Break out the glitter eyeliner: Hedwig is back, sort of. With a national tour called “The Origin of Love: Songs and Stories of Hedwig” (culminating at New York’s Town Hall this week, June 27-29), John Cameron Mitchell, the 56-year-old creator of the punk drag icon, is taking the stage for a kind of “Behind the Music” gig in which he’ll tell tales of the creation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 1998 Off-Broadway hit he wrote with co-songwriter Stephen Trask, which had a belated Broadway run in 2014. At one point Mitchell will reportedly re-don the famous Farrah-curled wig.
Hedwig is sort-of-back in another way. Mitchell’s new narrative podcast, Anthem: Homunculus, was originally conceived as a long-planned sequel to the musical. But the East German singer only lightly haunts this sprawling yet intimate 10-part musical audio tale, as it is mostly set in the same trailer in Junction City, Kans., where she previously lived. In her place are a new cast of characters, enacting a tale Mitchell calls “the cautionary autobiography of what I could have been” if he’d never left Kansas, where he was raised by a military father and a fiercely Catholic mother. The lead character and first-person narrator, voiced by Mitchell, is Ceann (pronounced “Key-Ann”), a sardonic gay recluse who’s live-streaming his life in an effort to crowd-fund his treatment for a brain tumor, while also taking care of his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, Maeve (voiced by Glenn Close); there’s a progressive aunt, a former nun, voiced by Patti LuPone; Jairo, a fearless South African biker, voiced by Nakhane; Joan the Baptist (Cynthia Erivo), a spreader of the gospel of Mary; and, in a memorable cameo, author William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), in whose actual Kansas house Mitchell and co-writer Bryan Weller worked on early drafts of the series’ script and music.
It’s hard to describe exactly what Mitchell is up to with Anthem (and hard, frankly, to find many folks who’s heard the whole thing, as it’s only available via Luminary, a paid-subscription podcast service). It is dark, funny, punny, consistently surprising, and overall riveting; it feels like a major work from a major American artist, albeit in a format that’s hard to parse or categorize. You might call it an original audio novel whose text happens to include a few dozen sensationally weird, tuneful new songs. And the uneasy, in-your-head intimacy of the audio-only form gives one of Mitchell’s specialties a stark spotlight: his puckish, affrontive insistence on finding the most tender, vulnerable spots in his characters and in us, and pushing on them, gently but insistently, until they yield humor, revelation, even catharsis.
I recently spoke to Mitchell (whose career in the interim has included the films Shortbus, Rabbit Hole, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties) about religion, porn, and Patti LuPone.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Does this mean the Hedwig sequel won’t happen?
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: I don’t think we’re going to be doing that. I was really more interested in talking about my own life, and Hedwig was just a convenient mouthpiece. Hedwig was about things that interested me and also about an emotional autobiography, but certainly the facts were not—that’s not my life.
This is a lot closer?
Yeah, pretty much all the characters but one are based on people in my life. My parents—this is almost a real snapshot of what they were like. It’s a kind of alternative autobiography.
I don’t want to do a spoiler, necessarily, but was there a death in your family when you were young, as there was with Ceann?
There was a lot of loss. My brother died at age four, and my father’s passed. My boyfriend’s death in 2004 was kind of an impetus for making this; there’s a character that’s inspired by him.
I don’t want to go beat by beat, but was your mother, like Maeve on the show, also a pro-life activist?
She was. She was also obsessed with appearances of the Virgin Mary around the world. She made friends with the visionaries who saw the Virgin Mary and painted those visions, though my mom could not see them.
But she wanted to.
Yeah. I think the Virgin Mary was a comforting force because she lost a son. The Marian movement in the Catholic Church is a fascinating one that has to do with feminism. It’s like the only way to kind of find your way, or has been, for women in the Catholic Church, which is an unapologetically sexist organization. And the Virgin Mary, a kind of tabula rasa in the Bible, is easy to project a lot of stuff onto. The Protestants saw the danger of that feminist outlet and shut it off—got rid of the saints and the Virgin Mary.
That phrase that’s part of the prayer, “Mother of God”—that’s a big title.
Yeah, Queen of Heaven, Mother of God.
If you really believe that, it is like a co-equal mother force.
A lot of characters in this piece have this connection to a kind of mother goddess, including my aunt, who’s played by Patti LuPone; she has a whole song about how before God there was a mother. Cynthia Erivo plays a character named Joan the Baptist, who is spreading the gospel of the Virgin Mary.
You seem, in general, interested in origin stories, creation myths.
Yeah. Growing up Catholic, obviously it’s full of myth and parable. I loved ancient European myth and I loved comic books, which kind of came out of that. Hedwig’s origin came from the origin of love myth, from Plato, which was a philosopher’s story rather than a religious one.
Also the idea of ritual, of myth, of metaphor. In Episode Three I confront the Benedictine monk who may have molested my character. And he says, “I didn’t violate you the way you thought. I impregnated you, though, with the idea of metaphor,” something that represents something else. Queer people, or people who have to hide something about themselves, understand metaphor before other people. A little five-year-old queer kid who feels like he has to hide something about himself knows what metaphor is. It’s the beginning of camp and the beginning of human rights politics. All of these things come out of understanding that there’s surface and then there’s true nature. Which many people who grew up getting everything they needed don’t see.
Do you feel able to embrace a metaphor even when it comes from an oppressive, hierarchical place, or was designed to erase or silence you?
You can use it as a weapon, and you can use it as a shield. My aunt, the one that Patti LuPone plays a version of, is a nun who’s super liberal, is very feminist, very pro-queer, very environmentalist. Her emails would be signed with the sentence, “The ultimate pro-life gesture is care of the earth.” Don’t fuck with celibate lesbians, because they will change the world.
Were you at one point a little believer, and then did you turn at some point?
I was brought up very Catholic and it was a comfort to me, moving around as we did. Then my brother, as in the podcast, passed away, and I think that was the beginning of the end of a certain kind of God. Because I remember praying for him to survive and I saw no purpose in that. And that “God works in mysterious ways” thing did not work for me at 14. And then, growing up queer, pubescence nailed the last nail into the coffin. But it stays with you, that kind of stuff. I try to use the good stuff.
Do you feel like Hedwig was ahead of its time? Some of the language it uses about gender is different from what we use today, admittedly. But as you revisit the material, do you feel like it was at the vanguard, or was a precursor, of our current moment of greater gender-fluidity and trans awareness?
I guess so. That’s what some people have said. I had heroes who were what we might call non-binary today. I think if I was 14 now I would identify as non-binary. I coined a term, “the binarchy,” which to me is like deciding you have to be this if you’re male and that if you’re female. All kinds of people believe that, queer and otherwise, but the evidence, if we really look at ourselves, is that there’s quite a continuum of what society calls male and female. There’s cultural, there’s environmental, and there’s family stuff that teaches what gender is as well as just our body.
But Hedwig was not a person who was searching for that. He was very comfortable in his gay maleness and was seeking love. To find freedom and to find his art, he was convinced by a controlling boyfriend and conniving mom that a sex change was the solution. So it was kind of a mutilation by the patriarchy, by the binarchy.
It’s not a happy transgender triumph, in other words.
I don’t see Hedwig as trans at all. It was forced on him. Hansel, who is just looking for love, is subjected to mutilation by the government. The true transformation comes after that, which is: I have this wig, I have this makeup, I have these songs. What can I make of what I’m given? That’s when Hedwig is born as the performer. That’s drag, that’s self-creation, which is different from trans. So she’s not trans, though transformation is, of course, a vital tool to our finding out who we are. I’m gratified that people—straight, queer, gay, trans, non-binary, whatever—find that they can identify with this person who was raped by life, mutilated by life, and is climbing out of the darkness, out of the bitterness, out of the victimhood into a place of “this is me.” At the end, even the drag is gone.
Do you feel like Hedwig is beyond gender at the show’s last moment? I’ve always been both thrilled and confused by the ending.
When you’re young, you need a label. The government and corporations need a label so they can sell to you. Eventually we forget what we are. Right? We start out needing that label ’cause it’s like: I don’t know who I am, I gotta get away from my parents, I am this. Then it changes in about five years and then you’re this. And then you have kids and you forget what you were and you’re a parent.
Like the ages of man from Jaques’s speech. Speaking of Shakespeare, I heard Glenda Jackson talking about playing King Lear, and how as we get older, gender kind of…
Disappears. Old couples, straight couples, kind of melt into the same gender; they wear the same clothes. And you know, among friends, you can forget that you’re gay or whatever. It doesn’t matter. In the end you are a gender of one. But along the way you need help, you need labels, you need tribes.
Right. But there’s also a struggle to get to a place where that doesn’t matter, which is a kind of privilege.
It’s a great privilege, and if you can’t triumph over the people who don’t like the complexity of life, the variation of the human condition—terrible things can happen. We have a great luxury to be able to forget. But ultimately I think the tribalism can also be a self-fulfilling endless conflict. I don’t really identify as gay anymore. I mean, I am, but it’s like, I don’t relate to what is considered mainstream gay anymore. And I’m too old to switch to non-binary. I can’t be bothered, but I admire the people who can, because they’re shifting the mindset of people who say it has to be one or the other.
The music is extraordinary, I must say. It’s great to hear you sing again.
Bryan Weller is the musical genius.
He did the music and you the words?
I’m more melody and lyrics.
Well, the melodies are great, too.
I love a hook.
I guess I hadn’t realized how much I missed your voice—not just your singing voice but your voice as a writer. Again, I know you’ve been writing and doing other things, but since Hedwig it feels we haven’t had the full John Cameron Mitchell experience till now.
Yeah, this feels like the next thing. Shortbus was very from the heart too, and not something that was easily digested by some. Even my peers. Many of my peers never saw it.
Because it had real sex in it?
Well, they’d been trained. I mean, they can go there in their life. That’s what I remind them: If you have sex in your life, with all the complexity that involves, why must it be avoided in a narrative story? It’s because porn has taken it and simplified it and flattened it. And America was founded by Puritans, of course.
Porn is one thing, and then there’s storytelling.
But people can’t tell the difference. If it’s explicit they define it as porn. Which is funny, because that implies that the sex they’re having with their lovers is porn, as opposed to something full-fledged and complex, and boring and funny and everything that it is. Porn is just a slice of it. I like good porn, but there’s a lot of bad porn.
So with Homunculus it feels like I’m going deep into myself for the first time, even deeper than Hedwig, but using the vernacular stuff that I’ve been developing with Hedwig and Shortbus and other things to tell it. I’m diving deeper but I have more chops after these few years. Even being in it was not that important, but it was convenient to do it with me. But whenever I would come up with a good line, I’d try to give to another actor.
You’ve got some good lines, though. Like, “It’s the unloved who change the world.”
I know, isn’t that weird? It’s true. It’s the unloved who change the world—the dissatisfied and the unloved. There was a line that was cut where I say, “The archconservative and the arch-liberal both got shit on by their dad. The only difference was the conservative thought he deserved it.”
Last question: Is it true that you were considering Patti LuPone to go into the Broadway run of Hedwig?
We did ask her, but we closed before she could answer.
A lot of different kinds of folks have played Hedwig over the years. Do you follow productions of it, or go to see it when you can?
I mean, I don’t feel the need to see it. I don’t control it. I’m happy to let people do what they want with the production. If they want to have five Hedwigs, whatever. I’m not a control-y guy.
There were 10 Hedwigs in San Francisco, one for every song.
Yeah. It’s like, everyone is Hedwig. You can put the wig on.
That’s right, you once told me that it’s like being a Ramone, where if you just changed your last name to Ramone, you were a Ramone. If you put on the wig, you’re Hedwig.
It’s drag. Iggy Pop used to shout from the stage, “I am you!” So Hedwig is what you make it.