In 1998, a raucous little rock musical called "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" made what felt like a big move from a downtown drag-punk club called SqueezeBox to a far-far West Village theater/dive in a creepy old hotel where, lifetimes ago, the surviving crew of the Titanic were said to have dried out.
And it was clear, despite Stephen Trask's haunting songs and a riveting performance by author John Cameron Mitchell, that this story of a "slip of a girly-boy from Communist East Berlin" and his/her botched sex-change operation would never, ever survive a cast change. Certainly it would never move outside its raunchy neighborhood comfort zone.
You know the punch line. "Hedwig," the strange journey of an "internationally ignored song stylist," continued in the Village for more than two years with an Obie Award and a bushel of different actors playing Hedwig. Mitchell won best director at Sundance for his 2001 movie adaptation and a German-language Hedwig was a hit in Berlin the following year.
But surely it was clear, despite the cult success, that this subversive extravaganza could never, ever dream of crossing over to big old mainstream Broadway or cast genial Hollywood star Neil Patrick Harris as the unhinged glam-rocker in torn fishnets, glitter lipstick and a Farrah Fawcett wig the size of an old Buick.
And you know the next punch line. The show won four Tonys last season, including best musical revival and best actor. But it was clear -- obvious, really -- that nobody could ever fill Harris' high-heel ankle boots with enough glitz to satisfy star-struck Broadway.
The shocker is at least as magical as the preposterously unlikely history of the show.
John Cameron Mitchell has returned to his creation until April 26. Despite his age (he turns 52 next month) and a knee injury, he got onstage near the start of his strenuous re-entry in January, Mitchell owns the show. No matter how many Hedwigs you may have known, or even if you've never seen one at all, this is the one to see.
The performance is so emotionally raw, so close to the bone, that I kept finding it hard to tell where the actor ends and Hedwig begins. He makes irreverent jokes about the knee, how he was "kneecapped" by Michael C. Hall, the actor who succeeded Andrew Rannells, who succeeded Harris on Broadway. This Hedwig, with his knee wrapped in a soft brace, drags himself through bits of the tough choreography on one leg and demands that Yitzhak (invaluable Tony-winner Lena Hall, to be replaced April 14 by Rebecca Naomi Jones), the Bosnian-Jewish former drag queen, keeps bringing him a crate on which he elevates the thing. He sardonically describes himself as being on his "last leg" and jokes about the performance having the "original cast."
He seems to be in pain. He seems worn out. He seems melancholy at times and really reckless at others. Meanwhile, the show feels deeper -- both profound and profoundly touching -- than I've ever known it to be.
So I wondered what I would encounter when we had a scheduled phone interview. Would Mitchell be dangerously sad and a little out-of-it, as his Hedwig appeared onstage, when it was impossible to take my eyes off him and his multiple outlandish wigs?
Or is this all an act? If so, it is a terrific one.
It is a terrific one. I'm relieved to report that Mitchell is fine, even splendid. Embarrassed, I did not mention my concern for his health. "I'm having a blast," he said, sounding like a normal, even abnormally well-adjusted artist enjoying his return to performing and the unforeseeable success of his long-ago show.
"I'm thrilled," he continued. "I always thought 'Hedwig' would last in its own small way, but I just didn't expect it to be this mainstream. I never expected to make money. This is a shock."
Also, you should know that his knee, which he hurt Feb. 7, is getting better. (Despite the injury, he finished the performance, then Michael C. Hall filled in for a few days, then again from Feb. 17-21. Mitchell has been back since Feb. 24.)
"It's a little weak," he explained, "But I'm going to keep my version with the leg brace. I'm almost glad it happened. This has freed me up to be a little more anarchic, more spontaneous. I can depend on the audience sympathy." How far out he goes each night "depends on the crowd." Besides, he joked, "I don't have to do all that choreography, which is really hard."
Is he surprised that society has caught up with Hedwig, whose "angry inch" is all that's left from a misbegotten gender reassignment surgery? "Surprised? I'm just pleased," he answered thoughtfully. "I think that once someone comes out, once there is someone in your family, you can't deny it."
Mitchell, the "Army brat" son of an officer and a mother who emigrated from Scotland, describes being a "constant outsider. I was aware of my sexuality, but it was not accepted when I was growing up. I was always passing. We moved almost every year, so I had to be a different person every time to fit in."
He said Hedwig's "armor is drag. Mine was telling stories. Writing songs was Stephen's [Trask, Hedwig's composer]."
Mitchell says his performance these days is "so much more fun" than in 1998. "People were getting a little crazy then, panicking at all the sudden attention. Now I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by having fun. I'm not worried about my acting career much anymore."
David Binder, the show’s longtime producer, is obviously having fun, too. “I’ve been watching John do this role in various incarnations for almost 20 years,” he said. “But he still surprises and astonishes me night after night with his portrayal of our leading lady.”
Mitchell had stopped acting for 15 years after "Hedwig." Before that, he was a rising Off-Broadway star, winning an Obie for his stunning portrayal of the young Larry Kramer in "The Destiny of Me," Kramer's sequel to "The Normal Heart." In recent years, Mitchell directed movies, including Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole," and is working on a film about the punk-rock era. And he and Trask are almost finished with a "Hedwig" sequel.
But this Broadway experience has made him think about acting in someone else's plays again, especially one by Tony Kushner, or, after seeing Mark Rylance's all-male Shakespeares, maybe even "Hamlet" or "Macbeth."
He has a few favorite Hedwigs of yore, but winces at the memory of Ally Sheedy, the rare woman to take on the gender-bending role. "That was a difficult time," he said, "But I bet she would be more ready for it now."
As for Hedwigs who come after, including the next one, Darren Criss from "Glee," Mitchell has some newly acquired advise. "Don't care if you get a laugh," he said. "Hedwig has been so roughed up that it doesn't matter. It's not like he's trying to get a TV series." Mitchell, however, won't rule TV out for himself.