As we revealed earlier today, John Cameron Mitchell will debut in the Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on January 21, returning to the role he created Off-Broadway 15 years ago and immortalized in the cult-hit 2001 film. I spoke to Mitchell about stepping back into the show he penned with Stephen Trask, reuniting with fans and the rock-and-roll influences that shaped everyone's favorite trans glam rocker.
Naveen Kumar: What made you decide to do go into the show?
John Cameron Mitchell: Well you know, come on! The production is sitting there and I’ve certainly been thinking about it. I didn’t want to open the show, because it was just way too much pressure and time, and I could barely imagine doing it as long as the superman called Neil Patrick Harris. So, this manageable run, at a time when box office usually dips in January and before my film starts shooting next year, it was sort of a perfect slot. Certainly, it’s been in my mind that’ I’d do once more before I collapse into old age. [Laughs]
NK: So, it’s something you’ve thought about since the planning stages?
JCM: Years ago when we were thinking about Broadway, I didn’t really want to do a full run and thought maybe I could share it with someone—as they did with Fela!, because it was just so much singing and dancing. We reduced it to seven performances a week—I think Andrew Rannells did one week of eight—but no Hedwig has ever done eight and lived to tell the tale, because it’s way too hard. So, it was the enormity of it that gave me pause.
To be honest, it’s a great excuse to get in shape! [Laughs]
NK: How do you think it will be different for you this time?
JCM: Physically it will be much harder. But, the show is about finding a wholeness, and after 15 years, moving into middle age—you think about wholeness in a different way. In some ways, you are more whole, in other ways you’re more realistic about romance. The myth of ‘The Origin of Love,’ of finding a way to complete yourself—the young version of that is, ‘One person is going to complete me forever and heal the primal rift.’
And then you become a little wiser, even at the end of Hedwig, she’s alone in one way but there’s a kind of wholeness implied, because she’s been through these experiences. She’s the sum of everyone she’s met. You understand that more when you’re older, for better or worse. And, hopefully you’ve made the right choices as to who those people are. Everyone makes mistakes, and they make loving mistakes, which is really the best you can do. You make decisions based on whether you love or hate yourself.
A lot of queer people grew up feeling inferior, hating themselves from a young age, and have to heal themselves. And queer people include straight people who didn’t fit in in terms of gender, trans people, anyone. Your butch mom: She’s queer too, even if she’s straight. So, that’s the Hedwig community and it’s been built up from nothing. Of course there are Rocky Horror fans and rock fans mixed in, but we’re really different.
The people who love Hedwig love it forever, so there’s a responsibility to doing this right and being honest on stage. I’m excited about reuniting with those people—the last 15 years of their lives will inform the show as much as the last 15 years of my own, which has been very peripatetic, exciting and tragic and full. It’s going to be wiser, it’s going to be frayed. It’s not going to be as nervous as when I was a kid. I’m actually nervous about it now—but that ‘s more about how strenuous it is and keeping it together vocally and physically. It’s exciting; I need a kick in the ass right now, and there’s no bigger kick in the ass than Hedwig.
CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP…
NK: Having done the show so many times years ago, do you think it will feel a bit like coming home? Do you still remember everything?
JCM: I think it will! I’ve been very much a part of this production, so I’ve seen it many times. Just watching, it kind of all comes back to me. I’m also excited about bringing in new material, in terms of jokes and improv, and getting rid of some stuff. In the old days, I encouraged the actors to really bring themselves to it. There were people who would improvise for 40 minutes! I love that, you just have to do it at the right times so you don’t mess up the story.
It’s like a rock show, like Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, there’s a flexibility, and I want to take advantage of that again and get a little messy (in my hopefully graceful way). But, we’ll see. Sometimes exhaustion doesn’t allow for messiness, which sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes all you can do is get through it. I know with this audience, it will be like crowd surfing. Their love and excitement will push me off the ground into something new—that’s what I’m excited about. To see what that’s going to bring to the show.
NK: Why do you think audiences have such a strong connection to this show and the character? This production really does feel like a rock show, people scream and go wild—it’s so thrilling.
JCM: I would go see rock shows, back before Hedwig, and think, ‘Why isn’t theatre like this?!’ I’m sure it was at key moments in history (who knows what the Greeks were like?), but I just thought: This is theatre. The Ramones is theatre. Iggy Pop is über theatre. David Bowie. Zepplin. It had a pure connection with the audience. Why doesn’t more theatre do that? Sometimes the fixed seating is a problem, the age of the audience based on ticket price has something to do with it.
In our case, I wanted a tight story but I wanted a rock-show feeling. And Stephen Trask was the man for it, because he worked in all those realms. Often, when you see a rock musical, the songs are not really rock-and-roll—they might be good—but people don’t buy it and really get excited.
Stephen and I put together everything we love about theatre: rock and roll, stand up, drag and performance art into a solid narrative with Greek origins. And somehow it all came together, and I credit in some part to working in a pre-digital age. I would argue that having too much information about what’s happened in the past—meaning YouTube—and being able to document your earliest stages of development, can be detrimental to a work of performance art.
If I had put my first performance of Hedwig on YouTube and watched it again, I would’ve been discouraged, because it was too rough. User comments alone have crushed many a genius. Do not read that shit! Those are people who are lonely and want to be heard, so they scream.
You have to work in the dark and turn things off. Punk rockers spent years to find that great sound. They developed in a vacuum, so they tried shit that hadn’t been done. That’s the danger of creating in a digital age: There’s too much information so you think everything’s been done before, so I can’t do anything. There is an advantage to putting yourself on a digital diet as an artist.
NK: How do you feel when you watch the movie now?
JCM:I haven’t in a while. There was a time when I’d think certain moments were crude, or wish something were a bit suaver. It moves so quickly, almost like a highly storyboarded documentary. Because I was in it, and shooting it and not always able to look at the footage, and going on instinct. I had a cinematographer, Frank DeMarco, who was almost like a co-director because I’d be putting my wig on while he was setting up cameras. It was almost like doing a documentary with a year to think about how to shoot it. I eventually learned to love it.
I get really emotional thinking about how much it means to a lot of people. Those who don’t get it, that’s fine. But those who do, it’s heartwarming to know how much it meant to them. I subscribe to that worn-out truism, ‘It’s better to be 10 people’s favorite thing than a million people’s so-so thing. I really believe that, I don’t know if it’s a karmic thing or what—but it works for me.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (headshot:nick vogelson)