Stephen Trask chats with the JN about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, heading to the Fisher
It’s been almost 25 years since composer Stephen Trask began writing music and lyrics for a show about a transgender singer.
That show went on to become the colossal hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch, moving from downtown New York City nightclubs to the Off-Broadway stage to becoming a feature film — and ultimately playing on Broadway. Hedwig is an innovative, heartbreaking and wickedly funny rock musical about a transgender German who moves to a trailer park in Kansas City and starts a rock ’n’ roll band. The show has won numerous awards, including four Tony awards. Now, Hedwig’s national tour, directed by Michael Mayer, will play at the Fisher Theatre Feb. 21-March 5.
Trask, raised in Connecticut before earning a degree in music at Wesleyan College, began collaborating on this project in the 1990s with John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the book. Over the past couple of decades, Trask has written some two dozen musical scores for movies, including In Good Company, Dreamgirls, Meet the Parents and more. But writing Hedwig became a labor of love that changed Trask’s life.
Trask talked to the JN about life and the creation of Hedwig.
JN: Stephen Trask wasn’t your given name — you were born Stephen Schwartz. Why did you change your surname?
ST: In 1992, my manager at the time said to me ‘One day you will write a rock musical that will change the way everyone thinks about rock musicals. And when you do your name can’t be Stephen Schwartz.’ When I was a kid I thought it was cool that there was this other Stephen Schwartz [Pippin, Godspell, Wicked] out there and that he was a famous songwriter. But I knew my manager was right.
JN: Why did you pick Trask?
ST: Trask is my partner’s name [Michael Trask] and it sounded and felt right. I actually liked the name Schwartz and the Jewishness of it, and I miss that. I grew up in a Jewish home, went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah and both my parents were involved in the synagogue — my father was head of the youth program there. My mother’s maiden name is Rhodes and I thought of using that, but it didn’t have a ring to it.
JN: Have you met the other Stephen Schwartz?
ST: Yes. He came to our dressing room when we were doing Hedwig at the Jane Street Theater. He said, ‘If I knew you wanted the name I would have let you have it!’ Every now and then I receive a small royalty check of his and vice versa. It’s never a lot of money so we made an agreement that as long these checks are under $20, we would let it slide.
JN: You collaborated on Hedwig with John Cameron Mitchell. How did you meet him?
ST: John and I met on a plane from L.A. to New York. The in-flight movie was being projected on the wall directly in front of me and I couldn’t stand it. John was the only person not watching and there were two empty seats next to him. I asked if I could sit next to him and then plunked the Fassbinder biography I was reading on the seat between us to see if it started a conversation. It worked. We hit it off.
For the next few years, we kept running into each other out of the blue in New York. One day, a roommate of mine ran into John on the subway. The two of them knew each other from arts camp. They started talking about bands they like and they both said my band, Cheater, not realizing that they both knew me. After that we started hanging out a lot, listening to music, going to the movies, stuff like that.
JN: How did you start writing Hedwig?
ST: I was already looking for a collaborator when John told me he wanted to write a rock musical with real rock songs and a band on stage. He had an idea for a show inspired by a story from Plato’s Symposium. He bought me that book and I wrote “Origin of Love.” Around that time, I helped start a night club, Squeezebox, where I was the music director/piano/guitar player. The club featured drag queens singing rock songs in front of a four-piece band that I led. We invented Hedwig as a character partly because I could get us a gig there. That was our launching pad in 1994. We did a couple of gigs there then moved to other clubs as it evolved.
JN: To what do you attribute the show’s longevity?
ST: People like the songs and can relate to the story. They relate to Hedwig because she is a very real person. People can find a deep human connection with her — even if specific events aren’t the same as their own stories.
JN: In the show, Hedwig marries Yitzhak, who is Jewish.
ST: Miriam Shor, who played her originally, is Jewish and there was something natural about this character being Jewish. We used to watch a lot of Mel Brooks together, like The Producers, and so naturally Germans and Jews became part of the subject matter.
JN: Will you be in Detroit when it runs at the Fisher?
ST: I will. I am writing a new show, and my writing partner, Peter Yanowitz, plays drums in Tits of Clay, the on-stage band in Hedwig. The show [we are writing] is called This Ain’t No Disco! and is set in nightclubs in New York in 1979/1980. We are in a period of re-writes; so when we need to work, I have to travel to where the tour is. I live in Lexington, Ky., with my partner, who is a professor at the University of Kentucky.
JN: Did you ever think that Hedwig would become such a ground-breaking phenomenon?
ST: I thought it would be an interesting project that I did on the way to becoming a rock star. I didn’t know it would become the thing around which I would organize my life.
“Stephen Trask’s songs have everything,” the New Yorker wrote. “Melody, swagger, piano, wit, electric guitar, harmony, fun and angst.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs Feb. 21-March 5 at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre. $39 and up. (800) 982-2787; broadwayindetroit.com.