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Hedwig Goes From Stage to Big Screen

July 18, 2001

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NEW YORK (AP) _ Can Hedwig, ``the internationally ignored song stylist″ yet the darling of Hedheads everywhere, make the jump from small stage to big screen?

We’re referring, of course, to the gender-bent rock chanteuse at the center of ``Hedwig and the Angry Inch,″ the cult off-Broadway musical starring John Cameron Mitchell that played for two years in the dilapidated ballroom of an ancient Greenwich Village hotel.

Written by Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask, ``Hedwig″ was an unlikely hit fashioned out of a strange story: a tale of obsession, glam rock, a botched sex-change operation (hence ``the Angry Inch″) and a quest for identity. Even more unlikely, when time came for a movie version, the powers that be at Fine Line Features let its creators make the film with no interference.

``How did they let us get away with this?,″ laughs Mitchell, who not only wrote the movie, but directed and stars as the transsexual Hedwig, whose massive mane of blond hair makes him _ er, her _ resemble Rum Tum Tugger in ``Cats.″

In real life, the close-cropped, 38-year-old Mitchell looks a decade younger. He’s boyish, almost elfin in a white T-shirt and jeans at odds with his surroundings, a swank Park Avenue hotel-restaurant where the discreet murmur of deal-making businessmen fills the air.

``The stage show started out small,″ Mitchell says, recalling his early work with Trask.

``It was a very homemade kind of thing,″ chimes in Trask, more shaggy but as satorically downscale as his ``Hedwig″ collaborator. ``We didn’t have producers. We didn’t have backers. We did it on our own.″

On their own meant performing at the Squeezebox, an East Village drag club, where Trask played with his band and Mitchell began experimenting with a character that would eventually evolve into Hedwig.

This exotic creature had her distant origins in a German warbride Mitchell knew back in Kansas, one of the many places he lived because his father was an Army general, relocating every three years.

When ``Hedwig″ went legit, moving off-Broadway in February 1998 to the Jane Street Theatre, it attracted rave reviews and its own set of groupies called Hedheads, including one woman who saw the musical more than 450 times during its New York run.

Let’s see if we can describe the plot for family audiences. Hansel, a young German boy in Berlin, falls for an American Army sergeant, gets that gender switch (which, alas, goes only halfway) and comes to America where he’s dumped in a Kansas trailer park. There Hansel, now Hedwig, meets Tommy Gnosis, the son of an Army general, who not only steals Hedwig’s heart but her rock songs as well. Tommy becomes a star, while Hedwig languishes.

The stage version has Hedwig falling apart during a one-night gig; the movie opens things up. Hedwig and her Angry Inch Band travel the country, stalking Tommy’s major stadium tour but playing decidedly downscale venues. Hedwig and company perform in a series of chain seafood restaurants where the middle-age customers stare in disbelief at the band’s antics and Hedwig’s glitter drag.

``There’s something so pathetic about an underfunded rock tour,″ says Trask in describing the comic desperation they wanted to convey on film.

For the screenplay, Mitchell went through various rewrites of old ``Hedwig″ scripts, looking at jokes and bits of stage business that might appear better if shown visually. He added characters who didn’t appear on stage, including Hedwig’s agent, played in the movie by Andrea Martin, and the baby-faced Tommy, portrayed by Michael Pitt.

In 1999, Mitchell was invited to the Sundance Filmmakers Lab in Utah to learn about movie directing. ``They give you a full set, a crew and editing facilities,″ he says.

``The point of the lab was to figure out whether I could direct the movie version _ or if I even wanted to do it,″ Mitchell explains. He found he did.

The movie, filmed last year in Toronto, went back to Sundance in January, winning the film festival’s Audience Award as well as the best director prize for Mitchell.

``The movie really is the stage version refined,″ says Mitchell. ``The structure of the film is not that far off from the play: basically a flashback, with a mini-concert of five or six songs in a row, at the end. The details are painted in by the designers and by having other actors.″

Trask’s score is pretty much the same, too, according to the composer, although he wanted to make sure the music in the movie sounded like what the band was going to look like, a little postpunk and gritty. ``So it’s a little rougher around the edges,″ he adds.

``Hedwig″ has been a large part of Mitchell’s life for nearly five years. Yet he had an extensive stage career before the ``Angry Inch,″ as well as movie and television work.

After graduating from Northwestern, he hit Broadway as an understudy Huck Finn in ``Big River″ in the mid 1980s and then went into John Guare’s ``Six Degrees of Separation.″ In 1991, he got good reviews as Dickon, the puckish proprietor of nature in a musical adaptation of the children’s classic ``The Secret Garden.″

The following year he played the younger version of the AIDs-infected hero in Larry Kramer’s autobiographical drama ``The Destiny of Me.″ In 1994, he portrayed a seductive boy called the Young Thing in ``Hello Again,″ a series of romantic and sexual encounters set to the music of Michael John LaChiusa.

Now Mitchell is ready to let go of ``Hedwig and the Angry Inch.″ ``I’m quite ready to walk off, like a child to college,″ he says. ``I can always visit at holidays.″


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