As soon as he spots it, John Cameron Mitchell begins flipping through my paperback copy of John Henry Mackay's The Hustler until he finds a passage about the alley off Unter den Linden where furtive boys loiter. The book, about a young man who moves to Berlin in the early 20th century and becomes a prostitute, has cosmic significance in Mitchell's new musical podcast, Anthem: Homunculus. Mackay is the namesake of the story's protagonist, Ceann Mackay (played by Mitchell). The Hustler is also the book over which Ceann first bonds with the great love of his life. "I will not rule, and also ruled I will not be," Mackay wrote in a poem about anarchy, and this is a refrain that the fiercely independent Jairo regularly sings (in slightly less opaque grammar).
"The center of it was really the death of my boyfriend Jack Steeb, who was in the band that I developed Hedwig with," Mitchell explains. "Jairo became a surrogate for him." Theater audiences know Mitchell for his musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about an East German rocker attempting to stage a comeback from a trailer park in Kansas. Considered too hot for Broadway in the '90s, it gained a cult following that finally culminated in a Tony-winning Broadway run in 2014.
Originally envisioned as a sequel to Hedwig, Anthem: Homunculus has transformed into an alternative autobiography for Mitchell. "It's what I would have been like if I had never left my small town," he says. And even though he moved around a lot as a kid (his father was a Major General in the army), the small town he claims is Junction City, Kansas.
That's where Ceann lives in a trailer once occupied by Hedwig Schmidt. It's also the venue from which he is broadcasting his own confessional podcast in a desperate effort to crowdfund treatment for a brain tumor. In 10 episodes and 31 songs, Ceann tells stories about his religious mother (Glenn Close), cabaret singer aunt (Patti LuPone), military father (Denis O'Hare), and Jairo (Nakhane). Reality blends with fiction to create a fascinating, magical, and completely addictive podcast experience. It's like a serial Broadway musical pumped directly into your ears.
Mitchell's collaborator in this endeavor is composer Bryan Weller, who is more reserved than the gregarious Mitchell. "I'm very much the host of the parties," Mitchell said, gazing admiringly at the stoic Weller. "Bryan is the quiet, benevolent brain and heart. It's a good match."
Weller also comes from a military background, which he thinks explains their simpatico work ethic: "A lot of people enjoy the idea of making something," Weller explained. "But once it comes to doing the work and there's no one to force you to do it, there's no other impetus than maybe something inside you." With their inner drill sergeants pushing them onward, the two began furiously writing songs and scenes three years ago.
In early 2016, they set out to write 20 songs in 12 hours. "Bryan said, 'I'll write a musical setting, then you go into the other room with GarageBand and write a melody and lyrics while I work on the next one," recalls Mitchell. "We made about seven or eight songs, two of which have been adapted into the actual podcast." You can pre-order the original soundtrack here.
Weller and Mitchell originally envisioned Anthem as a television series, but after several failed pitches, it became clear that there was no room for their idea on any TV platform. "They just couldn't see it," said Mitchell, who has become adept at imitating what he calls "resting pitch face" (bonus points if you can yawn while keeping your mouth closed). But after his experience with Hedwig, this is familiar territory for Mitchell. "If I had proposed Hedwig now, without the history behind it, they wouldn't have done it either," he explains. "LA rejected us, but as usual, New York said yes."
The companies that specifically said yes were Topic (the producer), and Luminary, which is distributing Anthem to its paid subscribers (Mitchell describes it as the "Netflix of podcasts"). Luminary, in particular, seems interested in more complicated narrative podcasts with bigger budgets. I've written previously about the potential for a radio drama renaissance, and shows like Anthem certainly show how that could happen.
Weller is especially excited by the potential for musical-theater composers: "We were able to work in a variety of musical styles because the show is recorded. If Anthem were onstage, we would need 13 choir singers just sitting around backstage for one song."
The complex musical soundscape of the show delivers an incredibly intimate, often uncomfortably personal narrative. Ceann discusses the death of family members, his aunt's struggles with drug addiction, and the sexual abuse he suffered while in boarding school in Scotland. It feels like Ceann (and by extension, Mitchell) is whispering his secrets into our ears — because he is.
Ultimately, Mitchell is working to become something like the Ryan Murphy of indie musical podcasts: Homunculus is just the first season of Anthem, which Mitchell envisions as continuing with new writers and performers telling an entirely new story. "I'm hoping this is going to kick-start the musical narrative podcast," he says. "It's words and music. So it's perfect for audio." With any luck, we could be looking at a future in which you can listen to a new Anaïs Mitchell or Lin-Manuel Miranda musical on the way home from work.