From Soho’s clubland to Off Broadway to London’s West End to Broadway, the musical tale and stage success of Hedwig –a genderqueer East German singer struck by surgical blunders and existential dilemmas – has moved since its official 1998 start, from cult status to the mainstream, amazing and enthralling audiences without losing its DIY underground feel or appeal.
According to composer Stephen Trask, the co-creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the leader of its original staging’s live band, that was the point all along: to challenge identity and gender divisions, to uplift queer culture and make rock and roll a safe space for all things nonbinary. How Trask and singer, actor and Hedwig co-creator John Cameron Mitchell got there in the first place is the subject of Return to The Origin of Love: The Songs and Stories of Hedwig which takes over Town Hall (123 West 43rd Street, between 6th Ave and Broadway) for a two-night stand, December 29 and 30. (http://thetownhall.org/upcoming).
The dryly humorous Trask has had a busy pandemic season before coming back to the stage to for Return to The Origin of Love.
Though his most recently-written musical, a version of Martin Scorsese’s Robert DeNiro/Jerry Lewis 1982 film, The King of Comedy, is on hold due to changes in producer and director (“We parted ways with the first director because he never showed up for the first reading”), Trask did just appear as himself in fellow theater maker Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new Netflix film Tick. Tick….BOOM!.
Adapting the autobiographical tale of the late, great Jonathan Larson (the author/composer of Rent) into cinema, Miranda speckled his BOOM! film with real life theater practitioners such as Stephen Schwartz, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, the late Stephen Sondheim (as a voice on a phone), and Trask – the latter of whom goes by in a blur of faces.
“Lin thought it would be fun if real and recognizable people from the world of musical theater took part in the shoot, so we started filming during pre-vaccine Covid, and it was like we worked for NASA, going into a clean room before getting on a rocket to the moon,” jokes Trask. “We were wrapped up like astronauts…. It was not normal, but it was fun.”
Trask also talks about the road show versions that he has witnessed of Hedwig such as a recent run in Lexington, Kentucky where a “drag queen who had studied theater and opera” took on the leading role. “It was an extremely queer version of the role… going forward that is important to me, having the show be as queer as ours was, because we were queer and we were punk.” Thinking of the future of staging Hedwig, Trask says that he would love to see the musical again re-staged for Broadway. “I’d even like it to come back to Broadway with Neil (Patrick Harris, the Hedwig of the Great White Way’s 2014 revival). Like the Lexington version, Hedwig needs a real show-person at its front, someone who can juggle all the balls. Plus, the audiences now are so much cooler than I am. That never used to be the case.”
Going back to BOOM!’s collection of Broadway greats, thinking of Trask and Mitchell as part of musical theater’s grand tradition when they were once themselves punk rock kids is daunting. “So often, directors and producers don’t seem to get me or my writing,” says Trask with a laugh. “It’s not like it was back then, like being an outsider. When I make an intentional decision as to where a song should go, I still don’t think most theater people understand where my process comes from… Then again, there is part of the theater community that loves Hedwig and celebrates it – probably for all the same reasons that the people who hate us, hate us, or hate my work.”
When it comes to the Return to The Origin of Love’s two nights at Town Hall, Trask and Mitchell can expect nothing but love from Hedwig’s devoted cult followers and mainstream musical aficionados in their telling of the show’s history.
“Our audience remembers and craves the history of that time,” says Trask, first of the glam and punk rock histories of New York City – of Lou Reed, of Richard Hell – that begat Hedwig. “We started thinking of doing Return to The Origin of Love because John wanted to go on the road, and weave a narrative about that show. People are interested in our history with this show If Tick. Tick….. BOOM! is an alternate telling of Jonathan Larson’s life, our Return show in as alternate telling of Hedwig, about the writing of a musical. Because our songs work as concert songs, it’s a natural, and it’s unusual. Hedwig didn’t come out of a commission or an adaptation. Hedwig came out of our lives, what we were doing and thinking back then. We came through the back door to get to Broadway. People love hearing that story.”