"I'm the downtown Neil," John Cameron Mitchell joked when referring to his busy schedule, which includes working on the Broadway premiere of his cult rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as well as writing a film, participating in a reading series at Joe's Pub and working on a sequel to Hedwig.
Neil is, of course, Neil Patrick Harris, who is starring on Broadway in Mitchell's musical as Hedwig, the East German transgender rock musician chasing after an ex-lover who plagiarized her songs.
Mitchell, who wrote the book of Hedwig, made his Broadway acting debut in Big River and has also performed in Six Degrees of Separation and The Secret Garden. Hedwig, which he wrote with composer Stephen Trask, opened Off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998 and ran for more than two years. Actors who have played Hedwig include Michael Cerveris, Ally Sheedy, Kevin Cahoon, Gene Dante, Anthony Rapp, Matt McGrath and Nick Garrison.
Mitchell went on to direct the 2001 film adaptation, which he also starred in and went on to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival and receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
Mitchell spoke with Playbill.com about the origin of Hedwig, its impact on the world and the excitement of "Hed-heads" who are attending the Broadway production.
Hedwig is finally taking a bow on Broadway, almost 20 years after she first opened Off-Broadway. Tell me about the process of creating the musical.
John Cameron Mitchell: At the very beginning, I wanted to create a theatre piece based on Plato's symposium story — the origin of love, which is a 2,500-year-old myth written by a guy — that used authentic rock-and-roll music as opposed to some of the stuff I'd heard in theatre, which just felt watered down a bit. It was originally about the character of Tommy, because he was closer to me, the general's son, and then I was looking for a composer for a while. I tend to take my time and do it right. Stephen Trask I met on an airplane, and eventually we started working together, and he encouraged me to focus more on this character of Hedwig, who was based on a babysitter of our family.
We developed it in clubs, as a band more than a theatre piece, because we wanted to keep the music from getting watered down. Theatre can just blunt that force. We worked at the club Squeezebox. It was always meant to be a musical; it gathered steam and Rolling Stone [gave it some attention]. And Peter Askin came in as our director and dramaturg and producer and was invaluable in finding the story, making it a musical. And, David Binder, who's producing it now, produced our first workshop.
And then we were Off-Broadway. Peter Askin built the Jane Street Theatre for us. An Off-Broadway theatre had to be built for us because no one else wanted us. All the normal people — the usual suspects of resident theatres — were not interested. It was just too weird. Peter was our guardian angel. And right away audiences were baffled. The theatregoing audiences who could afford the tickets were baffled. "What is this? Some kind of downtown, low class... what's going on? The music is so loud."
There were intriguing shows where many people didn't respond whatsoever, but there were always the minority of people who wouldn't stop coming. And then the press picked it up — Time Magazine, The New Yorker — and sort of saved us and made it the hip thing to see. And suddenly tons of celebrities would come. It was a huge success d'esteem. It was never a big money thing. And there was a bidding war for the movie. It was a special moment in time.
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