BWW Interviews: John Cameron Mitchell on Performing HEDWIG for 'Deeply Invested' Audiences & More!
John Cameron Mitchell recently returned to the role he co-created with composer and lyricist Stephen Trask in the Tony Award winning musical HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, now playing at Broadway's Belasco Theatre.
The show, which originally debuted Off-Broadway in 1998, tells the story of "Internationally ignored song stylist" Hedwig Robinson who brings her fourth-wall-smashing rock and roll saga to New York to set the record straight about her life, her loves, and the botched operation that left her with that "angry inch."
Today, John Cameron Mitchell speaks exclusively to BWW about the show's earliest incarnation, its current run and what's in store for a HEDWIG sequel.
Taking on Hedwig must be both a physically and emotionally exhausting endeavor.
It is, but in a good way!
Of course! How do you energize yourself every night to give such a high-powered performance?
Well most of my days are spent either recovering or preparing. Obviously sleep, taking pilates and keeping physical therapy going, voice sessions, making sure I rest. I came up with a schedule which is adapted from our original off-Broadway schedule, where I have two Friday nights, two Saturday nights, so I can get two days off, and that's a big deal, because one day is really not enough. So I kind of designed it in a way to just make my whole life about it. Obviously I eat well, having nutritionists, no sugar and easy on the carbs, things like that. You know, everything's designed to make it long term.
When the decision was first made to bring the show to Broadway, did you consider taking on the role yourself?
No I never really wanted to do it because I had done it for a long time. And I didn't want to do it for a long run, which was required for the first person who took the role. Also, I was excited about Neil [Patrick Harris], you know bringing his skills to Hedwig seemed like a great match. And I felt with Neil in the role, people who were unitiated would be less afraid of Hedwig. He appeals to so many different kinds of people, whereas I'm more of that kind of weirdo guy who makes "Shortbus" and stuff. But as time went on I started thinking, I might be able to do this, it might be a great kick in the pants and help the show through the January doldrums. And it worked out for my schedule because I'm doing a film later in the year.
Oh I was there for as much as they needed me. I didn't want to get in Neil's way because you know, the originator hanging around all the time is nerve-wracking, because he might have thought I wanted him to do it the way I had done it, which I certainly did not. I'd seen dozens of people play the role and I was very excited to see what Neil came up with. But I was certainly there for script ideas and jokes and popping in once in a while. But I mostly stayed out of Neil's way.
And with Michael and Andrew, I came in for some dramaturgy sessions and suggested things here and there, but in their case it was a lot of the associate director working with them, Johanna McKeon. So yeah, it's always an awkward thing to step into someone else's shoes and I found it awkward too because I wasn't building the role from the ground up in this production, so there's a tendency to lean towards what is tried and true. But this time I wanted to stretch things out more and be even more improvisational and so now, whatever comes into my mind I will say.
The chemistry between you and Lena Hall is so strong and wonderful. Was that there from the start?
It was. I was so happy that she was able to stay on with me. I had begged her to! Because you know, she's been doing it a long time and she was thinking of moving on, but we're so happy that she was able to make that work. She has her own stuff going on with her band, and auditioning for other things, and she's going to the Grammy's this weekend, so we wanted to give her the flexibility to do all that stuff while she's still sticking around for me. And we're having a ball.
Yes, it sure looks that way. How has the audience response changed since the first time you performed the show in 1998?
Well early on off-Broadway, there was baffled audiences, often very silent throughout. So we had to kind of build our audience over time and from scratch. You know different people like different things, some like rock and roll or comedy or traditional theater, so it wasn't for everybody.
I remember Stephen Sondheim saying that he didn't like it, that it just wasn't his thing, it was too loud, it wasn't his kind of music. And you know I loved his directness. We had worked together on a little something once before so we respect each other a great deal. So it just wasn't for a lot of people or it wasn't what they were used to in a musical in terms of some of the talk and the drag. So we really had to build our own audience.
And of course, the movie has helped spread it around so that we now have a whole new group of people who know it only from the film and who love the film but who are dying to see it in its purist form, which is in a live realm. The play does something that the film never could which is, Hedwig becomes Tommy, and in a way fulfills the 'Origin of Love' by uniting with him physically. The film couldn't really do that without some ridiculous digital cloning or something, but you know I wouldn't have wanted to do the love scenes with myself!
So now I stepped into this enviable position of the audience deeply invested in the show from the moment they sit down, so when I'm exhausted, that's just feeding me. And it's so much easier when you're crowd surfing in a way on that pre-approval, it's really amazing. But you also have to match it, which is intense.
Do you think there is an innate quality to rock music that lends itself so well to theater?
I think it does. You know the first rock stars were incredibly theatrical, Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, they were theater artists. I mean Little Richard was a drag queen you know, and the songs were story songs that Chuck Berry wrote. And Elvis was just pure theater, he was like a stripper. He was Mae West crossed with I don't know, Frank Sinatra, there was a mixture there of pure theater. And the stage shows of those early rock and rollers were always choreographed, involving improvisation, they just had their schtick, it was intensely sexual, and it was very androgynous often. And the thing that seemed so dangerous to parents was, you know that famous quote about the Beatles, the guy who cleaned up the theater after their show said, 'there wasn't a dry seat in the house!'
So we're trying to get back to that, mixing the theater with the rock and not everybody is used to that when there's a stronger narrative involved. That's maybe what we did differently was having a real tight beginning, middle and end, whereas other rock operas like "Tommy", even "Hair", they have a kind of looseness about them, almost a kind of free associate song cycle, which is great, which worked for those shows perfectly. "Stardust" has a kind of loose narrative and that allows some songs to go off in different directions. In our case the songs have to be absolutely necessary, if they weren't they would be cut, so that's closer to a real Broadway musical.
Yet by the same token, particularly at the late 10 pm shows on Friday and Saturday nights, there is that vibe of a rock concert, with people singing along, stomping their feet, and giving standing ovations in the middle of the show.
They do. And we want to keep that going and allow audiences to be participatory in that way. I'm sure "Rock of Ages" had an element of that too. But we also want to have a strong story, it's not just a party. And there's even times I have to silence the audience, in a fun way, to get them back to the narrative.
Can you give us an update on the Hedwig sequel?
You know it's kind of on hold now. Stephen's been working on another musical for a while, I have my movie coming up. After doing this run I'm sure I'm going to want to take a little break from Hedwig, but no one's going to steal our Hedwig sequel! And it's not age-sensitive. All the strong ideas that we have, we'll use and we did some great work on it. But it's always great to take a break and come back and see what still works in your head.
Is it true that you and Stephen Trask first met on an airplane?
It's true, it's true. We were both on our way to New York. I had just done a film for New Line Cinema as an actor and he was reading scripts for New Line, so we started talking, we were the only two who were not watching the movie, I remember it was "When Harry Met Sally." And he did have a Fassbinder biography which opened the conversation up. And then we just bumped into each other over the next couple of years through mutual friends and around that time was when I was looking for a composer. So I saw his band at CBGB's which was amazing, and he went to see me in "Hello Again" at Lincoln Center which he loved, and I started telling him some ideas that I had.
And the rest is history as they say.
Yes, a very long history!
John Cameron Mitchell stars as HEDWIG through March 14th, 2015 at Broadway's Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street, New York, NY), Tuesday through Saturday, with two shows on Friday and Saturday, 7 pm and 10 pm. For tickets and more information visit: hedwigbroadway.com
About John Cameron Mitchell
John Cameron Mitchell's New York stage appearances included Broadway's Big River, The Secret Garden, Six Degrees of Separation, and Larry Kramer's The Destiny of Me for which he won an Obie Award. He starred in and wrote the book for the original 1998 Off-Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for which he won an Obie Award along with co-creator composer Stephen Trask. In 2001 John directed, wrote, and starred in the film adaptation which won him Best Director at Sundance and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. He was executive producer of Jonathan Caouette's documentary Tarnation (2004) and his sexually frank improv-based film Shortbus was released in 2006. He directed Rabbit Hole(2011) adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and starring Nicole Kidman in an Oscar-nominated performance.
He's also appearing as a recurring character on the HBO series "Girls" and preparing to direct a film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's punk era story How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos