When I was in my early 20s a subcultural phenomenon emerged, a rarified entry into the ranks of cult classics like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was the brainchild of John Cameron Mitchell and songwriter Stephen Trask, conceived, as I learned on Friday night, after a transcontinental flight during which Mitchell spoke to Trask of ancient Greek myths linking and splitting the genders. That conversation planted the seed for The Origin of Love, a brilliant song that encapsulates many of the complex themes of Hedwig, originally a 1998 stage production that became a 2001 film. The title of the song is also the title of the show that John Cameron Mitchell is currently touring, which made a one-night-only sold out stop at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theater Friday night.
Along with showcasing his original band and powerhouse performer Amber Martin, the tour is an exposition of the original production, a rehashing of the music mainly for people like me, who adored it the first time around. It’s also an exposition of Mitchell’s life. Peppered throughout the two-plus hour show, the unabashed performer tells many stories from his life off-stage. From growing up the son of a general in a stuffy house in West Berlin, to a sad relationship with a lover who dies of alcoholism, to a life spent doing the hard work of paying the bills from gigs mostly held in the clubs of New York City, we learn a lot about the man behind the wig.
And throughout the show, Mitchell is dressed as the outlandishly blond-wigged Hedwig, in a transformer-like black and white ensemble that changes over the course of the show. Also changed slightly is Hedwig’s trademark wig itself – now streaked gray in a nod to the passage of 20 years since the original play. The sadness of the original production’s themes – of escape from oppression, of the oppression of the genderqueer, of betrayal and heartbreak, of the complexity of human love and relationships that never should have been – continue to resonate through the music. John Cameron Mitchell’s voice has held up well, and at 55 he is still able to convey the raw power of the original. By the end, as in the stage show, Mitchell has doffed the wig to reveal his own short hairdo. Rather than shirtless and exposed, as he was in the film, he stands defiant on stage in a sleeveless short dress, having body-surfed the crowd in one of many nods to his punk roots.
His punk roots are especially pronounced when the show, in several spots, highlights Amber Martin, a long-time friend and collaborator. She’s a fellow star of the New York Club scene, and her powerful vocals are welcome. By highlighting her, a lesser celebrity, the show also highlights the generosity of spirit and deep humanity of Mitchell, qualities that somehow shine through clearly despite his catty and often deprecating narrative.
Peppered throughout were references to Jussie Smollett, the sad case of a Chicago based TV star who is now charged with fabricating a tale of hate-crime victimization in our Gold Coast neighborhood. Mitchell’s use of the Smollett trope, as well as references to “no more walls,” a theme from the original Hedwig production, reveal a powerful intellect capable of weaving his epic themes into the mundane and the current. Each stop on his tour seems to incorporate new cultural references, keeping the show highly relevant – apparently references to Melania Trump featured heavily into the Falls Church, Virginia show earlier this month.
We had friends in from out of town specifically to see the show, so in addition to some great entertainment the weekend has been filled with some great company. Michael and I go way back with these guys – as far as we all go back with Hedwig, in fact. If John Cameron Mitchell and his Origin of Love tour stop near you and, like us, you have ever sung along to Wig in a Box, the show will undoubtedly provide you with a night you’ll never forget in the company of bunches of like-minded, kindly souls.
Thanks for reading.