In Musicals, Over the Top Is Just Right

Take Greek drama, Shakespearean comedy, and Kabuki theater, stir in some punk rock, and you’ll get a genre audiences love.
  • Transcript


Why does musical theater continue to be such a popular genre?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, I think, probably the earliest theater was a musical, when they talk about Western theater coming out of Greek religious performance, the dithyramb, the bacchic, you know, rites. And that was movement and music oriented and singing and... so I don’t, you know, since then it maybe started to codify a little bit in the 20th century of what a musical was supposed to be... in terms of the kind of music and the subjects of the stories.  But anything that uses songs—I mean, there’s opera, which tends to be, you know, all song—but a musical tends to be a story that uses songs to propel a plot and evoke emotion and help the story in a way that a straight play does in a different way.

So I remember seeing a Robert Wilson piece that he did with Tom Waits and William Burroughs, called "The Black Rider," which was very, you know, as far from a Broadway musical as you could think, but it had dialogue, it had musical... it had songs, it had a linear, or somewhat linear narrative, and it was, I realized this was a musical.  You know, we were inspired by that, inspired by something a little bit less linear, like Sandra Bernhard’s "Without You I’m Nothing," and, you know, "Ziggy Stardust," "Tommy," which are much less linear narratives but have kind of a song cycle feel about them; and definitely from Broadway, which is, you know, much more linear narrative, which I prefer—or traditional narrative, not necessarily linear—with a beginning, middle, and end, and the, you know, the importance of arrival.  You know, some people like stories to meander and can just sort of, you know, reflect, when there’s a pretty image happening.  But I really need an escalating story; it doesn’t have to be fast, doesn’t have to be slow, but I need something going somewhere and arriving somewhere.  Not that the arrival has to be, you know, all loose ends tied up, but something that’s using metaphors, is extending the metaphor, that’s, you know, about something that’s investigating things that confound us, that interest us, that, and ultimately try to be productive or useful to the audience.  You know, not just a jerk-off... well, I mean, watching somebody jerk off can be useful, but not everybody.  And there’s a sense, you know, trying to figure things out, to make things better.  Maybe that’s just my utilitarian, kind of Catholic thing, is good works.  The stuff that I’m involved with has to be useful to me, but also to an audience.

Question: How do you avoid making a musical clichéd or over the top?

John Cameron Mitchell: 
You know, "over the top" implies it’s just, it’s too much for what it should be.  To me, "over the top" is a pejorative.  You can have something extremely heightened and highly stylized and it’s not "over the top" because it’s exactly what it should be, you know?  And "Hedwig" has elements that some people would call "over the top," but to me are just enough, you know, are just right.

And "Hedwig" was a conscious amalgamation of all elements of different stage performances, techniques like drag, which has a tradition, doesn’t necessarily stray—hasn’t always necessarily strayed lately into more serious themes, but certainly Shakespeare and then the Greeks, you know, there was elements of drag, men playing women, Kabuki, where serious things were examined. Also standup, stand up comedy; the rock show, the punk rock show, the conventions of that; performance art; and the well-made play, and, you know, a well-made Broadway musical.  So using elements of all of those, you know, and trying to keep the integrity of all of them.  But, having it be a whole, you know, a holistic kind of entity, was our goal, which meant that the stand-up had to be funny, the drag had to be, you know, using some of the comedic and the double entendres that you might come out of, the rock show, the bank had to be there, it couldn’t be under, you know, at the back of the stage, had to be up front, you know, the songs had to propel the plot, you know, and the characters, which is what Broadway, which is what Broadway musicals do well, and so, giving each of the forms their integrity, but also melding them in a way that was new.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen