Wig in a Nutshell: An Interview with Stephen Trask Co-Creator of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’

[18 August 2014]

By Maria Schurr

“That was the trick, right?” says Hedwig and the Angry Inch songwriter and co-creator Stephen Trask when I ask him how the cult musical managed to retain its edge in spite of its monstrous success on Broadway. “We only made it as big as we had to, we only spent as much as we needed to, we only made the changes that felt artistically true.”

The cult musical—which began in its rawest form at the rock ‘n’ roll drag party Squeezebox—ran for two years at the Jane Street Theatre beginning in 1998. Following this, it was turned into a groundbreaking, multi-genre film in 2001 directed by its star, John Cameron Mitchell. Its Broadway debut this past Spring opened to huge success, setting box office records and winning four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Lead Actor in a Musical for Broadway’s inaugural Hedwig, Neil Patrick Harris. A Trask-produced album of the Broadway cast recording was released by Atlantic Records in July.

Although Mitchell served as star of both the original musical and the film, it was Trask who wrote its very glammy and slightly punky songs. Trask was also the one who suggested Mitchell tell the story through the character of Hedwig, an East German-born transsexual suffering from a botched surgery and yearning for her other half. I had the pleasure of a brief tour of the Belasco Theatre, where Hedwig is currently running, that gave hints of Hedwig’s original spirit here and there. I interviewed Trask in house director Stephanie Wallis’s office, across from her pile of Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s earliest playbills. (Wallis had also been the house director at the Jane Street Theatre performances.) Trask spoke animatedly about the production’s success, its excellent supporting players, and the decision behind replacing Harris with The Book of Mormon’s Andrew Rannells, who starts his run as Hedwig on August 20th. 

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What did that moment of winning Best Revival of a Musical feel like?

The whole night was really surreal. I think from the moment Lena [Hall, who won Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical] won we knew that it was going to be a good night, because she was an underdog. But still, I was almost nervous to tears waiting for them to open that envelope.

That whole month was surreal. It wasn’t just the number of Tonys that we got, or that we were nominated for, but we were nominated for a lot of awards. You have no idea how many events there are, and you keep seeing the same people over and over again, and so it’s almost like being at camp. Or like some four week orientation program where you keep seeing the same people at cocktail parties and luncheons and going out, and so by the time it’s over you know all these people that you only know from this world.

And then it kind of culminates in that night of the Tonys and everyone’s there, all the people you’d been hanging out with for the last month. And then to win obviously was incredible. But the whole thing was just sort of fun and dizzying and not like anything I’ve done since orientation for college, or going to camp or something.

One of my favorite things about Hedwig’s success on Broadway is that it seems to have been achieved on the terms of its creators. How important was it for the Broadway production to retain its original, Off-Broadway edge?

The trick was, how do you take a show that was written not just for its star, but also for my band [Cheater]? It was a performance piece that we did that, in many ways, was site specific. It felt like once we got to the Jane Street Theatre—but even before we were at the Jane Street Theatre—there was this very site specific performance piece written for us. You know, not as many people saw it as anyone thinks, but it has a sort of mythology around it. So how do you actually stay true not just to the original, but to people’s idea of what the original was, which at this point probably had qualities that we didn’t even have—and then still fill this theater and has a big star and, you know, the music sounds bigger, the set is obviously bigger, there’s more lights, there’s more costumes.

And yet it still feels like it’s got its edge, like it sounds true to itself, like it looks true to itself. And even, there are things that I’ve only found out recently, as we were getting ready to put Andrew Rannells, who will be replacing Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig, in to start doing the role. They explained to him that there was this part of the show where a couple of set pieces move, and there is some dialogue in between, and it always felt to me like Neil was maybe stretching this just a little bit. But it turns out we could only afford one guy and he has to move this set piece, and then he has to run all the way across the back stage without making any noise, and then move this other set piece. So there had to be a little bit of extra, time-killing dialogue because we can’t afford the extra person.

In some ways we’re true to ourselves that we didn’t even realize. Like, I don’t know if you saw the piece about wigs on Broadway in the New York Times—it was basically another excuse to write about Hedwig, but they wrote about all the wigs. Obviously we’re the show with “wig” in the title, but they couldn’t just do a Hedwig story. And our wig is the best wig. But ours was the cheapest wig!

When I went to see it, I thought Hedwig and the band were a lot more fun to watch and unpredictable than a lot of real bands around nowadays. How easy or difficult was it to bring that dynamic out?

Neil Patrick Harris and the band played warm up shows at Rockwood Music Hall and Mercury Lounge. There were two purposes. One: Neil needed to figure out what it meant to be a rock singer. And I don’t mean, like, sound like a rock singer, but act like a rock singer. It’s a different relationship between the performer and the audience than singing “Ladies Who Lunch” or some song from The Lion King. It’s important for your Hedwig to have that experience. Also, the band, although they’ve all known each other, were never a band. Except for the drummer [Peter Yanowitz], they’re all younger than me, so they didn’t grow up listening to the music I grew up listening to. Or maybe they did but they didn’t play it, and they never played it together. So, I thought it would be cool to have them learn a bunch of classic punk songs, so that they had a certain vocabulary under their belt, and a certain way of playing together under their belt that they could bring to the songs.

‘Cause, like, “Wig in a Box”, it’s not a punk song, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be played with that kind of edge to it. It’s got its little Elton John and Burt Bacharach moments and its Ringo drum fills or whatever. But you still want it to have that kind of punk edge, the same way that when you listen to “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” on The Clash’s London Calling, you still know it’s a punk band, even though that’s not a punk song. So it served two purposes, and it brought cohesion.

It was funny, most of these guys were not showy players before this. And we were like, “how are we going to bring them out,” and we went backstage for the Rockwood gig, and Mike Potter, who does hair and make up for us, did their hair and make up. And Justin [Craig], who had always just been very, you know, goes and plays the most amazing guitar thing, and then walks over and sings some, plays the piano, someone throws a tambourine and he catches it without looking and plays the tambourine part and then goes back to playing the guitar totally unfazed—I walk in and he’s wearing lipstick and eyeliner and his hair is all done up and he grabs me around the waist, and is like, “Hey darling”—he was just a different person. So I think they all needed that.

That makes sense. I’ve seen Tim [Mislock, who plays guitar] in other bands before. I’ve seen him with The Antlers and that’s not a showy band, so it was totally weird and great to see him here!

[laughs] Tim does a really great job of keeping the band from being behind the beat. He plays with this kind of punk edge that pulls the band along. He’s the real deal. When he plays, it’s just right. Not that everyone else isn’t right as well.

You have said that the current arrangements of the songs are “more punk”. In what ways?

Well, obviously “Sugar Daddy” is much more of a rock song. To me, it’s a little bit Sex Pistols, a little bit The Ramones, a little bit Roxy Music, a little bit like The Clash doing a dance thing, maybe a little bit X… ”Tear Me Down” was kind of T. Rex-y and now it feels like more of a late ‘70’s kind of pop punk… in general, it feels that way. It’s got the same beat as “Mystery Achievement” by The Pretenders, although that wasn’t on purpose. I think there’s an edge and there’s an energy to it that feels just a little more hyped up. Those two songs alone have changed enough that they have more of a punk edge, and then, when you have a song like “Angry Inch”, and it’s been played a little more energetically, or you have a song like “Exquisite Corpse” which is being done, it’s a little more what I wanted to do the first time around. It starts off just drums and guitar, in a sort of Sleater-Kinney kind of way, with no bass, and then the second verse gets two guitars and no bass and you just have a keyboard come in. And I kind of wanted that Sleater-Kinney sound to it, and it kind of actually seems to be pulling it off a bit.

What was the decision behind giving some of the songs new arrangements?

Some of it’s just, I’m a different person now, and I wanted to do the songs differently. Some of them were things I always felt like I didn’t quite get right. Some of them, like “The Long Grift”, I had done in this kind of ‘90s singer-songwriter, Elliott Smith kind of thing. But now it was Lena’s song, and we’d given the song to Yitzhak [her character]. And it worked much better storywise, but it couldn’t be in the same key. Women can’t sing that key. It’s in the lowest possible key that Lena can sing. To work with her voice, that other arrangement wouldn’t have really worked, and so, for the auditions, I asked everyone to listen to, and to come in and sing, some Mazzy Star. And then, I thought we’d do a bit of a Mazzy Star-infused version of that track. And then you could actually tell which ones didn’t get it, because some people would come in and they’d sing “The Long Grift” just like that.

“Tear Me Down”, I was never quite satisfied with it. “Sugar Daddy”, I was never satisfied with it. I had a whole slew of ideas, and Neil didn’t want to do the kind of country thing. I was never happy with it because, when I first presented it, it was this sort of Wilcoesque, alt-country sort of thing, and then it kind of got souped up, and then glitterized, and then the next thing I know, it’s more of a sort of Vegas-country number. Which was fun and glitzy, it was true to a drag sensibility, but it wasn’t really true to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. So it had to change for that reason.

Other ones, like “The Origin of Love”, people don’t even realize, but we took bits from the soundtrack and bits from the cast album and kind of borrowed from the two different arrangements because they had different things going on in them. One of the other things was, it was very important to me that everyone sing, so the vocal arrangements are much bigger in this. I like groups like the New Pornographers or Grizzly Bear, who have these great vocal arrangements. I kind of really wanted that. We have six people who can sing in harmony and on pitch, and we use them all.

That’s pretty incredible.

It is! And they sound really good. You should hear it when they do it around an acoustic guitar, it’s really gorgeous.

I was really impressed by Lena Hall’s performance both on stage and on the cast recording, especially on “The Long Grift”.

She auditioned, and all I’ll say is… We videotaped all the final auditions for Neil because he wasn’t there but he wanted input. And the tape of Lena’s audition—and this is just what I’ve been told—is being used in acting classes to teach people how to audition. It was that good. We really lucked out that she showed up.

She seems like she was made to be in this.

I know!

Because she’s in a band as well [The Deafening]...

Yeah, I just saw them. They’re really good, they do a great show.

How did Andrew Rannells taking over the role come about? Was there an audition process, or did you already have him in mind as an heir to the role?

I didn’t have him in mind. [Director] Michael Mayer brought him to the table, and I think at the time, various people kept on coming up with sometimes preposterously out of reach or inappropriate celebrities that you can’t imagine doing the role if they were willing to, or you can’t imagine them being willing to—it was all very “pie in the sky”. Sort of like writing a letter to your favorite musician and saying, “Will you join my band?” It’s just not gonna happen.

And, the message you send with that is, “We’re the sort of show that only works when the star is bigger than we are.” And we don’t think that’s true. It’s a really good show. And, more important for the show to work, is that the person be talented. And, Michael mentioned Andrew. I wasn’t exactly sure who he was by name. And then he said, “Oh, he was in Book of Mormon, he’s in Girls…” and I said, “Oh that guy!” I love his acting in Girls, and so I knew he could act it. And then, he was nominated for a Tony for Book of Mormon, and sings gorgeously. He did a great job in Jersey Boys, in Hairspray, in big roles, in major shows. You knew right away that, not only could he sing, and not only could he act, but he also knows what it means to come on to a Broadway stage and fill it. And do dancing and choreography and relate to the other performers and it’s not like getting some celebrity who’s new to the stage but they’re gonna fill the house. It’s not like he’s not famous, but he’s not a household name.

We don’t remember what Andrew was like when he was a kid, like Neil. More importantly, he’s super super super talented, and you can imagine him doing the role, and in fact he has done the role in the past, when he was 23. I’ve seen him in rehearsals and he’s amazing. So, he’ll probably take a little time to build, like anybody. But he’s going to be incredible in this role. And when people realize that, he’s going to sell a ton of tickets. And then it will be a role where the important thing is that you be incredible in it, not that people saw your name in a magazine.

How are things coming along with the Hedwig sequel? Have you begun writing songs for it yet?

I’ve written some songs for it. That’s sort of on hold. I’ve got another project I’m working on with Peter who plays drums in this and with Rick Ellis, who wrote Jersey Boys. We’ve had this project on hold for a little time now, partly for a rights issue, which now is settled, and partly because I’ve been slammed with this. Now that this doesn’t need me as much and those rights issues have gone away, we’re about to start reworking on this project set in the club scene in New York in the ‘70s. It’s a really exciting and creative and interesting project that starts off set in Studio 54 but ends up downtown at the Mudd Club. And it’s called 15 Minutes. And the Hedwig sequel, I’m not really sure, because we don’t know what form it’s going to take. And so the moving forward on it, I don’t know where that’s going right now. We can’t do a sequel film.

I had been wondering if it was going to be a film or performance…

I would start with performance but John’s [Cameron Mitchell] not sure he wants to. It’s a really emotional thing and I don’t know if he wants to go through with it right now. But a friend of his had just died when we did it last, so it may have just been a lot of emotion from that. But the film is a no go because New Line has those rights and they don’t want to do anything with them. They didn’t even like the first movie. They were very quick to tell us on multiple occasions that even though everyone liked it, they would never have made it again, once they did fire all the people who did make it. They fired our producers at Sundance. And when firing one of them, told her, “I’m really happy you’re having such a great success at the festival, but you should know that, even still, I would not have greenlit this movie.” And that’s been their approach! And then they buried it.

What has been your favorite thing about being involved in Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a thing in your life? Do you have a song from the score that you’re most proud of?

Hedwig is a once in a lifetime thing for a lot of people. I remember, the night before it opened, Michael Mayer said, “tomorrow the reviews are going to come in, and some people might like it, some people might not like it. My advice is, don’t read the reviews, don’t be selective. If someone sends you a really good review, don’t read that one, because if you believe the good ones you’ll have to believe the bad ones as well. What’s going on, on this stage, and in this theater, is a once in a lifetime thing for everybody. You’ll never have this feeling again. Don’t let anything anyone writes take that away.” And, it felt like that the first time around too, for all the people involved. And you get that sense when people go see it, like “This is my favorite thing I’ve ever seen” or “This is the most important thing to me.” Not everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it means something.

So, to be a part of creating something that feels, both for a community of a hundred people putting it on and for the people that come to see it, it’s somehow important to them. And a really important moment in their lives. Not everyone gets to have something that happens like that. And I did. So, that’s really kind of awesome and gratifying! When I go and do little film scores or big film scores or whatever, and having fun, writing some music, and learning how to write for an orchestra, I’m always like, “Yeah, and I did that other thing.” I did my thing that was really cool, and now I can go experiment with this, experiment with that, and always have that there.

The song that I’m most proud of… different ones for different reasons, but I’m going to say “Wig in a Box”, even though it’s not, like, important like some of the other ones that seem more obvious, but when I first started writing it, and I had no words and I was a little drunk and just jamming it out, it gave me this feeling of happiness while playing it, and I was like, “...That’s the wig song. I need to make sure that I have this feeling.” And, I feel, every time it’s played, it feels, to the people playing it and the people listening to it, just like it felt to me when I was drunk and playing the piano that night. and still, years later, it still feels that way.

And so, for all the other ones, like “Oh, they said something beautiful lyrically or whatever,” this one does say something big about transformative powers in dressing up and making your own identity and all this stuff, and it’s got some great little witty lines. And the poetry of it is really nice—I love the “Laverne Baker” line. But it actually conveys this feeling that was the exact feeling I wanted it to do, and it holds on to it the whole song. And everyone, almost to a person in the audience, every single night and everywhere it’s played, feels the exact way I felt when it first arrived. So I’ll go with that.

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Photo credits: Sachyn Mital

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/184478-wig-in-a-nutshell-an-interview-with-stephen-trask/