John Cameron Mitchell’s forthcoming Australian tour is officially called The Origin of Love: The Songs and Stories of Hedwig, but the actor, writer and director is referring to it as his “mum tour”.
“One of the reasons I’m doing it is to help pay for my mum’s Alzheimer’s care,” he says. “And to have a good time, of course.”
It might surprise his fans to know that Mitchell – whose new, Nicole Kidman-starring sci-fi movie How to Talk to Girls at Parties is released in the US this week – could be short on cash. But healthcare in his native USA can be extraordinarily expensive, and while he might’ve achieved legendary status in certain film and theatre circles for his cult hits Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, Mitchell has a tendency to embark on projects that aren’t particularly commercial – or at least don’t seem that way until a few years down the line.
He wrote Hedwig and the Angry Inch – the story of an East German genderqueer singer who travels to America for love, success and connection – with composer Stephen Trask in the mid-1990s as an Off Broadway rock musical. Hedwig was very much an underdog when it premiered in 1998, but in 2001 was turned into a film directed by and starring Mitchell. The show’s popularity grew in the ensuing years with productions around the world.
“It’s almost like a child that keeps surprising us with her achievements,” Mitchell says. “It came out from our loins, but it grows on its own.”
Over the years, Mitchell has had plenty of chances to see other actors step into the role with which he’ll always be associated. He’s seen a production in Brazil were two actors played Hedwig the entire time. He’s seen another in San Francisco with ten Hedwigs.
“It’s very relaxing to see somebody else in the role because I don’t have to do it,” he says. “Who wouldn’t be chuffed to have someone care enough about your work to want to do it? I’ve never been controlling about it – I don’t micromanage, I just urge people to make it their own.”
One of those performers was iOTA, who won a Helpmann Award for playing Hedwig in the original Australian production. Although Mitchell wasn’t able to travel to Australia at the time, he’s watched videos of iOTA in the role and says the Australian performer is “spectacular”.
The show finally made it to Broadway in 2014 (where it won two Tony Awards) with Neil Patrick Harris in the title role. Not long into the Broadway run – once Harris’s star power had made the production a hit – Mitchell stepped back in and donned Hedwig’s trademark Farrah Fawcett-esque wig.
“Doing the play on Broadway, different things moved me,” he says. “It was less about the rejection of Tommy [the young singer who breaks Hedwig’s heart], but I was more connected with ‘Midnight Radio’, which is the song that brings everybody together. It’s the ‘after the battle’ song – it’s the healing song.”
That’s part of what inspired Mitchell to put this show together, in which he won’t play Hedwig but will channel some of her unstoppable energy as he opens up about his life at the time of writing – including his relationship with the late Jack Steeb, who was the bass player in Stephen Trask’s band. He’ll be performing plenty of songs from the show, including one outtake that’s never been performed live before.
Of course, there’ll be drag: a wig designed by Mike Potter, the man behind Hedwig’s trademark look, and a costume that will evolve over the course of the performance, by artist Erik Bergrin.
“It’s going to be a free-form party centring on the making of Hedwig, but loose enough that anything can happen,” he says. “If the play was in the form of a rock show, this will actually be a rock show.”
It will be Mitchell’s first visit to Australia, and he says he’s looking forward to connecting with local audiences who have taken the material to heart.
“You can see things in people’s eyes when they listen to it – certain things in a song mean different things to them, and that feeds your performance as well. The audience helps me to understand the show in different ways.”
Mitchell also believes the meaning and significance of Hedwig the character changes as the political climate shifts.
“The world has got a bit darker,” Mitchell says. “As some things get better, other people panic and want to close the borders and die homogenously – I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t like this nationalistic thing. I grew up in the army and lived all over. I’m queer. Queer people aren’t about borders. I don’t like a party where everyone’s the same, if you know what I mean.”
Another significant change in recent years is the representation of trans and gender diverse people on stage and screen. While there’s been a significant push to have trans actors play trans characters, Hedwig hasn't been subjected to too much criticism.
“Hedwig doesn’t really identify as trans because she was forced into it,” Mitchell says of the character, who is assigned male at birth but undergoes gender reassignment surgery so she can marry the man she loves and escape East Germany. “But she’s on the spectrum. She might’ve been a ‘they’ today; who knows? It’s a situation where somebody was mutilated, in a way, by the powers that be and the patriarchy, and found a new identity through art.”
While the character was almost exclusively played by cisgender men in its early years, it’s now been taken on by trans actors and cisgender women, as well as performers of all different ages and cultural backgrounds. Mitchell insists that anybody can play Hedwig, a character who he says stands as a metaphor for all kinds of things and a refusal to fit into any particular box.
“To me, the role-playing is inherent in queerness,” Mitchell says. “Queer means you’re aware of roles and gender, and realise that otherness in gender can be liberating. It can also heal wounds… So much of the ills of the world is people trying to be what a man is supposed to be or what a woman is supposed to be, when everyone has all kinds of energies in them.”
It’s that multifaceted nature of Hedwig that inspired Mitchell to start work on a sequel a few years ago. But it soon became clear that the character had “too much baggage” to be at the centre of another chapter.
“I wanted to write about certain things and thought Hedwig might be a good voice to write in, because she was a pre-existing mouthpiece to talk about today. And I tried but it was too much, because her history was so complex, and what I was writing about today was already complex. So I sort of let go of that.”
That project eventually became Anthem, a forthcoming musical podcast with a starry cast including Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Cynthia Erivo and a host of Broadway A-listers. There are 30 songs across the ten-episode season and five hours of material, telling neglected stories of America.
The podcast form has allowed him to assemble a killer cast for relatively short periods – unlike you’d need for a TV shoot – and experiment in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. He says it’s even a tough sell for a live show, given its scope.
“It’s too weird for Broadway right now. But maybe, like Hedwig, Broadway will be ready for it in ten years.”
It’s Mitchell’s most autobiographical work yet, and very much a passion project to get underway.
“It’s about me if I had never left Junction City, Kansas – where Hedwig left too – and if I was out of insurance and suffering from a brain tumour.”
There are clear echoes of the situation that Mitchell has found himself in with his mother’s medical care back in the US – and the reason he’ll be travelling to Australia in the first place.
“I find it disgusting that our country can’t take care of its own people. I wish I could stay [in Australia] and get that healthcare.”