The gender-bending glam rock fantasy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, remains one of the most inimitable stage shows (and films) of all time. Marking its 21st anniversary, the creators come together to share stories about its inception as well as music from the production in ‘Origin of Love,’ a live concert presented by USC’s Visions and Voices program this weekend. We spoke with John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask about the show, and the conversations revealed how music clubs, nightlife, and the creative communities that populated them, inspired the theatrical experience and the concert.
“Stephen and I made it for our friends. You know, we made it for us. It wasn’t a career move. It certainly wasn’t for money because Broadway was not welcoming to drag or punk, nor was film,” Mitchell said of Hedwig’s beginnings. “So it was our special love fest. I was a big rock n’ roll fan and I didn’t necessarily see the kind of energy that I saw at a rock show on stage in a musical, and that included Rent, Tommy, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar—they had elements of rock, but they didn’t have the energy that a full band has on stage, where it’s like that gale force thing that you get with a great rock show. All of this is talked about in the show in depth, but Stephen and I wanted to keep it out of the theater for a while because we found that doing it in a theater environment would lose its bite, lose the excitement. No theater was interested anyway. We were kind of ghosted by everybody in New York.”
After working the show out at the legendary Manhattan drag /rock club Squeezebox (where Trask headed the house band) they got an off-Broadway space to present it, and soon the show exploded. “It was a really rich scene,” Trask, the show’s songwriter, says of Squeezebox. “And a rich cultural moment.”
“It felt like it was in the lineage of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Jayne County, Little Richard, Klaus Nomi, Warhol, you know, all the people that we look up to as trailblazers,” Mitchell adds. “These people were our forebears, some of whom we name-check in the show. And it was a thrill when some of those heroes came and loved it. Bowie ended up putting money into the production. We couldn’t believe it. And so from that point on it made its way across the world. It was never a big moneymaker because you know, the drag and punk stuff wasn’t mainstream.”
‘Origin of Love’ provides even more context for Hedwig’s creation and with Trask joining Mitchell on stage, the full scope of its musical heart emerges.
“For me, what’s special about Origin, and I think for fans of the show, is to see the two of us up there relating with each other and telling these stories… there’s something extra meaningful about it that goes beyond seeing John by himself,” Trask says. “We did it in New York and it really was so special. People loved it and started referring to it as a historic concert, and it was. Mostly, it feels like it’s something that we’re doing for the people that are really devoted to this material.”
Mitchell says the L.A. Origin show will be historic itself, as it is probably the last time it’ll be performed for a while since he has a lot of new projects to focus on. The busy actor recently played Joe Exotic opposite Kate McKinnon’s Carole Baskin in the Tiger King theatrical film and he is seen in Netflix’s hot new series The Sandman. Our favorite JCM role in recent years though was on the Aidy Bryant Hulu comedy Shrill, where he played the editor of an alt-Weekly similar to this publication. It was based on writer Lindy West’s experiences at The Stranger, Seattle’s local weekly, and the popular columnist/editor Dan Savage, but Mitchell says he added his own flavor with punk rock and band references and backstory.
Mitchell spent his fair share of time in L.A. as well as NYC, and our chat includes reminiscences about the club scene here including our mutual friend, Club 1970s creator Billy Limbo. It is clear that the underground nightlife scene on both coasts has remained an influence in his creative choices, too.
For those who’ve never experienced the joy of Hedwig on stage (the title character has been played by the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Darrin Criss as well as Mitchell himself), we recommend a screening of the film if you can’t get to the concert. It tells the story of a gay German singer’s romance with a young man who ultimately becomes a rockstar, stealing the titular character’s music, dream, and heart. It’s a classic music fable and tainted love story, with a flamboyant twist that also explores issues of gender identity, which makes it feel very relevant today. After a botched sex change (done so that Hansel/Hedwig could leave communist East Germany for the West), he/she is left with an “angry inch” for genitals.
When we ask what pronoun we should use to refer to the character, Mitchell is somewhat ambivalent. “I don’t care… I guess I’m nonbinary, Stephen is too, but I don’t care about pronouns, I can barely remember my own phone number,” he answers. “The assigned thing is more like what society does to you. So Hedwig is not a trans story where you actually have some agency. She was forced into it to be free and it was what I call the ‘binarcy’ telling her that a woman is just a guy with his penis cut off. It’s a crazy patriarchal view of what the binary is. Hedwig/Hansel is really a gender of one and there’s a sense of freedom in it. And that’s why I think so many people of different genders, sexualities, ages, and races really identify with the character.”