John Cameron Mitchell Recalls Meeting Late Rocker David Bowie — and the 'Great Regret' That Followed

·3 min read
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: Actor/ playwright John Cameron Mitchell visits the SiriusXM Studios on March 13, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images); NEW YORK - MAY 5: (U.S. TABS AND HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Singer David Bowie stands backstage at The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Tribute to Susan Sarandon at Avery Fisher Hall May 5, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: Actor/ playwright John Cameron Mitchell visits the SiriusXM Studios on March 13, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images); NEW YORK - MAY 5: (U.S. TABS AND HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Singer David Bowie stands backstage at The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Tribute to Susan Sarandon at Avery Fisher Hall May 5, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Cindy Ord/Gett; Evan Agostini/Getty

John Cameron Mitchell is looking back on the life and legacy of David Bowie.

Best known for his 1998 stage musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and its subsequent 2001 film adaptation, Mitchell took a page from Bowie's book when it came to breathing life into Hedwig, a glam rocker reminiscent of Bowie's alter ego Ziggy Stardust.

Now, he will pay homage to the late English singer-songwriter once more when Blackstar Symphony, The Music of David Bowie — featuring songs from Bowie's final album — makes its world premiere in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 16 and 17. Mitchell will guest star in the two-night event.

"This is a no-brainer," he tells PEOPLE, adding that Blackstar served as a "memorial" or "mausoleum" of sorts built by the late Bowie himself. The record was released on Bowie's 69th birthday, two days before his death from liver cancer in January 2016.

While Mitchell feels a closeness to the "Space Oddity" singer, they only met once, shortly after Bowie attended an Off-Broadway performance of Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the late 1990s.

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John Cameron Mitchell performs in a scene from the film 'Hedwig And The Angry Inch', 2001. (Photo by Fine Line Features/Getty Images)
John Cameron Mitchell performs in a scene from the film 'Hedwig And The Angry Inch', 2001. (Photo by Fine Line Features/Getty Images)

Fine Line Features/Getty

"Thank God I didn't know he was there until after — and he didn't come up to the dressing room — [so we thought] maybe he hated it," Mitchell says.

That night, however, Bowie had a few friends who were also in the crowd, including Jayne County, rock's first openly transgender singer. "It was only later — my boyfriend was working at Complete Music [Studios], where [Bowie] would rehearse — and I think he told me to come on over because he was there, and [late photographer] Mick Rock was there, too," explains Mitchell.

"David kind of swiveled his lighthouse smile upon me and said, 'John, you got it right.' And I was like: Wow, I can die now," says Mitchell.

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Bowie was such a fan of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he went on to co-produce the Los Angeles production of the show and even tried to tap Mitchell for a possible collaboration in the vein of Hedwig.

"He actually asked me to look at [adapting] Ziggy Stardust for the stage, which my one great regret is I didn't do it because I was burned out on Hedwig," Mitchell reveals. "But he's always inspired me in everything that I do. His spirit and way of working — way of collaborating — is a model for my life."

LONDON - MAY 12: David Bowie performs live on stage at Earls Court Arena on May 12 1973 during the Ziggy Stardust tour (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
LONDON - MAY 12: David Bowie performs live on stage at Earls Court Arena on May 12 1973 during the Ziggy Stardust tour (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

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Without Bowie, a Ziggy Stardust musical adapted by Mitchell will not come to fruition, but the Joe vs. Carole star says it was "nice to be thought of."

Mitchell is instead working with frequent Bowie collaborator, saxophonist and Blackstar Symphony Artistic Director Donny McCaslin, who played with the legendary rocker himself on Blackstar.

"I felt like I was observing rock 'n' roll history," McCaslin tells PEOPLE of working on Blackstar alongside Bowie before his death, calling the experience "transformative."

(MANDATORY CREDIT Ebet Roberts/Getty Images) David Bowie performing at Giant Stadium at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey on August 3, 1987. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)
(MANDATORY CREDIT Ebet Roberts/Getty Images) David Bowie performing at Giant Stadium at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey on August 3, 1987. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

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Mitchell hopes to "honor" Bowie's work with Blackstar Symphony, which McCaslin is aiming to tour internationally following its performances in North Carolina.

Adds Mitchell: "[Bowie] was not only a great artist, but he was a model for living, a design for living. And he even designed his exit. How often do you do that? Only a king does that. But he did it as a poet king."

For more information on Blackstar Symphony, The Music of David Bowie, visit CharlotteArtsFest.com.