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Stephen Trask reflects on the "Hedwig" revival

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published June 06. 2014 4:00AM
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Stephen Trask

In terms of geography, Manhattan's "Great White Way" - the rote but revered nickname for the Broadway Theater District - encompasses Times Square and runs from 42nd Street to 53rd Street.

Folks from southeastern Connecticut could be forgiven if they petition the State of New York and the Connecticut Department of Transportation to extend the Great White Way up I-95 and all the way to the Waterford and New London. Stephen Trask grew up in New London with his parents, Myrna Rhodes and Robert Schwartz, who now reside in Waterford.

After all, Trask, 46, is the composer whose songs provide the flamboyantly infectious score to "Hedwig & the Angry Inch," the rock musical that exploded out of nowhere in 1998 and is currently enjoying a phenomenally successful revival starring Neil Patrick Harris. The new production, playing in Broadway's Belasco Theater, is up for eight Tony Awards Sunday - including Best Musical Revival, Best Actor (Harris), Best Actress (Lena Hall) and Best Director of a Musical (Michael Mayer).

Is Trask - who years ago took his longtime partner's surname to avoid confusion with "Pippin" and "Wicked" composer Stephen Schwartz - surprised over the success of the new "Hedwig"?

"You know, we had pretty good expectations we'd get a Best Revival nomination," Trask says. "That seemed reasonable. And it seemed reasonable Neil would get nominated because his performances are spectacular and over the top, and the Tony folks love him. But when I went down the list of nominations and saw all these people I've worked so hard with, and whose work I love so dearly ... I bawled."

The composer's emotional bond with this project goes beyond simple affection for the show he originally conceptualized with John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the book. "Hedwig" is the story of a Bowie/New York Dolls-style band fronted by an (almost) transgendered singer with a chip on her shoulder larger than what's left of her male-ness after botched surgery.

"When we first went into rehearsals last fall and started working with Neil and the band and the designers, you could feel in the room that something special was happening," says Trask by phone from New York. "This was a singular moment in all of our careers; no one was doing it for the paycheck or with any cynicism. We believed in it from the word go. After rehearsals, 12 to 15 of us were hanging out each night in bars or restaurants - and we couldn't wait to get back to work the next day."

Another special element of the accolades for the new "Hedwig" is the fact that Trask and Mitchell didn't rest on their original laurels. They significantly reworked the material - both the script and the music. A major part of the rewrites revolved around the context that, somehow, 16 years after the off-Broadway beginnings, Hedwig suddenly finds herself on a Broadway stage.

"John and I had always had a conceit that 'Hedwig' doubles as a real-time play - when the curtain goes up, you're in the Garde Arts Center or on Broadway, wherever you really are - and that particular production reflects that." Trask laughs. "One time we tried to stage it at TGI Friday's. If you're asking the real audience of the play to be the real audience at a performance by Hedwig and the band, how do you pull that off?"

Mitchell and Trask threw around a variety of ideas that would explain why Hedwig would have access to a Broadway stage. One possibility was that there was no show currently running in the theater and the maintenance crew lets Hedwig in and she stages the performance.

Ultimately, the construct that ended up in the current production is the one that made them laugh the hardest: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" takes place on the set of another Broadway play that has closed after only one performance. The doomed play? "Hurt Locker - The Musical."

"You can't even say that without giggling," Trask says - who is, in fact, giggling. "It's just a funny idea, and we have the theater floor littered with actual fake Playbills for 'Hurt Locker - The Musical,' which are equally hilarious to read. But that explains why there would be an actual set and lighting rigs for Hedwig to work with."

Originally, Trask and his own band, Cheater, performed as Hedwig's backing group. On Broadway, a new band was assembled with terrific rock-dude pedigrees. When Trask wanted to give them music to listen to from the glam and punk acts that helped inspire him when he wrote the "Hedwig" songs, he was delighted to find the musicians were not only intimately familiar with those musicians and the form - but many of them had owned the original "Hedwig" soundtrack in high school.

"I think the music still sound so fresh. There's nothing about this as rock music that says this isn't new work - and it's 16 years later," Trask says. "At the time it was written, people said the music reminded them of the '70s and now they say it sounds like the '90s. That's the thing. It was never supposed to be about one specific musical moment. It should have a timeless rock quality, but there's just as much Gilbert & Sullivan in there as there is the Kinks."

It's worth mentioning that, also in the last year, Trask did the orchestrations for "Rocky - the Musical," augmenting the production's existing songs, meaning the theater world is fairly humming with his work.

And so, for that matter, is the world of cinema. Since "Hedwig" premiered, Trask has become a sought-after composer of film soundtracks. That includes several for director Paul Weitz, like "In Good Company" and "American Dreamz," for which he also co-wrote the numerous tunes sung by the contestants in the story. Trask also scored "Camp," "The Station Agent," "Dreamgirls," "The Savages," "The Back-up Plan" and "Little Fockers."

With such a variety of professional and family projects, Trask has hopscotched between New York, Los Angeles, New Haven and Virginia over the past several years. He jokes that he never travels anywhere without a packed suitcase - even if he's just taking a cab from a hotel to the theater - because he's so busy.

"I do think I'll become a New Yorker again," he says. "'Hedwig' has become more all-consuming, and with everything else, I'm double- and triple-booked every day." He laughs. "Plus, mom and dad will be happy I'm back on the East Coast."

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