John Cameron Mitchell directed, starred in and co-wrote, with Stephen Trask, the musical film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), for which he received the Best Director Award at the[…]
Take Greek drama, Shakespearean comedy, and Kabuki theater, stir in some punk rock, and you’ll get a genre audiences love.
rnQuestion: Why does musical theater continue to be such a popular rngenre?
John Cameron Mitchell: Well, I think, probablyrn the earliest theater was a musical, when they talk about Western rntheater coming out of Greek religious performance, the dithyramb, the rnbacchic, you know, rites. And that was movement and music oriented and rnsinging and... so I don’t, you know, since then it maybe started to rncodify a little bit in the 20th century of what a musical was supposed rnto be... in terms of the kind of music and the subjects of the stories. rn But anything that uses songs—I mean, there’s opera, which tends to be, rnyou know, all song—but a musical tends to be a story that uses songs to rnpropel a plot and evoke emotion and help the story in a way that a rnstraight play does in a different way.
So I remember seeing a rnRobert Wilson piece that he did with Tom Waits and William Burroughs, rncalled "The Black Rider," which was very, you know, as far from a rnBroadway musical as you could think, but it had dialogue, it had rnmusical... it had songs, it had a linear, or somewhat linear narrative, rnand it was, I realized this was a musical. You know, we were inspired rnby that, inspired by something a little bit less linear, like Sandra rnBernhard’s "Without You I’m Nothing," and, you know, "Ziggy Stardust," rn"Tommy," which are much less linear narratives but have kind of a song rncycle feel about them; and definitely from Broadway, which is, you know,rn much more linear narrative, which I prefer—or traditional narrative, rnnot necessarily linear—with a beginning, middle, and end, and the, you rnknow, the importance of arrival. You know, some people like stories to rnmeander and can just sort of, you know, reflect, when there’s a pretty rnimage happening. But I really need an escalating story; it doesn’t havern to be fast, doesn’t have to be slow, but I need something going rnsomewhere and arriving somewhere. Not that the arrival has to be, you rnknow, all loose ends tied up, but something that’s using metaphors, is rnextending the metaphor, that’s, you know, about something that’s rninvestigating things that confound us, that interest us, that, and rnultimately try to be productive or useful to the audience. You know, rnnot just a jerk-off... well, I mean, watching somebody jerk off can be rnuseful, but not everybody. And there’s a sense, you know, trying to rnfigure things out, to make things better. Maybe that’s just my rnutilitarian, kind of Catholic thing, is good works. The stuff that I’m rninvolved with has to be useful to me, but also to an audience.
Question:rn How do you avoid making a musical clichéd or over the top?
rnJohn Cameron Mitchell: You know, "over the top" implies it’s just, rnit’s too much for what it should be. To me, "over the top" is a rnpejorative. You can have something extremely heightened and highly rnstylized and it’s not "over the top" because it’s exactly what it shouldrn be, you know? And "Hedwig" has elements that some people would call rn"over the top," but to me are just enough, you know, are just right.
Andrn "Hedwig" was a conscious amalgamation of all elements of different rnstage performances, techniques like drag, which has a tradition, doesn’trn necessarily stray—hasn’t always necessarily strayed lately into more rnserious themes, but certainly Shakespeare and then the Greeks, you know,rn there was elements of drag, men playing women, Kabuki, where serious rnthings were examined. Also standup, stand up comedy; the rock show, the rnpunk rock show, the conventions of that; performance art; and the rnwell-made play, and, you know, a well-made Broadway musical. So using rnelements of all of those, you know, and trying to keep the integrity of rnall of them. But, having it be a whole, you know, a holistic kind of rnentity, was our goal, which meant that the stand-up had to be funny, thern drag had to be, you know, using some of the comedic and the double rnentendres that you might come out of, the rock show, the bank had to be rnthere, it couldn’t be under, you know, at the back of the stage, had to rnbe up front, you know, the songs had to propel the plot, you know, and rnthe characters, which is what Broadway, which is what Broadway musicals rndo well, and so, giving each of the forms their integrity, but also rnmelding them in a way that was new.
Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen