Broadway Backstory: John Cameron Mitchell

Beau Salant ’18/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

John Cameron Mitchell at the Hedwig and the Angry Inch Revival Opening in 2014. Photo Credit:
John Cameron Mitchell at the Hedwig and the Angry Inch Revival Opening in 2014. Photo Credit:

This week’s installment of Broadway Backstory is covering John Cameron Mitchell, who will be receiving a Special Tony Award at this years Tony Awards on June 7, 2015!

A prolific name in both theatre and film, Mitchell was born in Texas and, as the son of a U.S. Army Major General, was raised all over the world, traveling with his family to numerous different army bases. Raised a devout Catholic, Mitchell primarily attended all-boy Catholic boarding schools. Interested in theater from a young age, Mitchell would always participate in school musicals, but because of the nature of attending an all-boy school, would often end up playing female characters. This would go on to foreshadow his future career.

Mitchell later attended Northwestern University, where he studied theater, and made his way to Broadway rather quickly. Soon after college, Mitchell was cast as a replacement in the musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, entitled Big River, playing the titular character. Mitchell earned strong notices, and also earned the attention of Stephen Sondheim, who had him participate in a workshop of a little musical he was working on called Into the Woods in the role of Jack (a short recording of him singing an early version of “Giants in the Sky” is available on YouTube). Unfortunately, Mitchell did not take part in the eventual Broadway production of the musical. Into the Woods went on to win numerous Tony Awards and remains one of the most beloved musicals of all time.

Mitchell wasn’t down for long; though, as he was quickly cast in the Broadway production of the musical The Secret Garden in 1991 in a major supporting role. He earned a Drama Desk Award nomination (although the Tony Awards didn’t bite) and saw his theatrical career take off. He would earn three more Drama Desk Award nominations before the end of the decade.

John Cameron Mitchell in the movie adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo Credit: New Line Cinemas
John Cameron Mitchell in the movie adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo Credit: New Line Cinemas

His biggest success to date; however, would come in 1998. And by big, I mean BIG. I mean “created one of the most iconic characters in modern theatre”-big. Yes, in 1998 Mitchell teamed up with his friend Stephen Trask to create Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mitchell wrote the libretto and played the titular character, with Trask writing the music and lyrics. Hedwig tells the story of a fictional rock and roll band fronted by a gay male East German singer named Hedwig. Hedwig, formerly Hansel, assumes a female persona after a botched sex change operation (which leaves her with “an angry inch”) which was performed to allow him to marry an American man and escape East Germany.

Hedwig played off-Broadway for two years, but unfortunately never transferred to Broadway despite strong sales and critical acclaim. Many commentators attributed this to the musical’s plotline and challenging themes regarding gender and sexuality, something rarely, if ever, seen on Broadway before. Co-creator Stephen Trask even stated once that “it wasn’t that we didn’t want to go to Broadway, we just weren’t allowed to.”

After Mitchell finished his run off-Broadway in Hedwig in 2000 (he was replaced for the rest of the production’s run by acclaimed Broadway actor Michael Cerveris), he began the new millenium by adapting the musical for the big screen in 2001. The film, which he wrote, directed and starred in, was equally as acclaimed as the stage version and earned Mitchell a Golden Globe nomination.

Mitchell would continue to work in film for the rest of the decade. His film Rabbit Hole earned Nicole Kidman an Oscar nomination in 2010.

John Cameron Mitchell in the 2014 revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus/
John Cameron Mitchell in the 2014 revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus/

But it was in 2014 that Mitchell, along with Trask, finally took Hedwig to Broadway. Over 15 years after the musical’s original run off-Broadway, Hedwig and the Angry Inch finally opened in a Broadway theater. Mitchell hand-picked Neil Patrick Harris to don the wig and take on the title role. The production, as well as Harris, opened to critical acclaim and huge financial success. It earned the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, and Harris took home Best Actor. Harris was replaced by Andrew Rannells, who was then replaced by Michael C. Hall.

Mitchell made headlines once again in late 2014 when it was announced that he himself would don the wig one more time and replace Michael C. Hall. Fans rejoiced when it was announced that the queen was returning and that Mitchell would play the “East German slip of a girly boy” once again. Mitchell took on the role in late January 2015 for a limited engagement which ended just a week ago on April 24th.

Just as his run was ending, it was announced that Mitchell would receive a special Tony Award for his commitment to the show (he needed to be awarded a special honorary award since replacements are not eligible in the general acting categories). Theatre enthusiasts have applauded this decision, as many feel that Mitchell’s career (including, but not limited to, his work in Hedwig), has more than warranted a Tony Award.

Mitchell’s Hedwig is undoubtedly iconic, and has sparked a generation of discussion about gender, sexuality, equality, love and acceptance of both others and self. His work in theater is transcendent, and his is a voice that is near unrivaled in its power and message. He shines, “like the brightest star, a transmission on the midnight radio.” Bring it home, Sugar Daddy, and long live Hedwig.


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