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NUNN ON ONE, MUSIC. John Cameron Mitchell bringing 'Hedwig'-inspired songs
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2019-02-13

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Two-time Tony winner John Cameron Mitchell is bringing moments of Hedwig and the Angry Inch back to life for Chicago audiences. The musical has enjoyed a cult following all over the world telling the story of a philosophical performer from East Germany with an angry inch after a botched gender-reassignment operation.

The openly gay co-creator of Hedwig plans on telling stories and performing songs inspired by 20 years of the rock musical the Athenaeum Theatre. Mitchell is bringing a three band and a backing vocalist to help him out with a production that will assist his mother who is struggling with Alzheimer's.

He will also preview Anthem—an upcoming musical podcast, starring himself, Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Cynthia Erivo, Denis O'Hare and Laurie Anderson.

His credits over the years are impressive. From acting in the movie version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch to playing Andy Warhol on the television show Vinyl, the talented performer never ceases to surprise. In 2006, he brought the sex positive movie Shortbus to life as a director and last year co-directed an episode of Netflix's GLOW with Mark A. Burkley to high praise.

Windy City Times: Hi, John. When is the last time you have been in Chicago?

John Cameron Mitchell: I can't even remember! [Laughs] It may have been a good 10 years.

I did run into Mary Zimmerman at Burklee doing Metamorphoses. We went to school together at Northwestern.

WCT: I read your first professional role was at the Goodman Theatre.

JCM: I guess it was! There's a tape of it somewhere lying around. I played Huckleberry Finn at the Organic Theater Company directed by Stuart Gordon. He's a legendary Chicago director and started that company with David Mamet. He made Re-Animator later.

WCT: That's a wild movie! Tell me about this touring show.

JCM: It's the history of Hedwig, telling how it gestated and the people behind it, my boyfriend who was in the band and his story. He passed away, so our story was very much a part of making it. I talk about the composer Stephen Trask and the philosophical underpinnings from Plato that are part of it. It's also about how it changed me and my relationship to the people who love it.

There is also some talking about the strange time that we live in now. It's a celebration of the legacy and just a good time with our buddies.

WCT: Do you have any crazy Hed Heads stories?

JCM: They are a bit like Rocky Horror fans, but perhaps a bit more emotionally attached. Fans from all over will tattoo themselves, come to the shows to support it and make fan art. There's a lot of fans in Europe, Mexico and Brazil.

I just walked outside yesterday and two Korean fans were waiting outside of my apartment. We have Hed Heads in Asia, too!

This tour in a way is reuniting all of us. It is like a bunch of friends getting together and also they are helping to pay for my mom's healthcare.

WCT: Did one performance from someone in Hedwig particularly hit the nail on the head?

JCM: They all have their strengths and are all very different. There are some people who are better than me at certain things such as singing, dancing or the subtlety of Hedwig.

I think Matt McGrath, who did it off-Broadway, as a model of economy.

Neil Patrick Harris was a magician and a circus performer. He could do anything. He could tell the jokes and dance a hell of a lot better than I could! In fact, when I had to do his choreography on Broadway I ripped my knee out.

Michael C. Hall had his own brushes with mortality because of health issues in the past. He brought another kind of gravity to it.

Darren Criss brought a youthful, brash bravado to it.

I welcome every interpretation. In Chicago they did a show with 10 Hedwigs! Whatever people want to do with it is fine. I think it is great flattery for someone to want to do it. In my case, imitation is not the greatest form of flattery. It's interpretation. I prefer someone to make something new with it instead of copying our version.

WCT: Ad-libbing is suggested?

JCM: I write in the scrip that they have to ad lib. Hedwig is always performing in the venue that the show is happening, so they have to adapt it. Tommy is in whatever venue that is nearby.

The Origin of Love show is really me. I am not playing Hedwig even though I am in an amazing costume. It's a Transformer-like costume because it becomes six costumes in one. Everyone did it for free for my mom. Mick Rock who photographed David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop did our shots for us for free. It's a real group effort here to help my mom's medical bills that's easy to enjoy.

WCT: I interviewed Lena Hall for a small role in Kinky Boots and then she went on to massive success in Hedwig earning a Tony Award.

JCM: She was a jewel waiting to be plucked from the diamond mine. She gave an amazing audition, probably the best I had ever seen. She made a video as her character Yitzhak. She brought a guitar play and had written monologues and songs about Yitzhak growing up in Croatia and her making the costumes for Cats out of yak hair. It went on and on.

She should have an audition show. I think she is thinking about making an audition podcast.

WCT: Well, it's time you finally make it back to Chicago.

JCM: My favorite aunt, who is a nun, will be coming to the Chicago show. She is my biggest supporter, even when my family was looking askance at the drag and what my mother termed "the vulgarity." She will be bringing all of her friends. She is model of what catholicism should be about, good works not judgement. In some ways she is my mentor for life.

WCT: You will be talking about your new project at the show?

JCM: Yes; I am working on the graphics of it now. It's part of a series of podcast-based musicals called Anthem: Homunculus. I play a guy who is out of insurance and has a brain tumor in a small town. He's doing a live crowdfunding telethon on his iPhone app to save himself and raise money for his operation. There's a lot of autobiographical stuff in it.

Glenn Close plays my mom, Patti LuPone is my mom, and Denis O'Hare is my dad. It's a new form of musical where we use incredible A List people because we only need them for a few days to record. It's a six episode 10 hour series with 31 songs written by myself and Bryan Weller. The people that wanted to be a part of it is just stunning.

WCT: Did you ever think you would be doing this as a little gay kid in Texas?

JCM: I think I always was doing this. I was always very theatrical and self starting. At the beginning it was more about books and comics. I loved music, but when I discovered theater my drama teacher put me in my first play The Birthday Party. It's not the typical play and was extremely difficult. I just thought, "This is what I want to do with my life and I like the challenge!"

The Origin of Love: The Songs & Stories of Hedwig sings out at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., on Friday, Feb. 22, at 8 p.m. Visit AthenaeumTheatre.org or call 773-935-6875.


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