Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Abominable Showman, January 5, 2013

Get some Hed!
The day John Cameron Mitchell gave his seal of approval to Canadian actor Seth Drabinsky to star in Mitchell’s legendary off-Broadway cult rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch – which, fittingly, Drabinsky is bringing to Toronto’s Drake Underground from Jan 9 to 26
by Richard Burnett

I saw Canadian entertainer and onetime opera student Seth Drabinsky incarnate the cult role of Hedwig in playwright John Cameron Mitchell’s award-winning off-Broadway rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the suitably decaying rock-concert venue Le National in Montreal’s Gay Village back in 2011.

Drabinsky as Hedwig (photo: Ted Grant)
Seth was great. In fact, on that tour Seth wowed critics across the Great White North. When he arrived in Montreal he told me about the time he performed a selection of songs from Hedwig 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 told me. “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.”

Hedwig 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. His second Squeezebox gig even featured singer Debbie Harry on the bill, not to mention Hedwig’s trademark wig was also famously created that night with toilet paper rolls wrapped in synthetic blond hair! 

(photo credit: Maxwell Lander)
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. It won a Village Voice Obie Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical, and in 2001 the film adaptation won an award for best direction and the Audience Award for Best Drama at the Sundance Film Festival.

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 toilet – 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 July 2012 American journalist Kevin Sessums reported on his blog that “his old friend” Mitchell was “busy putting the finishing touches on his first draft of a Hedwig sequel… [Mitchell] then went on to tell me in detail the narrative of the sequel for which Hedwig’s original composer Stephen Trask will write the music once more.

Sessums also noted, “There was such sweet excitement in [Mitchell’s] voice as he told me scene after scene, much like the sweetness and excitement he first had when so many years ago we sat in another coffee shop and he shyly admitted he was writing the role of a transgendered rock’n’roller so he could play it himself…As for the sequel? Let’s just say it’s something that could only happen to Hedwig – a phantasmagoria with dollops of brutal reality interwoven into its multi-media narrative.”

Meanwhile, Drabinsky (current coverboy of Xtra’s Dec 27 Toronto print edition) and his rock band will star in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Toronto’s glorious Drake Underground concert venue from January 9 to 27. 

And like Mitchell, Seth also ad-libs to complete his incarnation of Hedwig.

“Our production is based on the off-Broadway script,” Seth told me in Montreal. “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.”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs at Toronto’s Drake Underground (1150 Queen St W) from January 9 to 27. Click here for more details and tickets. 

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