By Jeff Walsh
When I first came out, at the late age of 23, I made up for lost time by going from closeted to activist. I became obsessed with people pushing the boundaries, challenging the norm, advancing the cause. My two immediate role models became Larry Kramer and Michelangelo Signorile. As it turned out, Larry was just about to release his new play in New York City shortly after I came out called “The Destiny of Me,” which advanced the characters and story of his earlier play, “The Normal Heart,” about the AIDS Epidemic as how it divided and rallied the gay community in New York City. So, I told my straight friend we were going to New York City, and I bought us tickets to see “The Destiny of Me.”
In the play, I was captivated by Alexander, the young character who interacts with a character that is himself as an older man in a hospital with AIDS. Alexander was an adorable, precocious, loveable kid, and it made you wonder what happened along the course of his life to turn him into the man on his deathbed in the hospital room. Newly out, I didn’t want to make my straight friend suffer too greatly after the show, since our typical Broadway fare was more about musicals and not heavy AIDS drama, so I didn’t hang out at the stage door, but I took some of Alexander home with me, making sure that as I grow up I don’t shut down and get distracted from pursuing my dreams and my passion, and love.
The role of Alexander was portrayed in that Off Broadway play by John Cameron Mitchell, who this month will rock out at movie theaters in his new drag musical movie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I saw Mitchell play Hedwig onstage in a little theater in New York’s meat-packing district, and the movie captures the power, energy, and beauty of the story perfectly. I first saw the movie a month or so ago at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and more recently (and more raucously) at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the end of June. Mitchell sat down with Oasis the day before Hedwig was screened at the gay film festival to discuss how he originated the role, his future, as well as how he became a better man by spending seven years of his life as a rock and roll drag queen.
For those of you who just rolled your eyes when you hit the word “drag,” I’m sure there’s a certain percentage of you who will not be swayed to see the movie. That’s too bad. This isn’t Priscilla or To Wong Foo. It tackles weighty issues like soulmates and love, and the music just kicks ass (more on that later). The plot is, admittedly, familiar: an East German boy has botched sexual reassignment surgery (hence the angry inch) to please the soldier he loves, later becomes the tranny muse of an American boy who steals the songs they wrote together and becomes an arena rock superstar, and leaves Hedwig to become the transkeleton in his closet and tabloid fodder. But, when you get past the story that we’ve all seen so many times before, the movie has amazing heart and songs.
Mitchell, who created the role, and stars in, wrote, and directed the movie, said the overarching theme of the movie was inspired by Aristophane’s Speech in Plato’s Symposium (which you can read here, http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/jowett/symposium5.htm). In the movie and soundtrack, the myth is translated beautifully into the moving rock ballad, “The Origin of Love.”
“The myth is that we were cut in half in the beginning of time and that we are seeking our other half,” Mitchell says. “To think that it was written like 2500 years ago, in a dialogue that was people writing speeches about the beauty of the love of man for man. It’s pretty powerful, and the myth includes straight people and lesbians. It’s inclusive, but Hedwig interprets it differently. ‘What is my other half, who is it? Maybe it’s my mom, maybe it’s Jesus, maybe I have another half but I shouldn’t be with them.’”
Hedwig’s road to movie theaters began seven years ago, when Mitchell first started working with Stephen Trask, who would write the music and lyrics for songs that would become an Off-Broadway smash and cult phenomenon.
“It started at (the rock and roll drag bar) Squeezebox, but I had been thinking about it before then,” Mitchell said. “I had the Plato myth of the origin of love first. And Hedwig was somewhat based on a person who was my brother’s babysitter, but very broadly. And then I met Stephen, and he encouraged me to develop that character more, because he was working at Squeezebox and said, ‘I can get you a gig.’ And my dad was stationed in Berlin, so the operation story came to me. Stephen wrote ‘The Origin Of Love,’ and our first gig was born. The character was fully there, it’s just that all of the detail of the story took the next four years to develop.”
Mitchell said he and Trask were aware they were creating something bigger.
“We knew we were building toward a theater run. I didn’t know how big or how long, but I wanted the length of time to sort of deepen, and I wanted to have the sort of rock star fantasy thing going on,” Mitchell says. “I wanted something that was fully rock and roll, Stephen and I were adamant about keeping it with a band onstage. But we didn’t really think of it as anything but the next gig. So, we would fantasize for a second, like ‘This would be funny for the film,’ but then we would concentrate on what we were doing.
“When it was popular Off-Broadway, we had the opportunity and we thought much more clearly about what we could do, and what we couldn’t do onstage that we can do on film,” Mitchell says. “Just like we thought about what we could do on the album that we couldn’t do onstage.”
Mitchell thinks the movie marks the end of Hedwig, or at least where he will part ways with the role.
“It does feel finished,” he says. “It may develop into other places, but I won’t be a part of it as much.”