The Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator and original star brings his Origin of Love tour to Boston
I’m sure that you’re asked all the time to sing these songs. How much of that do you field on a regular basis?
Well, you know, not that much. The thing is, I’ll always sing these songs in some form or another. Whether I do the part again, I’m not sure, but in this case I’m telling the stories of how it was made, the people that inspired it, the philosophy behind it, and how it stands up now with things that we’re dealing with. So it’s just fun to be associated with something that has introduced me to my favorite people in the world, and it enabled me to do all the other things that I love. We did it for love; we didn’t do it for career or money, because it was so weird. And it turned out to be something that people took to heart, and I love that people pass it on to their friends or their kids. I love that it keeps living on without us.
So this is less a show about you and more about the creation and the origin of Hedwig?
Yes, but also related to my life, of course, because it was happening while I was living. [laughs] It’s just sort of the stories behind the story.
What songs do you sing that aren’t from Hedwig?
We do an outtake song that was a Tommy song that [composer] Stephen [Trask] started and we didn’t really find a place for, and I also do two songs from my new musical, Anthem, which will be first heard in podcast series form that comes out at the end of April on a new podcast network called Luminary. That kind of started as a Hedwig sequel but Hedwig had too much baggage so the character really became an alternate version of me. It’s a new form, the fictional podcast; friends of mine have been doing it and we kind of wanted to push it. We have 40 actors, six Tony winners, 31 songs—it’s very dense. People like Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Cynthia Erivo, Laurie Anderson, Marion Cotillard—it’s an amazing cast.
It’s interesting that you say that you’re trying to “push it,” because when I think of the things that you’ve done, that’s a commonality between a lot of your work. Hedwig was ahead of its time, Shortbus was certainly—as you say—pushing it to the limits of what people want to talk about or see on screen. What do you look for when you’re thinking about projects? Is pushing it a consideration for you?
I do like to push the envelope but I like to do it in a way that’s, what you might call, “pop.” I’m very much a fan of the Aristotelian unities of telling a story with beginnings, middles, ends, and jokes: all the things that I’ve learned from Broadway and drag and stand-up and well-made plays. But the content is what interests me to push. This party—which I think of as more of a party than a cabaret act or a show—has some structure to it but anything can happen. In DC I had a whole monologue that I improvised about Melania. We used to be besties and we’re like, “We’re gonna get outta here and help each other. Whoever goes higher helps the person who is lower.” I’m trying to help Melania because clearly she’s fallen very low.
Wouldn’t that be a great prequel to Hedwig.
Yeah. [laughs] “Melania, I know we have to get the biggest piece of the pie, but you’ve got a pie in the face now.”
I think we know where Melania got her hair inspiration from.
[laughs] Yes. “Love your hair.” “Thanks, just bought it.”
Was doing a show like this something that’s been on your mind for a while?
It really came from Mom needing money. My mom has Alzheimer’s and she’s very happy, she’s in a great place but it’s very expensive, and I just couldn’t afford it. I thought about this tour for her—it’s really for her—and I’m also acting in a TV series that’s coming out in March called Shrill, which is really good, and so it was like, “I’ve got to get money for Mom.” And then it turned out that the things I was lucky enough to set up were fun as hell. So that’s where it came from, but now that I’ve made it, I just love it. I can imagine doing this show off and on forever. I just love telling stories.
I was so overjoyed when you finally got your Tony a few years ago. Tell me what that was like.
Oh! Well, you know, it was very gratifying, but … like, somehow when you’re young you see all the things you’re supposed to get … I always knew I was off. Maybe it’s just being openly gay in the ’80s and ’90s but I just knew that I was never going to fit into what I was supposed to. So I lost the desire to. So to me, awards and recognition are always a bit of a lovely surprise. Neil Patrick Harris starring in [Hedwig] on Broadway was great. I didn’t feel the need to and I was thrilled when he won the Tony and we won a Best Revival Tony as writers, but it felt after the fact. When it first came out we were kind of the ugly stepchild of Off-Broadway. Stephen Sondheim, who is very nice (but very direct) was like: “I don’t like it. John, I love you, but I don’t like the show. It’s not my thing. It’s too loud.” No way did I feel bad because it just didn’t fit in to his aesthetic and it didn’t fit in to Broadway or even Off-Broadway. It was never a big financial hit, we were never sold out all the time, we just hung on. Hedwig is like a bad cold that just sort of hangs on and never goes away. So when a Tony comes around 20 years later, it’s like, oh, that’s so nice. I think I said: “Thanks for having an old drag queen uptown.” It’s great. But I also don’t belong at the Oscars and the Tonys, personally. I feel like a kind of transfer student who won a popularity award for being the weird transfer student, so I don’t go after those things. I also don’t run after money without a purpose, like the mom thing, so I’ve never made much money. I don’t own things, I never got a mortgage. But I’ve been quite free to do things I like by keeping my overhead low. And that’s just my style.
It’s interesting that you think of yourself as an outsider. To me, you’re a beloved figure.
I’m a beloved outsider like the lesbian aunt who traipses in once in a while to the family gathering. I’d like to be the special outsider, but I’m also kind of a loner, so I don’t need constant coddling. I traveled the world as a kid and it was sometimes sad because I’d get ripped apart from my friends, but there is a beauty in the freedom, too. I feel like I could live anywhere and start a new life if I had to. When I was kid I always weirdly thought I’d be able to handle a hostage situation. And I don’t know why I kept thinking about that, I think it was the army thing. My dad grew up in Germany and there was always terrorism in the ’70s [against] the American forces so there was always a flux and romantic danger. I felt a little trapped but I was always like, “I know what to do, I’d write a novel in the dust. If I were in solitary confinement, I’d find a way.”
So at what point did you discover theater? Was being a performer always a goal for you?
I did really love theater when I discovered it in high school, and it was the time that Fame and All That Jazz came out, so the Godspells and the Bob Fosses were my heroes. My favorite shows, of course, were Cabaret and Oliver!, though I wasn’t a student of musical theater. I still haven’t seen West Side Story and I just saw Fiddler on the Roof for the first time. I was more of a ’70s kind of guy, so I was more into the Fosse pushing the envelope thing and you can see All That Jazz, that film actually affected the Hedwig film. I loved Ain’t Misbehavin’, and I was a huge soul music fan, blues, and jazz. But I also loved Noël Coward and his queer aesthetic that was very British. My mother is Scottish and was into theater and that absurd wordplay of British humor was instilled in me very early. So all of these things combined with David Bowie, glam rock, Lou Reed, all of those kind of were a thousand points of light that illuminated Hedwig, which was a combination of all those things. She used up everything I knew. A dumpster fire of my life.
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: THE ORIGIN OF LOVE TOUR. SAT 3.2. BOCH CENTER’S SHUBERT THEATRE. BOCHCENTER.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.