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In Musicals, Over the Top Is Just Right


\r\nQuestion:
Why does musical theater continue to be such a popular \r\ngenre?


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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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

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