PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Cameron Mitchell, on Bringing Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Broadway
By Carey Purcell
John Cameron Mitchell, the writer and original star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, talks with Playbill.com about the cult rock musical that is making its Broadway debut almost 20 years after its original production.
"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.
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.
Neil Patrick Harris just wrapped his TV show "How I Met Your Mother," and then Hedwig opened. Tell me about the rehearsal process and bringing it to Broadway so quickly.
We really only had three weeks to get from the beginning of real rehearsal to the first audience — including tech. That's never been done on Broadway before. I'd just never heard of that. Luckily, the show is less technically difficult; the lighting is the hardest thing. It was a really short tech. So the first audience was a surprisingly together show — and a psychotic audience. They were so supportive. I've never felt more confident about being ready, in a theatrical experience, ever.
It seems like if there are any world records left to break, Neil Patrick Harris will break them at some point in his life.
He's got also more energy than I did. I want to make it easier for myself. He likes to make it harder and a challenge. He's like, "I want the heels higher. I want to have the microphone wired as opposed to unwired," which complicates choreography. In the day, I was like, "Lower the heels. Get rid of the cord."
It's fascinating that one of the most ubiquitous performers in America is playing a character that's described as "internationally ignored."
It's so interesting to hear about how the show became what it is. I love hearing about the actors that have played Hedwig.
When you were creating this, did you think that Hedwig would become such an important character to so many people?
And it's wonderful that we're able to do it when shows like Spring Awakening or American Idiot or even Rent... It's interesting because I was auditioning for Rent when Hedwig was being developed, and I was offered the original role of Angel. I was flattered but I was like, "I'm already doing this drag role," plus I'm not very Puerto Rican. It was very flattering but I was like, "Thanks guys, but I've got to work on this other piece." And it would be weird to do both. God bless Rent. They went on to bring much love and emotion to the world. But we're not that.
But Rent [and] American Idiot made Broadway safe for us or let people know that we weren't quite as crazy as they thought. We're now here at the perfect time, with the music, with the drag — the issues are mainstream. There was never any talk of Hedwig going on Broadway since the century began. It's only later in the 2000s that people barely thought about it. It's the perfect time for it. The fans are ready for it. It's been all over the world. People with Hedwig tattoos come but also people who like "How I Met Your Mother" who didn't know, and they're all having a blast together.
Have you worked with Neil on developing the character of Hedwig? Or has he been working independently?
There's something really exciting about a show, especially a rock show, that provides new insight or new education to the audience.
The veterans — Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Anne Meara, Bea Arthur — would all come and be in tears. Charlotte Rae is the biggest Hedwig fan. And they're not known as punk rock bonafides. They were just feeling it. And then you'd have the Lou Reed, the David Bowie, the Marilyn Manson, sitting next to Barry Manilow, and all loving it. And we were like, "Yes!" We're bringing together everyone we love and the kind of aesthetics which ultimately are just about doing it right and doing it with soul. And doing it [with] multiple influences in mind and not shirking any of them. Making sure we have the drag queens, too, are like, "Yes." That was very important to me. I was most nervous when I saw the real drag legends come in, like, "Oh, f*ck. I'm not a real drag queen." And they were like, "Yes." Now there will be even more people coming to the theatre and hopefully saying, "Yes."
There will always be some people who are like, "Wait a minute. It's not like it was." Of course, nothing's like it was. We're all doomed to loving what we saw at 20 years old more than anything else. But it's time for new memories and a new way, and Hedwig's story is still relevant. There's nothing dated about her feelings.
It's exciting to think about all the progress that has been made in the last decade or so with regards to gender identification and equality.
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)
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