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John Cameron Mitchell Recalls Letterman’s Transphobia at ‘Hedwig’ TimesTalks

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer
May 21, 2014 at 12:28 pm



“Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not … HEDWIG …”

John Cameron Mitchell, Stephen Trask and Neil Patrick Harris joined the N.Y. Times‘ A.O. Scott on Tuesday night to discuss the origins and revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the rock musical about an East German transgender punk singer who likens herself to the great divide of the Berlin Wall.

Mitchell dropped a bombshell anecdote an hour into the TimesTalks forum, as if unintentionally answering the famous first line of the show quoted above. Some television hosts did like Hedwig when Mitchell and Trask’s gender-bending rock musical became the hot Off-Broadway ticket in 1998. Others, like David Letterman as the story goes, watched from the “or not” camp.

Rosie O’Donnell invited Mitchell to sing from Hedwig and the Angry Inch twice while she still had a daytime talk show, even going to bat for Hedwig with the studio. Letterman also brought on Mitchell, in full regalia, to perform the show’s opening number, “Tear Me Down.”

But Mitchell stunned the audience by saying “And then on David Letterman’s show, we did the soundcheck and there was a voice from the booth that said, ‘Could you please not remove your wig during the song?’ … So I removed it after, and they cut it off, they wanted people to think I was a woman,” apparently not wanting people at home to get confused.

“And David wouldn’t shake my hand.”

“Not that we don’t love David Letterman,” Trask interjected.

“I love David Letterman,” Mitchell said faux-crying. “I wanted to touch him.”

To be sure, Mitchell’s performance was only 15 years ago, but it feels 150 years ago. On October 1, 1998, the G initial of the LGBT amalgam was still fighting for its acceptance, a time when marriage equality in even just one state was still five years away. Matthew Shepard was tortured and left for dead five days *after* the Letterman appearance in question.

Times have changed for gay men, and times are still first changing for the transgender community. Remember, the Grantland Dr. V controversy, in which it felt like almost nobody in the media or the nation knew how to properly deal with the issue, happened just *this year* … in 2014.


We reached out to The Late Show for comment, but the only response we’ve received so far is that the show is on a temporary hiatus. It’s important to note that NPH appeared on Letterman in April of this year while starring as the revived Hedwig. We’ll update if more word comes back.

It didn’t appear as if Mitchell wanted to out Letterman as transphobic. The anecdote was more of an absent-minded endorsement of how far we’ve come in a decade and a half, that Hedwig could go from a hot NEW YORK CITY attraction in a bastion of niche tolerance to gaining mainstream acceptance and acclaim on Broadway with its eight Tony Award nominations.

So how far have we come? Neil Patrick Harris is our frontrunner to win Best Actor in a Musical, which would mark, on the (kinky boot) heels of Billy Porter last year, the second-straight year the top prize for a male lead goes to actors playing gender-bending characters.

courtesy of Matthew Arnold Photography

Trask, Harris & Mitchell, courtesy of Matthew Arnold Photography

Other newsworthy notes from the TimesTalks event:

• Mitchell and Trask discussed the reported Hedwig sequel, which has been in the works for some time and could land in 2015, saying it is much darker than the original and as such would not run on Broadway.

• When an attendee asked about a new cast recording, all parties on the stage said a decision is still being made, in terms of commercial viability, everyone’s valuable time and whether it would be redundant.

• Moderator A.O. Scott began the panel by calling himself “the world’s oldest Hedwig fan.” Scott and Trask were neighbors two decades ago, and Scott said when Trask’s electricity would be turned off he’d come crash on the couch, where they’d watch, wait for it, Doogie Howser, M.D. reruns. Not joking.

courtesy of Matthew Arnold Photography

courtesy of Matthew Arnold Photography

• NPH said he felt nervous during rehearsals about playing the transgender rock star, telling Mitchell, “I’m not sure I have a girl in me.” Mitchell said simply, “Dig deep.” NPH has quite clearly dug deep, nailing the role.

• Mitchell discussed what life was like for out actors two decades ago in the times of closets and AIDS, when he was auditioning for and getting roles in sitcoms and plays. The money quote: “I’d wear my ‘Silence = Death’ pin at my, like, MacGyver audition,” he said in all seriousness. He never felt cheated out of a role, though.

• How did NPH land the role? His manager was approached by Mitchell four years ago, but the How I met Your Mother scheduling couldn’t be worked out. Mitchell and Trask began thinking of other stars who might take the role to Broadway for the first time, but when producer David Binder came aboard, he asked them how long they’d have to wait for NPH. A year and a half? Then you wait a year and a half, he reportedly said. It was well worth the wait.

• Lena Hall was in the audience. Lena Hall is also amazing. Lena Hall needs to win Best Featured Actress in a Musical at the Tonys.

courtesy of Matthew Arnold Photography

courtesy of Matthew Arnold Photography

Go see this show before it closes on August 17. Like Hedwig’s anatomy it’s full of surprises, and you’ll never look at NPH the same again.

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