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

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Moving on up to The Jane Street Theatre
Askin: Stephen was continuing to write music when we went into the workshop at Westbeth. The only song that wasn't original was the German version of Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life." At the Westbeth it didn't matter because it was a workshop, but when we moved it to the Jane Street for a commercial run we had to negotiate for the rights to that song — and at the 12th hour, we still didn't have them. So, at that point in the conversation, Stephen finally said, "I'm going to go home and write something." This was literally just days before the show opened at the Jane Street. And he came back with this song, "Midnight Radio," which is certainly an anthem to late-night rockers all over the world. There were lots of kismet moments like that.  

Trask: They just looked at me like, "You've got to pull this one out." I had to do it. Literally, everyone was stumped. What I got from John was that the thing that he loved about doing "You Light Up My Life" was that he could just do sort of soaring vocals. I knew it needed to be poetic, so I came up with that opening melody and I went to a bookstore and just read poetry, because I knew I was putting together more of a poem than lyrics. And I listened to songs like "Instant Karma," in which singers were unabashedly singing these really big concepts in a rock song… I latched onto the idea of using the words "rock and rollers" and "rockers." Then I just holed myself up and wrote the song really fast.

The first time I sang it for everyone, I sang it wordlessly. I had written words, but I didn't know them… When we finally put the song in, it worked right away. But I remember it was the one time that Peter and I had a disagreement. He still wasn't sure it was going to work and asked, "Just in case we get the 'You Light Up My Life' thing back, because we're still trying for it, can we just list the last song as 'Finale?'" And I said: "No. It's going to be 'Midnight Radio.' It was the one thing I held onto, and I'm very glad I did.

Askin: The Jane Street Theatre was a unique space. We knew we needed a space that would really become the set for the show. It had a public restroom down stage right. There was a bar at the back of the Jane Street, and people were allowed to drink, so there was always somebody who didn't want to wait and needed to use the bathroom. And one day this poor guy got up. He thought he was out of the light, and he mostly was, but he got up at the same moment where John was in the audience doing a lap dance during "Sugar Daddy." So he was out in the house and this guy used that as an opportunity to go to the bathroom. Well, John spotted him and followed him into the bathroom — while still singing the song. Then he comes out and starts fluffing up his wig. And I swear to god, that poor guy must have waited another 20 minutes to come out of the bathroom. He missed a really good part of the show. You can't plan that sort of thing. And from that point on, all the other Hedwigs tried to find those moments. It sounds like that's what Neil Patrick Harris is doing, too — that he never breaks character. 

Shor: The Jane Street Theatre was this bizarre place on the West Side Highway in the Meatpacking District. So it was basically tranny hookers and meat — and us. This really happened — I want to say it was during the first preview, but it could be my brain just wanting it to be the first preview. As all of the people were outside waiting to get into the show, someone in the hotel had OD'd and died. So they were wheeling the body — in a body bag — past the audience. And the house manager asked, "Could you maybe not wheel the dead body past the people going into our show? Just let them go in and then wheel the dead body?"  The people were like, "No ma'am. This is a dead body." So it was sort of like, okay: Welcome to Hedwig! Ignore the dead body! It was an interesting start!

Mitchell: It was everything we wanted. It was never a big hit, it was always just a cult thing, just like the movie was never a hit. But the people who cared about it and found it later loved it more than anything. Then the press picked it up as a "cool" thing and suddenly celebrities started flocking. Hollywood people, rock and roll people; Barry Manilow, Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Marilyn Manson, David Bowie…. It was just everyone we loved who would never be seen together anywhere else. We were just thrilled. When Lou Reed came, that was it for us; I could have died and gone to heaven. He came to up to the dressing room and said we were beautiful and it was just amazing. And Bowie eventually helped to produce us in L.A. Even though we were freakish and the theater world didn't know what to do with us, the young people who didn't go to the theater were rushing. We were creating an audience that hadn't existed before. There were New Jersey moms coming 500 times, but also Mike Nichols and people that we loved from the Seventies. Robert Altman told me, "You've got a weird mind and there's not many of us left!" These were the people that we loved, and they got it. It really is a born of the 1970s kind of thing — Nashville and All that Jazz and Bob Fosse. It's a different aesthetic from the '80s and '90s. 

Lena Hall ("Yitzhak"): I'll never forget [the first time I saw Hedwig]. My sister and I randomly got tickets to go see the show one night. We knew nothing about it. By the end of the show, we were so involved in the story that we were sobbing and curled up on those big Jane Street Theatre car seats (or whatever they were) with our arms in the air completely touched and changed by the experience.

The cult infiltrates the mainstream
Mitchell: Suddenly, Atlantic Records wanted to do a big giant deal and get us on the radio. They must have spent a half-million dollars trying to get us some traction. But it wasn't the 1970s; it wasn't the time where "Bohemian Rhapsody" could've been a hit. They put us on MTV and all over the place, but I couldn't really tour. I would have loved it, but part of me was relieved, because I've always liked being the underdog. I like walking down the street. I also like making a living, but I think too much of anything ruins the party. 

Shor: It's always been a dark horse, but I feel like that's how it has to be. Because they chose to deal with a million subjects that people don't always want to deal with, like gender identity, and because they chose to make it uncomfortable in a great way and prickly — no pun intended — that if it had been a hit, then they'd be doing it wrong. Because to make a hit, everybody has to agree, "I'm right onboard with this from the get-go," and then it's not challenging enough.

Mitchell: Along the way, you sort of fantasize about what the movie could be. I remember playing to silent audiences Off-Broadway and thinking, "Well this might be what the film is like." Pretty soon, people were making noises about the film. It was a time where there was money around. So we had a bit of a bidding war. We were close to working with Danny DeVito's company [Jersey Films] and that fell out. But I was able to think about it and New Line Cinema felt like a home base, because I had been directed by Bob Shaye, who ran it. He came to the show and was really touched. We knew Michael De Luca, who was head of production. Stephen's uncle worked there, and Stephen's manager, so it just seemed like the place. 

They were on the ropes a bit with The Lord of the Rings, but they were so supportive and they gave us a budget that was more than anyone else would have. They said, "You have to play Hedwig. And we support you directing if that's what you want," which wasn't always the plan until it came time to direct it. I was interested in the other elements: How do you tell a story in a different way? I wasn't precious about the lines; we cut a lot of stuff and replaced it with visuals and that was the fun. I wanted to think about angles, I wanted to think about how the directors I loved — Fosse, Altman, Hal Ashby — would do it. I had an amazing cinematographer who was like a co-director, Frankie DeMarco. So when I was off acting he would make sure that the camera was pointed in the right direction. 

Shor: When people like Bowie and Joey Ramone go to your show, other people kind of want to see what it's about, too. And then Hollywood is just such a slut that she's like, "Well let me get in on this, too." So that started happening pretty early on; there was interest before the show closed. It was like: Well these people who are famous like it. So what should we do? Then some very smart people like Killer Films came along, and that was while we were still running. We opened the show in 1998 and didn't shoot the movie until 2000.

Then the movie came out and it flopped! Because there was nothing similar to it. The people who loved it were rabid. 9/11 happened soon after it came out, and I remember a lot of people said they saw it first on that day after 9/11, on September 12th, when all the movie theaters were free. A lot of people said it was a very emotional, very comforting experience to go in and see the show at that time.

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