John Cameron Mitchell On Hedwig, Avoiding Social Media and "What It Means to Be Queer"

News   John Cameron Mitchell On Hedwig, Avoiding Social Media and "What It Means to Be Queer"
John Cameron Mitchell, the co-creator and original star of the Off-Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, had no intention of returning to the heels and wig of the character he first played in New York nightclubs. Back in the production after a week-long hiatus (the result of an on-stage knee injury), he discusses pulling the wig down from the shelf again.


"There was no Mama Rose feeling. I was delighted to be a kind of proud parent," John Cameron Mitchell said of watching Hedwig and the Angry Inch win several Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, in 2014.

But, like the legendary stage mother in the musical Gypsy declares, it is now Mitchell's turn. The co-creator and original star of the Off-Broadway premiere of the cult fan favorite rock musical is now starring in the Broadway production at the Belasco Theatre — his first return to the New York stage in more than a decade.

John Cameron Mitchell
John Cameron Mitchell Photo by Joan Marcus

Mitchell's performance in the Broadway run of the musical, which previously starred Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells and Michael C. Hall as the "internationally ignored" East German transgender singer fronting a fictional rock-n-roll band, has served as a momentous experience for "Hed-heads," passionate fans of the musical and subsequent film, which Mitchell directed and starred in.

Hedwig, which Mitchell wrote with composer Stephen Trask, opened Off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998 and ran for more than two years. Following its closure, Mitchell retired from onstage acting, appearing in TV series such as "Girls" and directing the films "Shortbus" and "Rabbit Hole." Describing Hedwig as a kind of ambassador to the different countries he has performed in, including Korea and Japan, Mitchell said the intensity of his fans has surprised him. "I am just touched at how strongly the real Hed-heads feel," he said. "It feels different from other kinds of devotees; maybe it's the way I felt with certain bands when I was a kid. It feels like a band more than a play."

Comparing the experience performing in front of several thousand screaming fans to "American Idol," Mitchell likened himself to that of Justin Bieber — but with better, and definitely stiffer — hair.

"Maybe it's being older and seeing all ages in there, and people who are new to [Hedwig] and people who have loved it in the past and people who know nothing about it," he said. "It's a great mix of all these kinds of cross-pollinates, and it's a little overwhelming." The impact of the audience's response to Hedwig is also the result of Mitchell playing a physically larger setting. Moving from the Jane Street Theatre in downtown Manhattan to Broadway's Belasco Theatre required the production to expand into what Mitchell now calls "high-tech Hedwig."

"It's a lot more show and calories expended," he said. "Filling that up has been taxing, but the sound is better. You don't have to work as hard with the microphones, and you can do stuff that's small in a way that a play that doesn't have body mics can't do."

Since the last time Mitchell pulled a wig down from the shelf, one of the major changes in the theatregoing community is the involvement of social media, where Hed-heads declare their love for the show or share their experiences at the theatre. But despite the passion of online fans, Mitchell has never participated in social media.

Mitchell's first curtain call
Mitchell's first curtain call Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"I never even had a MySpace," he said. "I periodically am sent lovely messages to our boards that are very moving, but I don't really follow it. It's hard to keep up with that; it takes a lot of energy and recently [there was] some study that overusing social media can make you depressed and jealous, so I actually chose not to go there. It's hard for kids to say, 'I'm not going to do that,' because often their livelihoods are tied up in it, but obviously it can be very dangerous too. User comments-culture is not useful for creating original work, I think. I'm all for information diets, which are helpful for the mood and for the art."

The creation of Hedwig first began when Mitchell wanted to create a theatre piece based on Plato's "Symposium" story — the origin of love — that used authentic rock-and-roll music. The piece was originally about the character of Tommy, who was closer to Mitchell himself, but after he met Trask on an airplane, Trask encouraged him to focus more on Hedwig, who was based on a babysitter of Mitchell's family. The piece was developed in clubs, including Squeezebox, and the first workshop was produced by David Binder, who is producing the current Broadway run. "We're kind of an oddball show for Broadway; it's not the usual decorum, but we've been welcomed so much," Mitchell said. "I feel like in the past, Off-Broadway, we were kind of weirdly tolerated. Certain people loved it but others were just, 'That's not really theatre, it's something else — cabaret or drag or something.' Audiences were often silent. We just weren't the usual Broadway or even Off-Broadway show. We were more tolerated as an exciting aberration."

During Hedwig's Off-Broadway run, Mitchell received what he describes as his favorite compliment from Mike Nichols, who said he had given up on new theatre until he saw Hedwig. "He said, 'Nothing new has been happening…' and I was so thrilled and to hear that from Mike Nichols, who's such a hero of mine cinematically," Mitchell said. "I said, 'Would you like to executive produce the film?' And he was like, 'Oh God, I don't think it's really me even though I love it. I don't know if it's my forte, the form of it.'"

Mitchell is greeted by compliments and fans at each performance, especially the late-night ones, which are given at 10 PM on Saturdays. The atmosphere more resembles a rock concert than a Broadway musical. Loud screams greet both Mitchell and co-star Lena Hall, who plays Yitzhak, Hedwig's long-suffering husband.

Mitchell and Lena Hall
Mitchell and Lena Hall Photo by Joan Marcus

Mitchell and Hall first met at her audition to co-star alongside Harris. Hall, a longtime fan of the stage and film productions, won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and has remained with the show and all the subsequent Hedwigs.

"It's almost like a little love affair. It's a little bit sexual with each other; we're kind of flirty," Mitchell said of performing with Hall. "She's the guy in the relationship and I'm the girl in real-life. I wanted the onstage relationship to be complex. I wanted there to be tenderness as well as abuse. People don't stick around if there isn't that."

Hedwig's treatment of Yitzhak serves as a narrative for her own growth throughout the performance. When audiences first meet Hedwig, she is angry and embittered by the path her life has taken, especially the professional success of a former lover who stole the music they wrote together and presented it as his own. As Hedwig faces her own pain and anger, the show culminates in a sort of nervous breakdown, after which Hedwig frees Yitzhak from the confines of their relationship. "The vicious cycle of Hedwig's abuse from her own people that she visits is kind of the center of the piece, which is broken in 'Midnight Radio' when Hedwig relinquishes the wig and passes it on to Yitzhak who leaves and moves on," Mitchell said. "That's the first act of a different state of mind, so we're just having a blast. I'm so glad [Hall] stuck around for me."

Mitchell will continue to bring Hedwig's story, which has entertained fans for almost two decades, to Broadway through April 26. When commenting on the appeal of the show, especially with regards to sexuality and gay pride, Mitchell said, "For me it's more about the umbrella of what it means to be queer because Hedwig has less to do with sexuality and more to do with seeing the world through an usual vision. What we call male and female energies are within all of us and have to be nurtured or they can become stunted and can become like cancers, the way certain things in the body, if they're not taken care of, can metastasize. If you're not working all those energies... it can hurt you. Pride is not necessarily something you do, but acceptance of what you are.

"There's a quote from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which we include in the back of our scripts, that said, 'Jesus said, "What you bring forth from yourself will save you. What you do not bring forth will destroy you."' That's very much what pride means to me and, indeed, Hedwig means to me."

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

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