The Angry Inch Monologues
The Village Voice, March 10, 1998
By Evelyn McDonnell
HOW JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL AND STEPHEN TRASK CREATED HEDWIG, THE ROCKINGEST MUSICAL SINCE NOTHING
Once upon a time, rock and roll was androgynous. The women wore the pants, the men had long hair, and sexual orientation was indiscriminate. Little Richard, Nico, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett, P-Funk, the New York Dolls, Prince: Glam rock made fabulousness, not hormones, the locus of sexuality.
Hedwig, the creation of actor-writer John Cameron Mitchell in the absolutely fabulous glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is the ultimate androgyne. A would-be rock star from East Berlin, Hedwig had a sexchange operation in 1988, but the doctor slipped, and now Hedwig has "a Barbie-doll crotch," "a one-inch mound of flesh, where my penis used to be, where my vagina never was." If genitalia equals destiny (as folks as diverse as the Promise Keepers and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival seem to believe), does that mean Hedwig's nothing? Or is she everything
Hedwig and the Angry Inch amuses: Mitchell, a petite, charismatic actor whose presence fills the room, makes lines like, I do love a warm hand on my entrance" hilarious with meticulous timing and the wryest of smiles. Hedwig and the Angry Inch rocks: songwriter Stephen Trask may be the postpunk Cole Porter, writing witty, catchy show tunes inspired by Chuck Berry, the Pixies, and Sleater-Kinney. And Hedwig provokes: its questions about gender, sex, and identity are edgier than camp, punker than drag.
Rock 'n' roll is about identification across lines," Trask says. -It has always been about seeing someone who's different from yourself, singing about their situation, and identifying with it. So what could be more powerful than a botched sex-change operation, non-transsexual, both-gendered, failed-rock-star drag queen-whatever she is-sitting up there and singing the story of her life? If you can identify with that.
And people are identifying. The show opened to raves on Valentine's Day. Rockers, straight theatergoers, gay theatergoers, celebs (Glenn Close, David Bowie, Bob Mould) have been making the trek to the Jane Street Theater, a renovated ballroom in an old flophouse. Major labels are lining up for soundtrack rights. Hedwig is becoming a star, she's becoming everything.
Mitchell's original was to tell a story, inspired by Plato's third-sex positing Symposium, about Tommy Gnosis, a general's son/Jesus freak turned rock star. The script was somewhat autobiographical: Mitchell grew up an army brat and fanatical Catholic. When the actor was 14 and living in Junction City, Kansas, Helga, a divorced German army wife, babysat his younger brother. Mitchell hung out in Helga's trailer, listening to music and drinking beers. *She kept having these dates, but she never knew what they were going to look like,' Mitchell recalls. Years later, he realized she was a prostitute.
It was Trask, leader of the four-piece punk-pop band Cheater and original musical director of the drag punk nights at Don Hill's Squeezebox, who encouraged his friend Mitchell, an accomplished Broadway, film, and television actor, to make Helga the central character. They began collaborating on the musical, a first for both of them, in 1994. Hedwig debuted at Squeezebox. "When Squeezebox started, I thought, `This is a really good mixture of theater and rock 'n' roll,' " Mitchell recalls. "It's a bunch of fags slam dancing: Finally, all the homoerotic undercurrent is out. I was seeing these drag queens find their voice after being trapped in lip-synch land, realizing it's okay to sing not so great if you're feeling it."
Mitchell had never performed in drag before. "I was terrifled," he says. "Like most gay men, when you grow up, the feminine is the worst thing you can be." One of Hedwig's twists is that Mitchell's still not exactly doing drag: Hedwig isn't a woman, she's some Frankensteinian being. Which meant she fit right in at Squeezebox, where performers like Justin Bond and Sherry Vine draw strength by channeling Deborah Harry and Patti Smith, rather than lampooning feminine stereotypes.
Ironically, for Mitchell, true rock fulfillment comes when he transforms into Tommy on the surrealist-punk song "Exquisite Corpse." "I'm so anal in some ways," he says. "On the best evenings, I've allowed myself to bounce off and see what happens. Sometimes I can't go as far as I'd like to because I have a show the next day. I don't know if Iggy Pop rolled around in glass every night, seven shows a week."
Neither collaborator found any role models in the rock musical genre as it existed. "Rock musicals seemed to water down the rock side of things," Mitchell says. "I'd go see a rock show and wonder, where can I get that feeling I get from Patti Smith, or some great power-pop trio, in the theater?" Instead they found inspiration in pre-rock musicals, in Yoko Ono, and in Sandra Bernhard.
As the originator, writer, and star of the show, Mitchell gets most of the media attention, but whenever Hedwig's monologues begin to tire, the Angry Inch step in with one showstopper or another: the thrashy "Angry Inch,' the country "Sugar Daddy," or the ballad sung by Trask, "The Long Grift." wI wanted to write a score that would work as a concept album and also have singles," says Trask. Still, people assume Mitchell wrote the lyrics. "It's weird after years of trying to be a rock star myself to be in the Dave Stewart half of this very Eurythmics relationship," the Cheater leader admits.
In 1997, Hedwig had a one-month run at the Westbeth, directed by Peter Askin, and the search for a more permanent home for it began. But no established venue offered the right mix of club and theater. Mitchell heard about a space in a hotel on the river; walking along the Hudson, he came across the Hotel Riverview and its dilapidated ballroom. The Jane Street Theater, with its bar in the back and seats purchased from an old Long Island movie house, was renovated expressly for Hedwig. "They had to build a theater for this because it didn't fit anywhere," Trask says.
Hedwig's cathartic denouement is both a detangling and a retangling, with the man who plays a botched transsexual who dresses as a woman becoming a man, and the woman who plays a man who wants to be a drag queen being set free. This isn't just gender bend or gender fuck-it's gender end. -This musical is in the moment where people are really dealing with gender and sexuality," Trask says. "Gay people and differently gendered people are at the point right now that black people were at in the '50s. People are ready to cross this line and have rock 'n' roll let them do it.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays at the Jane Street Theatre, Hotel Riverview Ballroom, 113 Jane at Westside Highway