"I really think it can do some good," says Hedwig star, director, and screenwriter John Cameron Mitchell. "If I was a little kid, the freak that I was, and I saw something this specifically bizarre when I was 16, I would feel like there was some hope."
Here's the deal on Hedwig. After New York actor-writer Mitchell and punk rock songwriter Stephen Trask debuted a cut-and-paste version of the show at a Soho rock club drag night, they set up shop at the Jane Street Theater in Greenwich Village in February 1998. Their Lita Ford-meets-Liberace sex-change-operation drag musical became an instant off-Broadway phenomenon. It ran through April 2000, and it won an Obie award. And by rock musical, I don't mean Rent. This is Maria Callas channeling Johnny Rotten, set to swaggering Cheap Trick electric guitar riffs. Bob Mould plays lead guitar on the movie soundtrack. In its finest musical moments, Hedwig features exquisite David Bowie-style glitter ballads. (To my delight, Mitchell told me that Hedwig's finale torch song, the perfect "Midnight Radio," was a cop on Bowie's epic "Rock'n Roll With Me" from 1974's Diamond Dogs LP.) Productions of the play went up in L.A., Boston, Kansas City, and--in an extended run at the Re-Bar--here in Seattle.
The kooky plot is crazy beautiful, and--in a way that sneaks up on you--truly literary. "Yeah, it's a sad story," Mitchell says in a disarmingly soft-spoken voice. (You expect something a little more crass from someone who wears garish blue eyeliner while belting out lyrics like, "Where my penis used to be, where my vagina never was, it was a one-inch mound of flesh!")
Hedwig is the story of Hansel, an East German boy who lives in a tiny Socialist apartment with his mom and later, all alone, in a desolate trailer park in Kansas. Hansel's woeful tale is based on Plato's myth about "The Origin of Love" which posits that humans were originally designed sort of like Siamese twins--only to be split in half by the angry Gods above. Now, humans roam the earth searching for their other halves.
Hansel's unwieldy search involves a botched sex change operation, prostitution, Rent auditions, unrequited love, the Berlin Wall, a B-rate drunken lounge act, Adam and Eve, a sexually confused American G.I., and rock stardom.
With its charming pop-art magical realism, cinematic flashbacks, and the ability to present intimate documentary-style footage of Hedwig's misfit band on tour with their charlatan business manager (an excellent character addition), the movie version of Hedwig is able to emphasize the rich plot far better than the stage version did. Although, admittedly, the movie ending--a Christ-like nude walk across a city street with a close-up on Mitchell's ass--is still wildly obscure. (I could never figure out Tommy or Rocky Horror either.)
Certainly, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has midnight cult movie written all over it, but--and this is what I mean by its own cultural moment--this weirdo movie might very well eventually walk away with more than its Sundance Film Festival Best Director and Audience Awards. Perverse and freaky as it is, this Hedwig isn't haunted by the spectre of mainstream fame and glory--it practically begs for it. Mitchell knows it too. "For me, Hedwig can't sell out enough," he bragged. "Because the character is that: Hedwig wants to sell out."