Every step of the way has been new ground for the performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an off-Broadway production that tells the story of an aspiring East German rocker whose sex-change operation goes awry. The edgy subject matter of the gender-bending rock musical, combined with its high-volume musical score, even necessitated that the producers create their own theater space for the play.
Although musically its brand of rock doesnt break new groundHedwig is Bowie-esque power pop at its best, owing much to the genre it unabashedly adoresStephens Trasks score is powerful and lyrical enough to carry the strange, delightful tale about a twisted sister craving rock stardom in a way that leaves the usual clichés behind.
Hedwig is well on its way to becoming a Rocky Horror-like cult institution with repeat audiences jamming the small Greenwich Village Jane Street Theater nightly to cheer actor/writer John Cameron Mitchells scarred (emotionally and physically) yet ultimately lovable character. A recent, national Hedwig look-alike contest drew hundreds of participants.
Besides the release the soundtrack album, Hedwig is also headed for the screen with a Mitchell and Trask signing on for a New Line Cinema production.
Another unexpected-but-effective element in the production is the appearance of Detroit actress, Miriam Shor. Shor, a Ferndale High and 1993 University of Michigan graduate, who has previously seen service in such mainstream productions as Threepenny Opera and Fiddler on the Roof where she was cast in decidedly feminine roles. However, in Hedwig, she is Yitzak, a bearded, Croatian ex-drag queen, who has come to the U.S. with her lover, but under the condition she never do drag again.
The Metro Times spoke to Shor at her New York City apartment shortly before a performance.
Metro Times: Is Hedwig a gay or drag play?
Miriam Shor: No. John Cameron Mitchell is not a drag queen; hes an actor playing that role. Its about a transsexual so he does perform the whole show in drag. However, the themes of the story are universal and thats surprising to many people who see it and end up loving it.
MT: What interested you in the role? It seems so out of character from your previous stage experiences.
Shor: Initially it was just a role my agent suggested I audition for. He said we have this show with Mitchell, whos well-known in New York for movies and television, and the role is a man played by a woman, who is roadie and backup singer for Hedwig, and very, very bitter about it. Since Ive lived my entire life as a woman and intend to do so for the rest of it, Im not quite sure what they saw in me originally.
MT: When the Hedwig troupe performed on the David Letterman Show, did people realize what gender you actually are?
Shor: Well, Afterward, Letterman came over to say "Hi," but didnt realize I was a woman. He was freaked out, but he also thought it was hilarious. He knew John was a man, but he didnt know that I was a woman because I look like a guy.
The original idea was not to fool people into thinking I was a man. I was a woman playing a man and you suspend your disbelief because youre at the theater. Then, I started to put on a beard and people would say, "I had no idea throughout the show that you were a woman." I sing all the back-up vocals in my own voice, but people would say, "I thought you were a guy with an incredible voice." At the very end, I come out as a woman and you can see a look on some peoples faces as their jaws just drop. Its interesting to challenge peoples perception of sexuality. I can so easily fool them and theyre sitting 10 feet away from me.
Originally, I auditioned for the role in a workshop where there was no character yet, just a written page; no one had ever performed it, and they didnt know what they were looking for. They just thought it would interesting to turn the tables and have a female play a male on stage just to confuse things more.
MT: How did you pick up the heavy, male characteristics you employ in the role so successfully?
Shor: It came partly out of how embittered the character is theres an inherent heaviness to Yitzak. But then there was this guy in high school; I dont know whether he was really a specific guy or a guy thats taken on those characteristics in my mind. He wears a Metallica T-shirt, huge combat boots, long hair, and swaggers down the hallways. You know theres something sensitive going on inside him, but hes just gotta be this "guy" walking down the hall in order to protect himself.
MT: How does it feel to play the role on stage?
Shor: Its pretty powerful. I wear these humongous boots which help. Theyre a couple of sizes too big and come up to my knees and give me this grounded feeling. I thought it would be funny if Yitzaks own mentor, in a way, was Axl Rose from Guns N Roses. Were playing these Eastern Bloc musicians on stage and its really interesting what their version of American rock n roll is.
MT: Hedwig has been compared in reviews to David Bowies Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars production? Does John Cameron Mitchell appreciate that or not?
Shor: David Bowie is Johns favorite. Bowie came to see the show and loved it, and hes mentioned in the script. Hedwig listens to American rock and roll in his apartment in East Berlin including crypto-homo rockers like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Bowie. Reed came to see the show as well.
MT: The androgyny of those performers and the ambiguities they suggest seems expanded in Hedwig beyond just sexuality.
Shor: Its purposely cryptic and ambiguous at certain moments, but the play is completely human. Its certainly strange; nothing like what Ive ever experienced. It contains the idea that were all looking for our other half, or the idea that what we come to in life is imposed on us and although we didnt necessarily choose it, were now working our way through it to find meaning. These are universal themesplus its a rockin good show.
Theres a wonderful song at the end of the show, Midnight Radio, which is a celebration of what rock n roll can give to people. When you listen to a song and its lyrics (and, occasionally the rock n roll lyrics arent incredibly deep), a song can still mean something intensely personal and universal at the same time.
MT: That certainly seems true in the sound track recording, Origin of Love, track.
Shor: John Cameron Mitchell asked Stephen Trask if he would read Platos Symposium, and in particular the section that discusses where love came from, and write a song about it. Trask told me later, that the only way he could do this was to write it lyrically similar to a Dr. Seuss story.
MT: Given the shows popularity, can you envision it ever being on Broadway?
Shor: I actually hope it wouldnt only because theres something challenging about this piece. People are uncomfortable with some of the subject matter since it deals with things they are unfamiliar with or close-minded about. It wouldnt be edgy if there was mainstream acceptance of it.
MT: The only song on the album not in the show is Random Number Generation which Stephen Trask wrote specifically for you for the sound track recording.
Shor: Stephen said that since Im on stage the whole time, you get a sense of who my character is but on the album you only hear my backup vocals. He thought it would be interesting to have a song expressing the anger and frustration of this character so people who are just listening to the album would understand. When he first played it for me, I loved the song, but wasnt quite sure what it meant.
When we went in to record it, I was sitting there in a little sound booth with my headphones on trying to get myself to place where I could do it justice and I started to understand it a little more.
It deals with the labels other people put on you or the confines they put you in. A whole generation was named Generation X or somethinggiving you this random number. Not only do you not know who you are because youre a young generation, but you never will because weve just been given this random number. Its an angry outcry against that kind of dissuasive or confusing labeling. To assign a random number to an entire generation takes away all individuality. Peter Werbe is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]