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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' creator: Broadway success proves changing attitudes

John Cameron Mitchell, shown in the 2001 film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, will attend a sing-along screening in Toronto on June 24. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-New Line Cinema/Killer Films

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John Cameron Mitchell, shown in the 2001 film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, will attend a sing-along screening in Toronto on June 24. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-New Line Cinema/Killer Films

TORONTO - When "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" first opened off-Broadway in 1998, creator and star John Cameron Mitchell can recall belting out rock tunes in a blond wig and heels to silent, stunned audiences.

The musical about an East Berlin punk with an ambiguous gender identity was a "shocking slap in the face" to traditional theatre-goers, Mitchell says. So when "Hedwig" recently won four Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical, it was a surreal moment.

"It's been such a long road that it almost felt like we were breaking into the building and making off with the Tony," Mitchell joked in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.

"Because we weren't really welcome in Broadway in the old days, it felt kind of unreal. It was like, 'Is this really happening?' ... It felt like we had gotten away with it, like they're going to ask for it back."

Mitchell, 51, is set to host two events in Toronto as the city gears up for WorldPride. He will bring his popular dance party "Mattachine — Spinning Vintage Vinyl for Queer Yesteryear" to the Gladstone Hotel June 19, before hosting a "Hedwig" sing-along presented by the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox June 24.

In the late 1990s, he teamed up with Stephen Trask to write "Hedwig," with Trask composing the songs and Mitchell penning the text. The rock musical went on to become a cult hit and was adapted into a 2001 film starring and directed by Mitchell.

Earlier this year, the Broadway revival starring Neil Patrick Harris opened to rave reviews and strong ticket sales. (Harris was awarded the Tony for best lead actor for his fiery performance, while co-star Lena Hall nabbed best featured actress.)

The smash success of "Hedwig" on Broadway proves how much attitudes have changed in the past 15 years, said Mitchell.

"Certainly in the theatre world, I think the queer element that was always there, but a little bit closeted, is now front and centre," he said. "I mean, I had to be closeted in theatre school in the '80s. It was just like, 'What?' Nothing like ballet dancers in the closet. It was just a different time."

The musical tells the story of a German Cold War bride whose botched sex change left her with an "angry inch." After a shy teenager she nicknames "Tommy Gnosis" steals her songs and begins performing to sold-out venues, Hedwig follows him across the U.S. performing in dive bars next door.

Mitchell said Hedwig isn't meant to represent the transgender community — instead, she's a character who defies gender identity.

"She's not a man or a woman. She refuses to identify with absolutes. She is nuance," he said. "It's a grey area. That's a frightening place for people. People want labels. What are you? What are you into? Are you top? Are you bottom? Are you trans? Are you drag? Are you questioning?

"We're not speaking for a community. We're speaking for very specific characters in very specific circumstances. And sometimes when you're more specific, people can relate better than when you're trying to make a general point," he said.

Mitchell praised Harris as the "perfect ambassador" for the Broadway revival — able to "bring in the suspicious and leave them all cheering" — while voicing his excitement to see Andrew Rannells, known for "Girls" and "The New Normal," take over the role in August.

Mitchell is also working on a "Hedwig" sequel that he plans to appear in himself, although he's keeping plot details under wraps for now.

"I don't want to give anything away, but it's definitely about the second half of your life. The first half is, 'Who am I?' and the second half is, 'I know who I am and there's not much time left.' It's much darker. It would never be on Broadway now, but maybe in 15 years it'll have to change again," he said with a laugh.

Mitchell, also known for a recent scene-stealing role on "Girls" and for directing the 2010 drama "Rabbit Hole," says he's unsure what to expect from the June 24 sing-along in Toronto.

"I'm not sure how it's done. I haven't been to a sing-along for anything before," he said. "I'm not singing along. The sing-along is for crowd. I can't do a karaoke of myself. It's going to be much more of a group thing, and we'll talk and hang out and make some jokes."

Asked why he thinks "Hedwig" continues to resonate with audiences, Mitchell pointed to one of the musical's most popular songs, "The Origins of Love." Based on a Platonic myth, the song suggests humans were split in half at birth and are searching for the other part of themselves.

"Whether I'm in Japan, Korea, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, Australia, people are just like, 'Yes. I have felt this way. To my regret or to my joy.' It crosses people's understanding of sexuality or gender to something very human," said Mitchell.

"It's so gratifying when people can say that it changed their life in a positive way or have a tattoo or helped them at a difficult point when they felt like an outsider. It happens once a week. It's fantastic. It's like a personal ad that keeps running — the ultimate Grindr ad."

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