“You must come to my room,” a handsome stranger commanded John Cameron Mitchell, the writer and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one night after the show. Mitchell, who politely declined his suitor – an Israeli hustler who inhabited the hotel above the theater – was no stranger to groupies. After playing a wholesome dreamboat in The Secret Garden, the actor was besieged by smitten 14-year-old girls. Now, with Hedwig, a musical about an East German drag queen whose sex-change operation was less than a complete success, he is seducing an even more varied crowd, from blue-haired East Side ladies to blue-haired East Village types as well as a stream of celebrities from both coasts. Parker Posey has seen the show four times, Glenn Close twice. David Bowie blew off the Grammys for a night with Hedwig, an actress-model on each arm; Danny DeVito scaled six flights of stairs to meet the young phenomenon; Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson made out as Mitchell sang a love song (“I took it as a compliment,” he says).
You’d never know to look at him that the 35-year-old actor would drive preteen girls, punk-rockers, movie stars, and male prostitutes to near distraction. Or that he’d do it with such an eccentric vehicle – the story of a man-made woman-creature in exile from her country, soul mate, and self that unfolds nightly on a stage carved out of the former ballroom of the decrepit Hotel Riverview.
I almost don’t recognize Mitchell when he walks in for our meeting. Stripped of his wig and skintight black ensemble, he looks all of 15, wholesome as Tom Sawyer, small and slender, a little shy. “People are shocked when they see him,” says Hedwig’s musical creator, Stephen Trask. “He’s enormous on that stage.”
Mitchell’s flair for transformations may have been ingrained from birth. Born in El Paso, Texas, to an army general and his devout Scottish wife, Mitchell moved around so much he has only “strobelike memories” of his past. As a child he liked to sing but preferred writing to performing – though he did play the Virgin Mary in a musical production in his all-boys boarding school. “It was a big part,” he explains. At 10, living in Scotland, he listened to glam rock, terrified by David Bowie’s “scary mixture of masculine and feminine” but fascinated by “the dressing-up. I was brought up very Catholic, so I dressed up a lot.” Not as a girl: “In flowing things, like priests and pirates.”
Signs of what Mitchell calls his “fringelike, adversarial” bent were evident early on. He recalls performing an interpretive dance to Fleetwood Mac at a school talent show. “There was a mimed crucifixion … We didn’t win.” Later, he enlisted his prescient mother to direct him in a production of Hay Fever, though “she didn’t cast me in the part I wanted,” he says. “I wanted to be the diplomat. She cast me as the fag.”
Mitchell was a student at Northwestern in the eighties when he received a surprise summons from New York: An agent who’d seen a picture of him as Huck Finn in American Theatre magazine asked the teenager to audition to understudy for Big River. “Just a picture,” marvels Mitchell. “It’s so unlikely nowadays.” Mitchell left college for Broadway, but understudying soon proved underwhelming for the 19-year-old, and the city scared him. He fled to Los Angeles, which scared him even more: “Soulless. Spread out. Low standards. There’s a lot of ‘You’re the best actor we’ve seen!’ and then they cast some pretty boy.” He returned to Broadway in 1990 to do Six Degrees of Separation and stayed to win praise and prizes in a variety of theater roles – every girl’s dream brother in The Secret Garden, a slinky toy-boy in Hello Again, an implausibly likable Larry Kramer in The Destiny of Me. All along he did sitcoms, voice-overs, and commercials to finance a pet project: the play that would turn into Hedwig.
He met the man who was to become his collaborator on a flight to L.A. Trask, a rock musician and composer, had been leading the house band at Squeezebox, a celebrated SoHo club that had spawned a gender-bending rock scene. “We were united by a common aesthetic right from the beginning,” Trask recalls. “John was the only other person on the plane who didn’t have his headset on watching When Harry Met Sally.” The two men saw each other’s work and decided to create a new kind of performance: a play that translated the visceral charge of live rock into theater that wasn’t watered down or sanitized. Mitchell, inspired by Platonic theories on love and gender, invented Hedwig, basing the character partially on a childhood babysitter he later realized was a prostitute; Trask set her life to music.
The broken diva made her debut at Squeezebox, where the club’s drag queens, wary of strangers, gave her a cool reception. “Getting them to accept John on that stage was Hedwig’s first big struggle,” says Trask. Undaunted, Mitchell became a regular at the club, channeling and refining Hedwig before an eclectic crowd.
Trask and Mitchell tinkered with Hedwig for four years, all the while struggling to find the show a permanent home. They were dismissed by virtually every theater they approached. “We’ve always been sort of the ugly kid on the block,” says Mitchell. A limited run at the Westbeth had an ideal cabaret ambience but didn’t get reviewed in time to keep Hedwig alive. Futilely hunting down a new venue and producers, the two found themselves considering a dinner theater at a Wall Street steakhouse when Mitchell stumbled on to the Riverview, once home to Titanic survivors and, rumor has it, Herman Melville. Its cheery decadence matched Hedwig’s.
From its opening at Riverview’s Jane Street Theater, the play garnered the kind of over-the-top accolades not seen since Rent debuted in 1996. “It crosses every line,” says actor John Heard, who was surprised to find himself “entranced” by what he assumed would be another camp drag revue: “I fell in love with Hedwig – I wanted to marry Hedwig. I don’t see how anybody could walk out of this play without being totally affected and moved and changed.”
Three months into its run, the play Glenn Close calls “an orgy of talent” is selling out every night. Pleased if exhausted, Mitchell is ready to let someone else climb into Hedwig’s oversize heels, though he and Trask are currently working on film and record versions. “I always had a strange premonition at any given moment that things would happen,” Mitchell says. “But I never knew quite what shape they would take.”