Why Stephen Trask Isn't Bitter

3.24.2014

By Michael Musto

Neil Patrick Harris's Hedwig is 'butcher and faggier at the same time'

Stephen Trask could be angry about the column inches that haven’t always been lavished upon him, despite his writing the music and lyrics for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (not to mention other input he had into the show, originally starring the book writer John Cameron Mitchell). But he’s not, especially now that the 1998 musical—about the loves and woes of a German transsexual rock singer—is on Broadway for the first time, with Neil Patrick Harris as the titular diva. Connecticut-born Trask—who’s scored films such as Dreamgirls, The Savages, The Station Agent, and Admission—has a lot to say about how Harris met this mutha.

Musto: Hello, Stephen. Do you get enough credit for Hedwig?

Stephen Trask: No. Of course I don’t. You wouldn’t know that the idea of doing a drag character who was a failed rock star was my idea.

It started as a show about a male rock musician who later became Tommy Gnosis, and there wasn’t a female character in it at all. It was loosely based on John telling me the story of this East German army wife divorcée who babysat for him. I was music directing at  [‘90s NYC rock club night] Squeezebox. I said, “Let’s make her a drag character. A failed rock star who used to play with Tommy and they were gonna be big together and he leaves her, and she’s stuck singing in dives.” 

I also meant that you did the score, but there’s still not enough name association for you.

It’s true that most often musicals are referred to as a Gershwin musical or a Sondheim musical or a Cole Porter musical or whatever. Whoever the composer is, that’s whose musical it is. But in this case, not! But I don’t walk around with a chip on my shoulder. Much. It’s very hard to get noticed when you’re standing next to a guy in a dress.

How is the Broadway production going?

Really well. We have these stop and start rehearsals built around the non shooting weeks of How I Met Your Mother, which has been great in that we get to work with Neil for like 10 days and he’ll go away and work on songs and watch old Ramones concert videos without having to go to rehearsal the next day. The counter side of it is now that he’s back, it’s sort of a mad dash. It’s always a mad dash. Everything’s coming along really well. We’re seeing the train coming for the first time.

Trask (left) in the 2001 film, 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

How is his Hedwig different than John Cameron Mitchell’s?

He’s nastier, not as in bitchy. I think he’s a little darker and a little raunchier. There’s a more sexual relationship between Yitzhak and Hedwig. There’s more interaction between the two of them. It takes the way Hedwig is a bit of an abusive person and brings it into a higher relief. Neil’s got that same quick wittedness [as John]. He comes out with these lines, you don’t even know how he thought of it so fast. 

Wait, you’re adding lines?

There’s always room for a spontaneous moment. The show will be performed at the Belasco Theatre, so there’s some differences in the patter because we’re performing in this old Broadway house as opposed to that divey hotel. Neil is so on top of it. His mix of masculine and feminine is different than John’s. It’s almost like he’s butcher and faggier at the same time. Does that make sense? Also, every dance moment is choreographed three possible ways, so he can feel it and people on the stage can respond to it. He doesn’t want to go into a routine. He wants to spontaneously just do his thing up there, which is really hard. He’s taken that approach to everything.

And you and John are doing a sequel to Hedwig?

Yes. It’s much darker and much weirder. It’s years later and Hedwig is back to living in a trailer park. It’s extremely twisted. There’s a lot of weird medical stuff in it. There are other characters who come in. It’s not just Hedwig telling the story. It deals a lot with larger psychological issues, as well as death. It’s funny, but it’s very dark—a David Lynch kind of dark.

Finally, a sequel to look forward to. Did you think Hedwig would still have a shelf life after all these years?

I thought we were gonna perform it a couple of times for our friends. It took a long time before I ever imagined it was going to be anything bigger than one or two presentations that were more like a reading-style thing. I thought my band would do those songs and that’s how those songs would get out there. 

Why the longevity?

Hedwig’s a very unusual character, but much of her observations about the world come from either John or me. John was looking for another half, and when Tommy sings his version of “Wicked Little Town,” that’s me talking to John. Because we had this character to do it through, it didn’t seem indulgent. She’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met, but her feelings are identifiable and very real, so people find themselves making an unexpected connection with her. That’s what ended up happening.

Previews for Hedwig and the Angry Inch begin March 29, and the show opens at the Belasco Theatre on April 22.

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