Canadian entertainer Seth Drabinsky was scared shitless the night he performed a selection of songs from John Cameron Mitchell’s award-winning off-Broadway rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch – in front of none other than John Cameron Mitchell himself!
"Mitchell was in Vancouver for the 2007 queer film festival soon after I had played Hedwig in a local remount of the musical a few months earlier," Drabinsky – who was all of 22 years old at the time, and an opera student at UBC – says today. "The festival organizers asked us to perform a few songs at the closing gala at this tiny martini bar and Mitchell stood right in front of me and looked up at me centre stage! It was one of the scariest moments of my life!"
Once he found his nerve, though, Seth says, "I began singing Sugar Daddy right at him! We chatted afterwards and John told me that I looked good."
So good, in fact, that Drabinsky went on to wow audiences across Canada last autumn in the touring musical production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. "Drabinsky’s energy and singing during full-on Bowie- and Iggy-inspired rock numbers is stadium-sized," Toronto’s Now mag raved.
Hedwig really began back in 1994 at NYC’s famed drag-punk nightclub Squeezebox, where Stephen Trask – who would write the music and lyrics for Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell wrote the text) – headed the house band and Mitchell’s boyfriend, Jack Steeb, played bass.
Mitchell worshipped the rock’n'roll singing drag queens at Squeezebox. So he began to rewrite covers of such songs as Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well, Cher’s Half Breed, David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging and All the Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople, incorporating them into Hedwig‘s original concerts.
In fact, Mitchell’s second gig at Squeezebox also featured singer Debbie Harry on the bill, and Hedwig’s trademark wig was famously created that night with toilet paper rolls wrapped in synthetic blond hair!
By 1998, Hedwig and the Angry Inch debuted at the gloriously rundown Jane Street Theatre in NYC’s West Village as a fully fledged original punk/glam rock musical about a lonely girly-boy named Hansel from Communist East Germany who, after a botched sex change (which leaves him with the titular angry inch), flees Germany before the Wall comes down. Hansel morphs into Hedwig, who is neither completely male nor female, but a glam rock’n'roll queen reduced to playing dives while her former protégé and lover Tommy Gnosis performs in stadiums across America.
After Hedwig won a Village Voice Obie Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical, the film adaptation won an award for best direction and the Audience Award for Best Drama at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. Some weeks later Mitchell himself told me about the time he took a piss during one performance at the Jane Street Theatre: In the middle of the show he walked into the men’s john – in character, of course.
"I kept talking into the mic while I was urinating," Mitchell said. "Generally there was complete shock as I’d interview people in the toilet. But this old Irish drunk was both delighted and outraged and followed me on stage. So I let him regale his wife – it was her birthday – and sat down. Then when it was time, I gave him a big hug and sent him off on his merry way."
In his Canadian incarnation of Hedwig, Seth Drabinsky also ad-libs. "Our production is based on the off-Broadway script," says Drabinsky who, like Mitchell, is openly gay. "It really basically is a concert, so there are moments when you get so involved you break the fourth wall with the audience. It really is an interactive show. Stuff happens that I just can’t ignore!
"The opera singer in me fell in love with this rock musical because it is so beautifully written. The songs are really integrated into the story organically, not stitched together like a jukebox musical like Mamma Mia and Priscilla Queen of the Desert."
The success of Broadway rock musicals like American Idiot and Spiderman – unfathomable before Hedwig – reportedly has John Cameron Mitchell back in the gym getting his 48-year-old body back into shape for a future Broadway run of Hedwig with original producer David Binder and original director Peter Askin at the helm. The New York Post also reports Stephen Trask is writing new songs for the production.
Meanwhile, here in Montreal, a Facebook page is already organizing local Hedwig fans gay and straight to attend the Montreal performance in drag – or at least wearing a dab of lipstick.
It is these diverse, mixed audiences that John Cameron Mitchell loves so much.
"It just makes for a more interesting party," Mitchell told me all those years ago. "You know, I think I needed to be more with gay people when I came out, in a more monolithic way. But then you grow up and realize you want a little variety. A lot of gay people only hang out with people who listen to the same music and have the same body and same gender. That’s boring and quite annoying. [It only makes me] feel like a freak among a majority."
Essential buttplug Seth Drabinsky stars in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Le National (1220 Ste-Catherine E.) on Feb. 12.