Visual Art

Rock Star Fantasy

An Interview with "Hedwig's" Nick Garrison

I'LL NEVER FORGET the first time I saw Nick Garrison perform. This was 1997, and the camp musical parody Dirty Little Showtunes was halfway through the first of its several successful runs at Re-bar. Midway through the show, a pretty young man stepped forward to deliver a rewritten version of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter tune, and any one of the thousands of people who saw Nick perform his "Modern Homosexual" number can testify to its absolute brilliance. It was a good old-fashioned star-making performance, made even more impressive upon repeat viewings, as Nick effortlessly retained the number's freshness and surprise, even as it became a revered, beloved, much-gabbed-about showstopper.

Obviously, Nick Garrison was too good to stay hidden in Seattle, and after a handful of local performances (including Deflowered in the Attic and his self-penned solo show Randee Sparks: Semi-Precious), Nick headed to New York City. After one kooky day job (helping to distribute the art work of Tony Bennett--really), Nick took to performing full-time, appearing onstage in the hit production of Mae West's Sex, and on the tube on Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy (as the wheelchair-bound Rusty) and on NBC's nighttime drama Deadline (as a transsexual hustler/murder witness). Now he's back in Seattle, specifically to perform the lead role in Re-bar's production of the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch--"a part I knew I had to do the minute I saw the play," says Nick. Over coffee we chatted about punk stars, Fleetwood Mac, and what it takes to transform yourself from a hyper-talented American performer into Hedwig Schmidt, the girly-boy from East Berlin who grew to become "an internationally ignored song stylist."


So how are you preparing for the role of a fucked-up transsexual rock star failure from Germany?

All the typical things. Poring over the script, and I met with a dialect coach.


What's the dialect, exactly?

East Berlin by way of Kansas, so it's fairly subtle. Like Marlene Dietrich, only without the speech impediment. I've also been reading a lot about Germany, and researching the punk scene of the '70s. There's a great book called Please Kill Me [Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's oral history of punk], and I got my hands on some great videos--performances of the New York Dolls and the Ramones and Iggy Pop. I've always listened to that music, but being able to see what the bands really did, what they were all about and how it all fit together, that's been invaluable.


Watching the tapes, what surprised you the most?

The theatricality of it all. I'd always thought of punk as dirty little guys in rock clubs with low ceilings. But when you watch the New York Dolls, you realize they were performance artists. With our show, Mark [Gallagher, director] is all about, "It's a rock show, it's a rock show!" But after seeing the tapes I realized, yeah, it's a rock show, but it's drawing on sources that are naturally very theatrical. Hedwig is a hugely theatrical performer.


Have you ever been in a band before?

No, and this is totally fulfilling every rock star fantasy I've ever had.


What are your rock star fantasies?

Being Morrissey. Being David Bowie. And when I was really little, I loved Fleetwood Mac.


Did you want to be Stevie Nicks or Christine McVie?

I've always liked Christine more. But Stevie's the dynamic one, so that's who I wanted to be.


For a campy rock musical, Hedwig has some pretty heady sex-and-gender shit in it.

Totally. It's not lightweight in any way. It draws on Plato's Symposium, the search for the other half, identity and freedom... it goes to some pretty dark places, but ends up in a quite beautiful and exalted place by the end.


What would you tell someone who runs away screaming at the words "musical theater"?

I would comfort them, because I empathize. Musical theater in general perplexes me, and I've rarely seen a standard musical that I've liked. But to me, Hedwig is what musical theater should be. There's a lot of it that reminds me of what Brecht and Kurt Weill did, which is musical theater that I truly love: in your face, a bit didactic, with the songs all perfectly justified.


What would you tell someone who runs away screaming at the words "rock musical"?

Fuck you.


What's the greatest rock song ever?

Oh, Jesus. [Long pause.] The Velvet Underground's "Heroin." I love "Heroin."


Let the record show that Nick Garrison loves heroin.

I'm fine with that.

 

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