitchell could play. Hedwig was inspired by a babysitter Mitchell remembered having.

Trask said to Mitchell: “Why don’t we take her and make her into a failed singer who used to have a relationship with our rock-star character? Now he’s famous, and she’s singing in dives, is bitter about it and is telling us about it.”

Hedwig went from the club to the theatrical stage in 1998 with an off-Broadway run that led to a cult-favorite 2001 independent film. But another dozen years would pass before the theatrical gods aligned and Hedwig finally bowed on Broadway — sort of.

In the film, Hedwig performs in a bowling alley, among other places. Around the country, the musical is typically presented in seedy nightclubs. A classy Broadway theatre was no place for Hedwig’s act, so this would require an anachronistic wink. When Hedwig opened on Broadway, the gag was that the host Belasco Theatre had just housed a disastrous run of The Hurt Locker, the Musical, which closed after one performance. Hedwig and Company are now essentially squatting in the abandoned theatre as Tommy performs on a legit stage across the alley.

Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell Quote“The whole idea of a Broadway musical based on The Hurt Locker is just so wrong, and that’s why it’s so much fun,” Trask said. “There is no end to how much you can tell that joke.”

But the joke doesn’t work on the road, so the team has adopted a slight alteration for its first national tour: When Hedwig plays road houses such as Denver’s Buell Theatre, it’s a disastrous pre-Broadway run of The Hurt Locker that just tanked.

It took Hedwig so long to make it to Broadway, Mitchell believes, because Broadway wasn’t ready for Hedwig. “We didn’t change. The world changed,” said Mitchell. “The idea of rock ’n’ roll on the stage, the idea of drag, the idea of this unusual story — they all became less frightening. It was just time. And we wanted to make sure we had the right person to play Hedwig.”

And at age 51, the right person 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 rave reviews and nearly a year on Broadway, Mitchell decided to step back into Hedwig’s heels and bring his personal journey full circle.

“It was just like the old days, but somehow better because there was less at stake,” said Mitchell, who said he took on the challenge as a way to shake him from the complacency he felt stuck in following the deaths of his longtime partner, Hedwig band member Jack Steeb, and father, Army Major General John H. Mitchell. The general was in charge of all U.S. military forces in West Germany in 1987 and stood behind Ronald Reagan when the president famously implored, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Mitchell’s father, who retired to Colorado Springs and died in 2013, profoundly influenced his son’s writing of Hedwig.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

From Broadway, Mitchell learned he was not too old to play Hedwig — nor will he ever be.

 “This is a story that can be told at any time, and a role you can do at any age,” Mitchell said. “The character can age. I am sure I will do it one more time when I am in my 70s, sitting 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.

More to come from John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask
Look for John Moore’s expanded individual interviews with John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask coming soon to the DCPA NewsCenter

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
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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