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Gender Bender: An Oral History of 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

From SqueezeBox! to Broadway, we trace the history of everyone's favorite German transgender rock goddess

John Cameron Mitchell in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch.'
Photos12 / Polaris
May 7, 2014 10:00 AM ET

Two decades before Neil Patrick Harris dared to don a golden pair of go-go boots to portray the "internationally ignored song stylist" know as Hedwig Schmidt, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask were perfecting the act on the New York City drag scene. In the wake of Hedwig and the Angry Inch's latest theatrical incarnation — which just racked up eight Tony nominations — we caught up with several of the creative minds who have contributed to Hedwig's past, present, and future to create an (appropriately) oral history. 

See Neil Patrick Harris Naked on the Cover of 'Rolling Stone'

It all began on a flight from LAX….
Stephen Trask (Musician, Composer): John Cameron Mitchell and I met on a plane around 1989 or 1990. We were both flying back from Los Angeles and I moved my seat to sit next to him, as we were the only two people not watching the in-flight movie. There was a seat between us, so I put the Rainer Werner Fassbinder biography that I was reading down on it to see if it sparked a conversation. He and I just started talking about film and music, and then we kept running into each other over the next few years. We kept having friends in common that we didn't know about until we just started hanging out together. 

John Cameron Mitchell (Writer, Director, "Hedwig"): I went to see Stephen's band Cheater at CBGBs and they were fantastic. Then he came to see me at Lincoln Center, in a musical called Hello Again. At that point, around the beginning of 1994, I started telling Stephen stories about my life growing up in Scotland, my dad moving around the world and being the military commander of Berlin — which I knew was going to be a part of it somehow. I told him stories about Helga, my old babysitter who was, I realized later, also a prostitute on the side. As a central metaphor, I had this origin of love concept from Plato's Symposium, which I had seen a stage adaptation of and was really struck by the story. So I gave him that, and he almost immediately came up with that whole song for "The Origin of Love." 

Trask: John told me, "I want to do a musical and I want this to be the inspiration for it." He gave me Plato's Symposium and showed me that story by Aristophanes and said, "Okay, go write a song on this." So I would write little bits and sing them to him, and he would give me notes like, "Oh that's great, but can you bring in more of this kind of a thing?" He was a very good director of someone writing. So I would go home and write more and finally, it was done.

Mitchell: Suddenly, we were hanging out in a club called SqueezeBox!, where Stephen was kind of the musical director of the house band. SqueezeBox! was the kind of place we always dreamed of and it meant a lot to a lot of people. What was happening is that drag queens who had never sung before were realizing that they didn't need to sing well to be real punk-rock stars. They were finding their voices, having lip-synched for so long, and it was just amazing. It was like Stevie Wonder learning to see. I was so excited by what I was seeing on stage that I started thinking more about this Hedwig character. Stephen said, "Well I can get you an easy gig and an audience here. But you'd have to do the female character, because that is how it works at this club." So I started thinking more about the character and the transgender aspect — the sort of castration angle — and the involuntary sex change just came to me.

I was thinking about the origin of love; I was thinking about Berlin, where my parents had lived; I was looking at the performers and it was just sort of like, yes. This is the metaphor: To walk away, you've got to leave something behind.

Becoming Hedwig
Michael Schmidt (Co-Founder of SqueezeBox!): John approached me about an idea he had for a character he was developing named Hedwig Schmidt, and asked if she could perform at the club. At first, I was skeptical. John was not an experienced drag performer and I wasn't keen on the idea of my stage being used to workshop an untested act. I was concerned the other drag and transgender entertainers wouldn't tolerate an actor who wasn't really interested in being one of them. I explained that these other performers' drag personae were an extension of their lives, that they make their livelihoods from entertaining in drag, and that they take their craft extremely seriously. I told him essentially that this couldn't be a lark for him. He couldn't play Hedwig; he had to be Hedwig.

Mitchell: I wrote about 30 minutes of cover songs where I would rewrite the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie and Yoko Ono. Her song, "Death of Samantha," told the story of the operation. So our first gig was a mini-version of the show: The drag got ripped off at the end and there was a celebration, but we only had one original song — "The Origin of Love" — and it was a hit!

Schmidt: I think John was a bit nervous at first, stepping onto a stage amongst seasoned drag entertainers. Who wouldn't be? But once Hedwig hit the stage and began relating her story, she had the audience in her pocket. She was immediately adopted into the family.

Mitchell: I had never done drag, I had never sung with a rock band. It was like I was baptized. I was so terrified before; afterwards, I was completely different. Everything I did was completely in support of Hedwig. I'd go off and do a sitcom and use the money to buy wigs and make my own costumes. Mike Potter, who does hair and makeup for the Broadway show now, was doing our wigs and makeup back then in 1994. 

Mike Potter (Hairstylist, Makeup Artist): I was working at Kim's Video and John would come in there a lot. Then we saw each other at SqueezeBox! a lot. I told him a little bit about my story and how I had been doing hair and makeup since I was young — never professionally, just for fun. He obviously had a lot of people that he could have asked to do Hedwig, but he asked me. I had literally never worked even one day professionally as a hair and makeup person. I knew the story, that she was white trash and came from a trailer. I'm not German, but I grew up in a trailer. I'm not saying I'm white trash, but my dad fixes cars and collects guns, so I'm familiar with the aesthetic. 

I didn't know what I was doing the first time I did his wig. I wrapped hair around paper towel rolls and hot glued and stapled it. It fell apart on stage and it was a fucking disaster. But when it was a tragic failure, John always seemed to love it more. He'd tell me how he was dancing on stage and the wig fell apart — how there were paper towel rolls hanging at the ends of his hair—and he loved it.  

A bigger stage
Mitchell: It was all in service of getting it on stage as a real musical, which took four years to get Off-Broadway. And by then it was marinated and well-cooked. In those four years, we would do gigs at SqueezeBox! and elsewhere, and Stephen and I would write new material. He'd write new songs, I'd write new monologues and eventually we got it to Fez, which was kind of the Joe's Pub of its day. We did it sort of as a cabaret piece; it was loose, because it still didn't have a timeline, but it was coming together. Then David Binder, who was working on The Secret Garden back then but is our Broadway producer now, just said, "Let's do it at the Westbeth Theatre."

David Binder (Producer): I first met John in 1991 on a Broadway musical called The Secret Garden. I was the production assistant, he was one of the stars, and it was kind of a terrible experience. I believe I got fired. But what was great about it was that I became friends with John; I was a musical theater-loving kid from L.A., and John quickly showed me what musical theater could be. Years later, in the mid-1990s, he invited me to come to SqueezeBox! to see what he was working on. He would do 30 minutes, then 45 minutes — and at some point he and Stephen were ready to go. The original production was at the Westbeth Theatre. It was a first production, so a lot of the elements were different. For example, Stephen hadn't written the end of the show yet. The show used to end with "You Light Up My Life," sung in German. The set was TGI Fridays, so the walls were bric-a-brac and there were red and white tablecloths on tables that the audiences could sit at.

Michael Mayer (Director, Hedwig on Broadway): John and I had done a play together at the Atlantic Theater Company, and shortly thereafter he came to visit me when I was directing a show at Julliard and asked me if he could read me some stuff. He was reading monologues that ultimately became Hedwig, and I was intrigued… John and Stephen had been putting together bits and pieces of it, and ultimately there was a first version of the whole thing and a band. John asked me if I would help them put it together and show it to theaters, to try and get a production. So we invited a bunch of artistic directors from different theaters to come, and nobody wanted it. I think at that point it was too rock and roll for the gay people and too gay for the rock and roll people…too music-y for the theater people and too theater-y for the music people. It was just in-between everything, in the same way that Hedwig is in-between genders.

Sex, Drag and Rock & Roll: Neil Patrick Harris Talks 'Hedwig'

Mitchell: Then we brought in the real guns — Peter Askin — an experienced director who had done John Leguizamo's shows. Peter said, "To make it a play you've got to have Tommy's concert happening. Then it's actually something in the present as opposed to just the past. Because if it's in the past, then it's just Hedwig telling her story; but if it's in the present, now she can keep checking in on that while she's talking about it and then it becomes a play as opposed to just a monologue. 

Peter Askin (Producer): I think one of the reasons they may have approached me is that I have a writer's background and I'd been working on almost exclusively new material. So part of what I think I brought to it — aside from an outsider's clarity  — was that dramaturgical sense that it needed, as all new work needs. I used to think of it as a really fascinating mess. John had a lot of good ideas and some ideas that he ultimately decided were not as good. It was always kind of about keeping the A material and getting rid of the rest. That was rewarding for me, too, because I like helping to shape material. 

Trask: For the most part, the show happened piece meal for about two to three years, and then we found Peter Askin. We had a nightclub act that ended with a sex change operation, and was half cover songs and half original songs. Peter said, "I think the sex change operation needs to come at the end of the first act. At the end of the show, I know that Tommy Gnosis needs to appear. And he's going to say something in a song that's going to be really important for Hedwig to hear. I don't know what that is, but that's how I see it happening." It was very baffling, because it was our first meeting with him! He somehow took what we had and just structured it in such a way that we were then able to just go and finish our writing. I think we were sort of stuck until we found him, because structurally there was no room for any more monologue and there was no room for more songs. And he just fixed it in a way that all the holes in the story and all the places where the songs needed to be became extremely clear. 

Askin: The way it evolved — because I worked on it a lot for different productions — is that I broke it down into three parts, really: one part is that wonderful story, the irony of it and the poignancy of it; one is Stephen's songs; and then one is what I sort of think of as a stand-up comedy element. The trick was always to keep those things in balance, and particularly in not letting the comedy to run wild and take over the story or the music. To me it just goes back to what grabbed me initially and what grabbed audiences before: It's a love story. 

Every Hedwig needs a Yitzhak
Mitchell: Stephen thought we really needed a female voice, so he suggested, "Why don't we have a woman playing a man." And then we met Miriam Shor. There was no question that Miriam was head and shoulders above the rest in the auditions. She had this perfect balance of believable butchness and an incredible voice. She had never sung rock and roll before, as I hadn't. She always liked it but, like me, she became what she was supposed to be. Because the character sang well, she sang well. It's the weird thing that actors do: You jumped across that building because the scene required it. She discovered stuff about herself, too, because it was required. She was just genius. 

Miriam Shor ("Yitzhak"): Hedwig was the first audition my agent ever sent me on. I still have the slip of paper where I wrote down the appointment. I wrote down, "Headwitch and the Angry Itch. Yitzhak. Croatian ex-drag queen billed as the last Jewess of the Balkans Krystal Nacht." I wrote all that down, then hung up the phone and was like, what the fuck? What is happening? You know that I can play women, right? But I went to the audition, and that's the first time I met John. The character that I was playing was really that they just needed someone to move the microphone stand and maybe sing a little backup here and there. And then John, who wanted to do a show dealing with gender, thought, "Well why don't I be even more subversive and cast a female actress to play this man."

I had actually grown up for part of my life in Italy, so I think I had somewhat of an understanding of this duality. Certainly my parents were very political, so the whole Berlin Wall thing — and being a kid of the '80s — that's just something that's in your experience. I auditioned and figured I'd be playing a guy, so I wore a "Fonzie for President" T-shirt and a do-rag and big shit-kicker boots. I sang "You Light Up My Life," which is the song John used to end with. Then they asked, "Can you sing 'I Will Always Love You' by Whitney Houston?" I thought, why not? Then I realized that I only knew the part that goes "I Will Always Love You," so I sang that 4,000 times in a row. And they hired me for the workshop at Westbeth.

Mitchell: The Westbeth was a small production. No one really came. People would sort of flirt with us; The Public did a reading but then sort of blew us off for a year. Other theaters where we were dying to do it were just not interested. We were just too weird and downtown and drag and rock and roll. So Peter Askin said, "Because no one wants us we're going to create a new theater." Eventually we found a space — the Jane Street Theatre, which is now the Jane Hotel. It was actually Camryn Manheim who told us about the space, which had been around for 100 years. It was a ballroom, it was a sailor's hotel, it's where the Titanic survivors stayed, it was a sex club in the 1970s, it was a punk rock club called The Punk Rock Hotel in the 1980s. There was one person who had had their prom there. So it was this great space. 

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