A gender-bender's agenda

A rock musical about a botched sex-change operation was a cult hit in America. As a new version opens in London, Fred Bernstein spoke to creator John Cameron Mitchell
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The Independent Culture

'I'm too hyped-up to have coffee," says John Cameron Mitchell, who is taking a break from editing the movie version of his rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mitchell is small, delicate-seeming, and surprisingly soft-spoken. Nothing like Hedwig, a drag queen who could grind coffee beans in her cleavage. Except that, as it turns out, on the inside Hedwig is as soft (and probably as loose) as a wet tea bag.

'I'm too hyped-up to have coffee," says John Cameron Mitchell, who is taking a break from editing the movie version of his rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mitchell is small, delicate-seeming, and surprisingly soft-spoken. Nothing like Hedwig, a drag queen who could grind coffee beans in her cleavage. Except that, as it turns out, on the inside Hedwig is as soft (and probably as loose) as a wet tea bag.

The stage version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch - a smash hit in New York, which has just opened in the West End - follows this "internationally ignored song stylist" (picture David Bowie in a Dolly Parton wig) through her comeback gig at a dilapidated theatre. Between songs, she relates the story of her life. "I'm wide open," she announces, ostensibly of her emotional accessibility. And then, when there's applause: "I always like a warm hand on my opening."

It's only fitting that Mitchell, 37, is unleashing Hedwig - a sequined, microphone-chewing force of nature - on the UK. The show may well be his revenge on the "cut-rate Catholic boarding school" in North Berwick, where he says he got his feminine side beaten out of him in the early 1970s.

Mitchell couldn't make it to London - he's spending his time in an editing room above the Tribeca Grill in Lower Manhattan, where the movie is taking shape (it will debut at the Sundance Festival in Utah early next year).

But he probably wouldn't have taken the role anyway. He's ready to move on; after eight years of wearing fishnet stockings, he is truly, good-naturedly happy to encourage other Hedwigs. Michael Cerveris (who is taking the London role) is one of his favourites, Mitchell says. "He has a rock star quality that I never had. My performance is small compared to his." Plus, as a comic, he says, "Michael has come up with some lines that I ended up using myself.

"He's done it almost as long as I have," adds Mitchell. "The wigs have started growing into his scalp."

Then there's Mitchell's "London problem". The last time he performed here, it was in Genet's Splendid's, at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1995. The show was a flop, and it was uncomfortable, he says, "being far from home in something that wasn't admired".

Creating Hedwig was the classic struggling-actor career move: write yourself the role of a lifetime, and hope that someone comes to see you. Mitchell developed the character over a period of years, performing in restaurants, neighbours' living rooms - anywhere they'd let him. Heels and lipstick were brand new to him; in fact, he says, he hadn't been in a dress since playing the Virgin Mary in the school nativity. "Drag is a little scary, especially for a gay man who's not comfortable with his feminine side," he says. But he had themes he wanted to explore - mostly about the lifelong search to find one's other half - and why not explore it from the perspective of a male-to-female transsexual in love with the boy he couldn't be?

The story that took shape concerns a boy named Hansel, born in East Germany and confused about his gender; he is picked up by an American soldier, who promises to take him back to the US as soon as he becomes a she. But the operation is botched - leaving Hedwig with the "Angry Inch" of the title - and the "slip of a girly-boy" ends up alone in a trailer park in Kansas. There, Hedwig mentors a sullen teenage boy, who emerges as the punk star Tommy Gnosis. Now, while a bitter Hedwig copes with chintzy costumes, a sullen boyfriend, and an agent who doesn't even bother showing up, Tommy is performing triumphantly in a stadium across the river. Every once in a while, Hedwig opens the stage door to get some air, and the cheers of Tommy's fans practically knock her over (one of the many gags in the bittersweet drama).

But the story needed a score. Mitchell's writing partner, Stephen Trask, gave him a series of tunes that run the gamut of rock genres - from acid to country - and move the story along without sacrificing their "rockness".

"The show has a lot of elements that I associate with London," says Mitchell, "especially the whole Bowie-esque, glam-rock milieu." Indeed, Hedwig requires a gritty urban context, which may explain why - despite good reviews - it had trouble finding an audience in LA. (Among the producers of the West Coast production was David Bowie, who had fallen in love with Hedwig in New York.) Then again, the first time I saw Mitchell perform, in the ballroom of an old hotel on the border of Manhattan's meat packing district (then just on the verge of chic), the audience included Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell - about as Hollywood as a couple can get.

By the time Hedwig got its first rave from the New York Times ("How do you solve a problem like Hedwig? You sit back and enjoy her show") in 1998, it was already a cult hit - which gave Mitchell the clout to get the movie funded. He knew he'd star, but took a lot of time deciding whether to direct. Eventually, he figured, he had to be in charge.

As the big-screen Hedwig, he had to let his vanity go. "You can see every pore, every drop of sweat - and not just the pretty sweat. I hope my beard doesn't show through too much." A month after the end of shooting, his hair is starting to return to its natural dark brown - only the bangs are still blond (from the dye-job that made it easier for his Hed-wigs to blend in).

As for the stage production, Mitchell says: "London is the English-speaking theatre capital. It's important to me how it's received there."

But for him, the show has already served its purpose. "Doing Hedwig totally contributed to my acceptance of myself," he says. At the Catholic school, "they thought they were beating the girl out of me, never to return," he says. Little did they know.

'Hedwig and the Angry Inch': Playhouse Theatre, WC2 (020 7839 4401) to 11 November

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