July 19, 2001
Hedwig rocked onstage, but how does it roll on film? As if Bob Fosse met Ziggy Stardust in a trailer park.
by Rob Kendt
Can we all agree to a moratorium on concern for the health of the musical—and its inevitable corollary, the lament that rock 'n' roll, or at least popular music forms minted after 1935, have never conquered the stage? You'd think that after Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Pippin, Grease, The Wiz, Dreamgirls, Pump Boys and Dinettes, Tommy, Rent, The Capeman, Reefer Madness, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, The Lion King, The Rocky Horror Show, Aida, The Full Monty—do I need to go on?—listeners and critics would recognize that the sound of the contemporary musical ain't The Sound of Music anymore.
Indeed, if the contemporary musical theatre still doesn't quite seem to have caught up with current popular music, it has more to do with formal and thematic conservatism than with musical taste. By and large, the electric guitars and stomping beats and headset mikes of today's pop musical are still being employed in the service of old-fashioned theatrical entertainment values—comic diversion, sex appeal, dancing or vocal prowess, soaring sentiment. Musical theatre has absorbed and adapted these new sounds to its eternal aim of dispensing good times and telling universal stories.
Rock 'n' roll and its heirs are also in the fun business, no doubt (especially No Doubt). But it's always been a rebel yell, from Elvis to Johnny Rotten to Zach delaRocha, that gives rock its powerful, anarchic undertow and its purchase on a particular kind of youthful anger, confusion, and abandon—to a time in everyone's life when hormones and other substances of choice rage in the blood, when who we are is always the question of the moment, anybody we want to be still the answer. For a few generations now, loud, aggressive, dirty music has been the requisite soundtrack of this painful rite of passage.
Ever heard music like that on a stage?
Not until Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a glam/punk cabaret about a German transsexual that began in a SoHo drag club night called Squeezebox in the early 1990s and premiered as a play in an abandoned hotel ballroom, rechristened the Jane Street Theatre, in 1998. It became a sensation, if not a sell-out, not only with New York theatrephiles but also, more tellingly, with rock 'n' roll musicians and non-theatregoing youngsters. What audiences responded to was something more than the novelty of hearing Stephen Trask's raucous rock songs performed by a real band and a self-deprecating frontman in drag (John Cameron Mitchell)—it was the piece's authentically felt desperation and its convincing rage against the machines of mainstream showbiz and sexuality. (It was also, I should hasten to add, terrifically funny.) Rock wasn't Hedwig's seasoning, it was its substance.
L.A., London, and Boston witnessed brief runs (Michael Cerveris sassed and sneered winningly in the lead role here) with mixed reviews and bad box office. But now the wider culture will get a chance to embrace Hedwig with Fine Line's new movie version, adapted and directed by and starring Mitchell, and I think it will be embraced enthusiastically for its wicked humor, its visual and sonic surety, its iconic (and ironic) punk sensibility, and its startling moments of tenderness. It's a stunning stage-to-film transfer that expands on and in many ways improves on the original. If it puts one in mind of Bob Fosse's bang-up makeover of Cabaret for the screen, that's not a coincidence.
"I think Fosse was kind of freed up at a certain point by films," said Mitchell, a wiry, epicene, boyish man who looks almost nothing like his creation Hedwig, in a recent interview. "I really like the hybrid he came up with. And he seemed to learn from film to film: Damn Yankees was more a traditional musical, and then in Cabaret, he started mixing it up. Then Lenny would mix his performance up with his life and keep going back to the same performance. And All That Jazz had a nice mix of songs motivated by scenes and others that were sort of pure fantasies."
So, in Hedwig, in addition to some beguiling animation by Emily Hubley to illustrate the Platonic creation myth of "The Origin of Love," we get a surreal punk-rock apotheosis in which Hedwig spits out "Angry Inch," a graphic song about the botched sex change operation that left him/her stranded between genders, at a seafood restaurant—this is the real part—then goes soaring from a stage dive through a blue sky, only to end up plopped in a trailer park recliner in the song's backstory. Or a scene in which this abandoned military bride conjures dreams of fame, and a rock arena stage complete with band, from a box of wigs.
Imaginative leaps aside, Hedwig captures live rock 'n' roll in a particularly immediate way that goes against the grain of the performance style familiar from contemporary music videos, which, like old movie musicals, are lip-synched. Citing such precursors as Altman's Nashville, Ulu Grosbard's Georgia, and Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, Mitchell said he decided, with a few exceptions, to film the songs with live sound.
"With the punk rock thing, I didn't want to do it lip-synched, because I just find that detaching," said Mitchell. "So we came up with a system, what my D.P. (Frank DeMarco) and I called a 'multi-master,' in which we shot the song straight through for as many takes as I could do with multiple cameras running. That multi-master was my match, like the way you shoot a master, and then you tend to match the movement for the smaller, tighter shots."
Yes, Mitchell talks like a director now, but Hedwig was his first film. Adding to the pressure was that he wasn't just playing the film's lead, he was playing a lead who, under pounds of wigs and makeup, spent a good deal of time singing at the top of his lungs.
"I'd come in in the morning and sort of set up the shot, then go do makeup, which was hard, because a lot of work gets done at the beginning of the day," Mitchell admitted. When he returned to the set, he'd often find fires that needed putting out—just before it was time for his close-up. "I didn't have a lot of time to prepare as an actor, and I felt often that I was giving myself short shrift. Some days when I was doing a hard song, I really couldn't direct. I was like, 'Turn the three cameras on, Frank, and do whatever you want. Let's just get the song.'"
It may have been nerve-wracking, especially within the film's 28-day shooting schedule, but the producers' confidence in Mitchell paid off. After all, who knew the part better than he, after five years in clubs and 10 months at the Jane Street Theatre? A stage actor who did some time in L.A.—he was in Sarcophagus back in LATC's 1980s glory days, and in the Taper's Our Country's Good—Mitchell had appeared in a handful of musicals, albeit non-traditional ones: The Secret Garden, Big River, Hello Again. He didn't necessarily consider himself a musical theatre actor, nor was he a big fan of drag performance. How did he end up headlining a hit musical in drag?
"A lot of drag seemed like camp exercises, and sort of sad, identifying with impersonation rather than self-actualization," Mitchell said. "There were always exceptions—Charles Ludlam, Charles Busch. And Ethel Eikelberger—I saw her once do this multicharacter piece in a punk club in the East Village one night, just screaming around. That was probably the first drag queen who really approached the kind of intensity that the form allows or demands."
He found more such intensity at Squeezebox, a gay rock club. "I saw all these drag queens, and one of them, Pat Briggs, sang 'Rock 'n' Roll Nigger,'" the Patti Smith outsider classic. "Mistress Formica, the hostess there—her wig fell off during the performance and she kind of ripped the rest of her drag off, which kind of inspired me for the climax of Hedwig. It was breaking all the drag rules, all these people finding their voice when they realized they didn't have to sing Patti LaBelle. They could, in a way, reclaim the music of the oppressor jocks who beat them up in high school."
Mitchell and co-writer Trask started out writing a musical about a naēve young rock star, Tommy Gnosis, and his jilted lover/mentor Hedwig, a character based in part on a German military bride Mitchell knew in his childhood. Soon, though, Hedwig took over the act, with Tommy a bittersweet offstage presence. The movie gratifyingly brings Tommy to life, in the affecting form of Michael Pitt. But it's Hedwig's movie, coif to heels. Indeed, I told Mitchell that Hedwig is so evocative a mock star that, like the hair-metal droogs of Spinal Tap, I could see her going on forever.
"I like the idea of other people taking it and walking away with it," said Mitchell. "There's all these other productions going on that I know nothing about, and I don't necessarily want to see. I want the show to be in high schools, in nursing homes. Just like to be a Ramone you just have to change your last name, anyone can be Hedwig—anyone can put on the wig."
And so punk's do-it-yourself ethic comes full circle to the classic let's-put-on-a-show impulse. It could be the beginning of a real rock musical aesthetic.