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Twenty years ago this week, the glam-rock musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch graduated from Off-Broadway to London’s West End, and mainstream theater would never be quite the same. The harrowing tale of genderqueer East German refugee rocker Hedwig Robinson later became a 2001 musical movie, for which the show’s star and co-creator, John Cameron Mitchell, won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes. When the stage version finally made it to Broadway in 2014 — with the titular role played by Mitchell, Neil Patrick Harris, Darren Criss, Michael C. Hall, Taye Diggs, and others during its run — it won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, while Harris won the Tony for Best Leading Actor. Now, Mitchell is set to revolutionize the theater world once again, as he reveals to Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume that he’s “working on a Jesus-inspired musical.” Suffice to say, this production will have little in common with its seemingly obvious predecessor, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
“The one thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is that it didn't really question anything, did it? It just dressed [religion] up in a different style,” muses Mitchell. “At first, all the Christians thought it was ‘blasphemous’ — and then they were singing all those songs in church! I was a kid and I remember sitting next to my uncomfortable army-general dad, singing, ‘I don't know how to lovvvvvve him, because I've had so many men before…’ And this was at Catholic mass! But that was the ‘rocker’ musical [of the time].
“So, [my Jesus musical] actually is much more of a Gnostic view of that story, where you're questioning things. We're still trying to find the spirit of what was good about Christianity,” Mitchell continues. “There were useful things, you know. I grew up super-religious and found the church and the rules to be not useful. But the idea of empathy, the idea of not casting the stone first — all those things were revolutionary and are useful to me. I don't need to make Jesus into a god, I don't need to believe in a god, but the myth is useful. It's hard to leave if you've been inculcated that long, but what I do is just look at the other views that make sense to me. I have an aunt who's an 86-year old-nun, who's my spiritual guide. She's the most liberal, environmental, pro-queer religious person I know. And she's like, ‘John, the Bible is a metaphor. Take or leave the pieces that work or don't work. I don’t why people need it to be literal truth; it's useless.’”
Mitchell drew on his military-brat upbringing when he first joined forces with his Hedwig co-creator, musician and lyricist Stephen Trask, at Squeezebox, a groundbreaking ‘90s New York City nightclub helmed by Pat Briggs of the industrial group Psychotica. Trask, who was the club’s house band leader, had recruited Mitchell for a glam/punk drag revue and cast him as Hedwig, who at the time was a minor character (“until she became, of course, much more interesting than the main character,” Hedwig’s love interest, Tommy Gnosis). Hedwig — an East German “slip of a girlyboy” who undergoes botched gender-reassignment surgery in order to legally marry an American soldier, only to be abandoned a year later in small-town Kansas, where she works as a nanny by day and reinvents herself as the lead singer of bar band the Angry Inch by night — was actually inspired by one of Mitchell’s childhood babysitters.
“I was telling Stephen Trask stories about my life as the son of an army general, living around the world and having a lot of au pair girls and nannies from various countries. Army bases were flooded with German, Filipina, and Korean ladies who had married to get out and then had divorced. So [Hedwig] was one of those ladies, the babysitter for my brother. Her name was Helga, and we would go to her trailer park and she'd had a lot of ‘dates.’ And later my friend Brenda said, ‘You know, I think she had a lot of dates because she has another job...’ We would sing songs with Helga and she'd give us drinks and cigarettes, and then if a guy came up to the driveway, we had to go out the back. And sometimes she'd look out the window and if she didn't like the look of the guy, she'd go out the back with us! So I, at 14, had no idea what was going on; I just thought she was very ‘popular,’ even though she wasn't that good-looking, you know, ‘conventionally.’ I thought, ‘She just so popular, it must be her personality!’ Later Brenda's like, ‘Um, she’s a working girl.’
“Helga became a strong character that Stephen liked. … When it came time for the first Squeezebox gig, Stephen said, ‘You’ve got to do the female character.’ And so I thought about her more, and her story became more fanciful, and the botched sex-change came to mind. I was looking around Squeezebox and seeing so many varieties of gender. So, we told the story of the operation through a Yoko Ono song called ‘Death of Samantha,’ where I had to put sunglasses on because the memory was too bright. It was very Yoko.”
As Mitchell also performed songs by the Velvet Underground, Television, Wreckless Eric, Pere Ubu, Fleetwood Mac, Cher, Mott the Hoople, and David Bowie at Squeezebox — alongside queer performers like Anonhi (who was in a “goth theater troupe” called Black Lips at the time) and drag queens like future RuPaul’s Drag Race/Broadway star/trans activist Peppermint — he drew further inspiration for Hedwig’s outsider aesthetic. “I was seeing these performers, oftentimes drag performers, who hadn't sung before, and they realized that for punk, their voices really worked; they didn't have to sound like Patti LaBelle or Stevie Nicks. They were finding their voices while already being punk and fully-formed. They were finding this other part of themselves. It was very exciting.”
In an era where there is much more awareness regarding the concepts of gender identity and fluidity than there was in the ‘90s, it’s easy to see Hedwig & the Angry Inch as being ahead of its time. But Mitchell says, “The mainstream has always shifted slower than real life in terms of entertainment and politics and economics. It certainly didn't feel ahead of its time, at the time, to me. But it's very gratifying that people of all kinds found it useful in their journey. Straight, trans, cis, female, whatever, they saw the metaphor of someone wounded by society and by love and then healing themselves through music, art, drag — and then realizing that those things were limited. Those things help, they're a little ladder to get you out of the hole, but in the end, Hedwig tears the drag off and walks into the world and says, ‘This is what I am. You can call me what you want. I don't fit in. I don't belong to any place. I’m a gender of one. And I get to define myself. I don't feel nervous about you defining me now. I'm me.’
“Now I love when all genders, sexualities, ages, ethnicities can play the [Hedwig] role, because it comes out of a drag scene. And drag is a mask. You can put on a mask and be older, you can be younger, you can be male, female, you can be trans, you could be non-binary,” Mitchell continues. “The [Hedwig] character is forced into a gender reassignment against his will, so I never think of it as a trans statement or a trans story because of the coercive nature of it. It's almost like the patriarchy decides, ‘No, you'd have to be a woman to be married the guy and be free. To be a woman, we've defined what it is: We're mutilating you. That makes you a woman.’ Which, of course, is quite a metaphor — ‘womanhood”’ is mutilation, right? It's like from Freud on. It's just like, ‘Oh, you're missing a penis, so there is something wrong with you.’ They never say a man is ‘missing a vagina,’ do they? … But you know, when you're young, it's very important to have these labels. We all need those things to free ourselves from our parents and our society. Then, the next half of your life is not so much about labeling yourself. It's more about, ‘I only have so much time left, so what am I going to do with who I am?’ Rather than, ‘Who am I?’”
Mitchell’s 2019 musical podcast series, Anthem: Homunculus, which starred Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Cynthia Erivo, Marion Cotillard, and Laurie Anderson, explored that very question about the “downhill-ness” of the second half of life. And Mitchell reveals that he had originally envisioned the podcast as a continuation of Hedwig’s story. “Anthem was originally a Hedwig sequel. It's about someone [a character named Ceann Mackay] in a trailer in Kansas who is a bit of a liberal shut-in and has a brain tumor and there's no Medicaid there, so he's crowdfunding his cancer care. Originally that was Hedwig in her trailer in Junction City, Kansas,” Mitchell explains. “But Anthem is very complicated. Eventually the tumor [voiced by Anderson] turns out to be alive; it’s like a conjoined twin, and his brain talking to him. There were so many bizarre things happening, the story had so much bizarreness, that [to make it about Hedwig] was like putting a wig on a wig! … It was too much stuff. Hedwig had too much baggage — and the new baggage was too much.”
As for what Mitchell is currently doing in the “second act” of his life — aside from that Jesus musical, which he can’t divulge much more about, but says “might be for TV first” in a COVID age when in-person theater productions are on indefinite hold — he’s working on a second season of Anthem, and he has also just released an epic new “platonic musical orgy,” New American Dream. The “two-part, distance-defying, community-built benefit album,” which “started out as a kind of reaction to boredom,” was remotely recorded during lockdown with more than 40 collaborators — including Trask, Alynda Segarra of Hooray for the Riff Raff, Ezra Furman, Our Lady J, Peppermint, Drag Race violinist Thorgy Thor, and Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, whom Mitchell lovingly describes as “the misfit of American Idol. I don't think they knew what to do with him, because usually they just want to create a voice that they can plug in pop songs to. And he's very much his own guy. … He was one of those people who didn't win, but who was clearly head and shoulders above.” (Harmon’s Season 17 story of being a closeted gay pastor’s son did resonate with many American Idol viewers, however, so he’d probably be an ideal casting for that forthcoming Jesus musical.)
New American Dream, out now via Bandcamp, benefits Burritos Not Bombs (a food distribution program in Mexico City), the Transgender Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project (a San Francisco-based human rights organization), and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund (which provides college scholarships for African-American students). One New American Dream track, “Sophia,” seems like it would be a perfect fit for that Jesus musical, as it is “inspired by the Gnostic gospels. Sophia was considered the mother of the God of the Old Testament, who gave birth to a kind of a jealous and difficult God and was ashamed of that. And one of the stories is that Sophia comes down from heaven and is raped by the iniquity of this universe, and from that rape became the God of the Old Testament. So, it's a very interesting approach — and a gospel that never made it in the Bible,” notes Mitchell.
As Mitchell releases the politically charged New American Dream during a very dark time in history, he sees parallels to the era when Hedwig was created. “This was the middle of AIDS still, and most of the country was still very uncomfortable with the queerness and with helping people out because they had AIDS. We saw the worst of how human humanity can be,” he recalls of the ‘90s. “And COVID is reminding us of government inaction and their so-called ‘pro-life’ facade crumbling. … We're in a corrective stage, and under Trump, everyone wants to fix what they can. And sometimes you get a little bit of cancel culture, which is maybe cutting our allies to pieces sometimes. I don't believe in ‘canceling,’ personally. I believe in calling out bad behavior, but also in tandem with that, you have to create an alternative, as opposed to just tearing it down.”
And what if Mitchell does eventually get around to doing an official Hedwig & the Angry Inch sequel? Where would Hedwig Robinson be in 2020? “I imagine the real Hedwig is a non-binary adjunct professor in a small Midwestern college,” he says with a wry laugh, “who probably gets shut down by her students for being ‘incorrect’ in some way.”
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The above interview is taken from a portion of John Cameron Mitchell’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.