It’s been 20 years since John Cameron Mitchell introduced the world to the complex character of Hedwig, and she’s still as relevant as ever. The Tony Award-winning actor and director is bringing the East Berlin rock ‘n’ roller’s story to National Theatre for one night only on February 8, performing songs from the cult classic-turned-Broadway musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch and telling behind-the-scenes stories surrounding that period in his life. DC is the first stop on the U.S. leg of Mitchell’s Origin of Love tour, and our resident Hedwig fanatic had the chance to geek out on the phone with him about the staying power of Hedwig, his groundbreaking new musical podcast Anthem and how he plans to crowd surf at National.
On Tap: What motivated the Origin of Love tour beyond Hedwig & the Angry Inch’s 20th anniversary?
John Cameron Mitchell: It was purely humanitarian because my mom has Alzheimer’s. She’s in the later stage, and she’s very happy but requires a lot of care. And you know, our country doesn’t always take care of its own, so I have to pull the wig on for Mom. I thought, “What’s a way I can do a show that isn’t the musical but still uses the songs?” Then it became a memoir of the making of Hedwig that has its own dramatic shape. We [started the tour] in Australia first and then Korea, so DC is really the first Origin of Love show we will have done in the U.S.
OT: What can you tell us about the format of the show, without giving too much away?
JCM: I’m not playing Hedwig, but I’m dressed as a version of Hedwig. It’s neat telling the story and like the musical, it’s very much about me talking to the audience. [I’m] also telling a structured story about meeting [composer] Stephen Trask and both of our hopes and dreams, and meeting his bass player [Jack Steeb] who became my boyfriend of many years and inspired some important songs – and who passed away from his addiction after the film came out. Jack was really into the linchpin of the whole piece. [I] talk about our relationship and also how the myth of the origin of love – of trying to complete yourself with someone else – can be challenging, and the myth often needs to be reinterpreted.
OT: What other parts of your life did you incorporate into the show?
JCM: Growing up very Catholic and [in a] military [family], my own need to break free from that [and] my fear of my own feminine energies. The root of [much evil] in the world is people not accepting what’s in them, for better or worse. Like an animal that dies behind your wall, it can stink up the place. You have to air things out. Hedwig finds that these feminine and masculine energies are all useful after going through this forced gender assignment. Hedwig isn’t even a trans person because there was a coercion involved. In fact, “Wig in a Box” marks the moment where she empowers herself with drag, in a sense, as opposed to any kind of trans decision. She uses what she’s learned from her rock ‘n’ roll idols to move on, to create, to love again. All of these things relate to my life and I’ll be talking about them as well as a ton of jokes and a ton of songs and some new songs from my new musical [podcast Anthem] as well.
OT: Does your song selection change with every performance? How do you pick and choose what to include?
JCM: I’ll be traveling with members of the Broadway Hedwig band who know a lot of songs. It’ll probably be fairly standardized just because we don’t have a lot of rehearsal time, but we’ll probably do two or three from Anthem, we’ll do a couple songs that are in my last film How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and you know, like a Bowie song for fun. It’s going to be a very party environment. I’m hoping to crowd surf at the National.
OT: What makes Hedwig such a universal story, with such staying power over the last 20 years?
JCM: The character is such a mask. It came out of a drag club that Stephen and I were participating in called Squeezebox that was a very punk rock, rock ‘n’ roll drag bar. Many drag and trans performers were performing with Stephen’s house band. When you’re singing punk rock, you can use your own voice and be awesome. You don’t have to sing like Whitney Houston. They were already punk and didn’t even know it, just by being gender nonconforming performers. So it was a very exciting place that Hedwig was born in. Subcultures always create the new trends. Sometimes it’s a game of influencing and honoring, and that’s what we were about. “Midnight Radio” is a pan to the great female rock ‘n’ rollers that Hedwig tries to stand alongside. For me, playing a fake rock star was an amazing experience because I didn’t have to tour [laughs]. Now I’m a real rock ‘n’ roller and I’m touring.
OT: Who are your major musical influences?
JCM: I’m pretty eclectic. I tend to be drawn more to real fingers on your instruments as opposed to purely computerized experiences. I like the mistakes and imperfections that come from actual voices and actual instruments. Old 70s funk. A lot of glam – certainly Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop – those three are kind of my great triumvirate. I’ll play Stevie Wonder – he never fails to make me feel better. [I] kind of do a pre-1985 law. There were certainly some great moments of the 90s and of today too, [but] I think it’s a little hard now. There’s lots of people making good music, but the Internet has paralyzed some young music makers into being more self-conscious. Knowing too much is not always good for art because it can paralyze you a little. Let some things develop on their own in the dark and then bring them out. I believe in process. I believe a certain amount of ignorance is good for art and life.
OT: Tell me about Anthem. What does a musical podcast entail?
JCM: It’s a new service called Luminary that will be launching with us as its flagship podcast, but there will be 40 other new podcasts. They’re going to have their own app and their own content. They want to be the Netflix of podcasts. They’ll be some pre-episodes out first and then a subscription situation. But it’s looking like May 2019. We have seven Tony winners. It’s an amazing cast [including] Glenn Close, Patti LuPone and Marion Cotillard. I feel as strongly about this as I do about Hedwig.
OT: How long has Anthem been in the making?
JCM: It started out as a sequel to Hedwig, but it was much more autobiographical. But then I realized her story was so complex and mine was [too]. It’s like putting a hat on a hat on a wig. I removed Hedwig from the story and injected more of myself. I play a guy who is out of insurance, living in a trailer, who is kind of me if I never left my small town in Junction City, Kansas. He has a brain tumor, no insurance and he’s crowd funding his treatment on a telethon app. He’s staying online until he gets the money for the operation or until he dies.
OT: Who do you hope comes to see your performance? Diehard Hedwig fans? The local theatre community?
JCM: Whoever Hedwig is useful to I hope will show up. I like the fact that our audience is so mixed in terms of gender, sexuality and age. It’s [been] useful to others at a certain time in their life when they were young and came out. It made them feel less alone.
Catch John Cameron Mitchell at National Theatre on Friday, February 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $54. Learn more at www.thenationaldc.org.
National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org