'The Real Hedwig' Speaks: The Show’s Creators Respond!
Pictured: Tish Gervais | Photo courtesy of Brian Belovitch
When I first met Tish Gervais in the 1980s New York club scene, she was a voluptuous transsexual singer/actor and club personality whose life as Brian Belovitch seemed many hormones behind her. But in 1987, Tish told me she was going to be Brian again, and my jaw dropped to her stiletto heels. No need for concern, it turned out. The reverse switch totally worked for Brian, and for years, he’s been a sober, productive person (and a substance abuse counselor) whom I consider a dear friend.
And yet, something is still bothering the Artist Formerly Known As Tish, LOL. Brian feels that in many ways, he’s the original Hedwig, and in fact the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch—about the hard rocking survivor of a botched sex change, played by Neil Patrick Harris in the current smash revival on Broadway—owes a debt to his own fascinating narrative. Here’s our talk about this elaborate identity drama.
Michael Musto: Hello, Brian. So you feel Hedwig creators John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask may have been influenced by your story?
Brian Belovitch: One of my dressers told me John came to see my autobiographical show Boys Don’t Wear Lipstick at the Ridiculous in 1994. And so did Mark Tusk, the producer who came when he was with Miramax and again when he was with New Line [which ended up doing the Hedwig movie]. Mark came and spent quite a bit of time in my dressing room, asking me a million questions about the play and my life. I even went up to New Line Cinema with my copy of the script. I never knew he was [going to be] involved in Hedwig!
Describe your story, in a nutshell, for our readers.
An awkward little boy from New England named Brian is uncomfortable with his longing to be the opposite sex and believes his birth gender is a mistake. When he grows up, he runs away to New York City, changes sex (he takes hormones, but doesn’t get the operation), then goes back to Providence, meets a handsome G.I. at a gay bar, and becomes an army wife stationed in Schweinsberg, West Germany. A guy marrying a G.I., living in Germany and having a sex change—that was the most titillating aspect of my show, before “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was even an idea.
Your husband liked you the way you were?
Not exactly. I was going to have a sex change and that didn’t work out because he became really jealous when we moved back to New York and he didn’t want me doing the acting and all that stuff. He did want the change and I didn’t.
Pictured: Tish in Germany with her American military husband
I wasn’t sure then. I still was on the fence.
But you felt you were a woman?
I thought I was, yeah. I believed what people told me about myself. I’ve done so much work on this and reflecting and really it goes back to the time in society when the pressure was to either be gay or be a woman. It was very confusing in the ‘70s. It wasn’t anything like it is now for trans people. There was a lot of pressure to be one or the other, and that really fucked me up. Also, I was really good at it and gorgeous, so it made it even more difficult. When the drugs and all that stuff came in, it masked any idea that what I was doing was not the best for me.
Why did you start living as a man again?
I sobered up and got therapy and was miserable the way I was. The externals didn’t match the internals.
It’s a good thing you kept your penis, no?
I didn’t want to lose my angry 9 inches. Nein on the nine. [laughs] Yeah, I was happy I kept my pee-pee.
And this is similar to Hedwig because…?
He runs away to get the sex change, to get out of wherever he was. [East Germany, to marry a soldier and move to the West.] The whole thing about the ex lover. And it’s about someone who ripped off somebody else—and he may have ripped me off. That’s what’s really funny about it. When I saw it, I thought, “That’s a cartoon. That's a caricature.” It wasn’t like she was trying to be some glamorous sexpot. But with a few minor switches, it could be my story with music. In the end, doesn’t he just become a boy again? My play ends the same way. I take off all my clothes after I change back to a man and rejoice—dancing in the shower, nude.
What about rock singer Jayne County, who also says she feels the story is reminiscent of her life?
I think they ripped her off more for the style of the character. Jayne didn’t change back to be a man. But the story—the military connection. John Cameron Mitchell says he’s from a military family and grew up in the Midwest. Apparently Hedwig was supposed to be his babysitter; a woman, he’s said in interviews. But there are a lot of people that will tell me: “That’s your story.” People were always coming up to me and saying that. Then, when I went to sell my film after my play, they said, “No, it’s too much like Hedwig. We already had this story.” But this is a true story. The whole thing was very shady to me. I went up to John and talked to him about it once, and he said Jayne was planning to sue him. I said, “Everyone told me I should sue you.” You should have seen his face. He was like, “Really?” I said, “Maybe Hedwig is something you created in your imagination, but my story is my story.” I wasn’t going to accuse him there right on the spot. Catfight on Greenwich Avenue!
To get the other side of the story, I then reached out to the creators of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Here's what they had to say:
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL RESPONDS: I haven’t heard about that.
STEPHEN TRASK: We created a character and John made her trans. We added our own elements together without thinking of anyone else’s story. Because we are true to it, people think they have things in common with it.
JCM: In a way, accusations of plagiarism are the sincerest form of flattery: “Wow! That could be me!”
ST: Straight people have identified too because we were that emotionally true to ourselves.
MARK TUSK RESPONDS: Brian was one of those quite persistent types who couldn't accept that whatever company I was at wouldn't be interested in making his life story into a movie, so I made it clear I'd be glad to see his one person show, more out of my own interest than as an executive. I found him engaging. I liked him and his story. When I was at New Line, we met up mostly as a courtesy to hear what progress he'd made, but I didn't recommend further consideration.
Also, if memory serves me, the thrust of the piece was his evolution from drag/trans life back into being a man. I don't know if John Cameron Mitchell saw it, but I was well aware of John's life moving around as a military brat and being cared for by nannies. By the time Squeezebox [the rock club event where Hedwig started] happened, John was itching, pardon the pun, to break free from the constraints of singing Broadway-style, and it was Stephen Trask who was more taken with the prostitute nanny angle than the boy rocker, John's natural inclination. Also obvious in hindsight is that to play Squeezebox, there needed to be a drag element, ergo hedVig. I stand with John and Stephen in believing their work was original, with a dollop of mythology thrown in.
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Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway
BLUE ROSES AND JONQUILS
Meanwhile, there are some stage works that are actually being rewarded for their undisputed originality, many of them represented at the Drama Desk awards’ nominees reception at the Essex House last week. Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith—who played Laura and her well meaning Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie—were there, and they’re Tony nominated too, though the male lead, Zach Quinto, was snubbed by both. “It’s very bizarre for us,” said Smith. “He was the lodestone of the production.” Partly thanks to Quinto’s gay portrayal, the revival brought out some of Tennessee Williams’ intentions more than many past ones did. What’s more, Bolger said Smith injected a kindness into his character that often isn’t there. Interjected Smith, “In Tennessee Williams, this is the closest two people get to really falling in love.” “Of course, in Williams fashion,” added Bolger, “it doesn’t work out. He’s got to bust it up!” Cherry Jones was also more loving than the usual Amanda, seeming to really care for her kids. “It was a tough love, too,” said Smith. “A real drill sergeant.” “Like Mama Rose!” we both agreed.
Tough but not exactly loving, Reed Birney’s character, Charlotte, in Casa Valentina is a viperish cross dresser who turns out to be deeply bigoted. At the Drama Desk reception, I asked the nominated Birney—who’s wonderful—if he was consciously styled to look like Bette Davis. “It’s less than it was,” he said. “Originally, I looked exactly like Margo Channing. I thought, ‘I don’t think this is right, given how homophobic Charlotte is, that I look like a gay icon. So I‘d like to think I’m more Romy Schneider,” he smilingly added, referring to the kittenish French actress. “But she killed herself,” I duly noted. “Charlotte may be headed that way too,” he said with a knowing laugh.
Feeling no pain whatsoever, James Monroe Iglehart’s genie in Aladdin is a high-spirited creature who, as Iglehart told me at the Drama Desk event, is intentionally situated far from Robin Williams’s characterization in the movie. There’s a big band arrangement in the film, but they went farther with that here, going for a Cab Calloway/Fats Waller approach, “and they wanted me to also bring my own silliness to the role.” And exactly how much Red Bull does Iglehart drink before his showstopping “Friend Like Me”? “It’s all me!” swore the actor (who’s nominated for everything). OK, someone needs to bottle this man and pass it on to Lindsay Lohan.
A magical creature of her own, two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran was at 54 Below the other day to promote her imminent cabaret gig there, an act called It Might Be You—A Funny Lady’s Search For Home. Finneran (Noises Off, Promises, Promises) also has a TV show coming up care of the Damages team—an as yet unnamed family drama set in Key Largo, costarring Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek. Finneran plays the wife of another double Tony winner, Norbert Leo Butz, and when I cracked, “Aren’t you taller than him?” she replied, “Norbert Leo Butz is Norbert Leo Butz. Maybe I’m a little taller. I’ll scrunch. He has a lot of confidence.” So does Finneran, who went along with James Lapine’s dark take on Annie not long ago, providing a rougher, tougher Miss Hannigan. “People would come backstage,” the actress told me, “and their kids would be afraid to meet me. They’d scream, and cry. I’d win them over with charm, of course.”
The sensitive mood was enhanced when last year’s winner, Tina Burner, gave the new queen some advice: “Just keep your balls tucked inside you like a lava lamp and keep holding that torch.”
And finally, the gays have a new theater to go to—and they don’t have to sit through any shows there! It’s the Liberty Theater, which has been revamped to create a new hotspot for wanton clubbies in search of external fulfillment. Saturday nights are thrown by promoters Brandon Voss, Susanne Voss, and Jake Resnicow, and the first one had a huge crowd navigating the different ambiences—a must-avoid upstairs lounge filled with screaming bachelorettes (!); a downstairs area colorfully dotted with the nuts of nightlife; and a dance floor, which in 2014 style, isn’t that big at all. It looks like the victim of a botched operation, LOL.