John Cameron Mitchell’s new podcast has been positioned by its producers and publicists as a game changer, the leveling up of an entire medium. Michael Bloom, the CEO of First Look Media, told the New York Times that his company signed on to finance the new star-studded rock musical Anthem: Homunculus because “the concept would be a magnet for the kind of talent that transcends what’s been done in podcasts to date.”
The funny thing about it? Anthem lives up even to that grandiose bit of hype, offering listeners something wildly different from what they’ve been cued to expect from podcasts or rock musicals. Though the series is a spiritual sequel to Mitchell’s trans glam masterwork Hedwig and the Angry Inch—Patti LuPone herself sings a jazz ballad early in the run, and Glenn Close later wilds out with a scuzz rock lulu—Homunculus, the 10-episode first season of a planned anthology series, is a pained and muted affair, an audio survey of the American hellscape that’s more Notes From Underground than Hedwig Rocks Your Earholes. Co-written by Mitchell with Bryan Weller, it’s deal-breaker art, prickly and rambling, urgently personal, and making no accommodations for audience expectations. Unlike earlier podcast musicals like Songonauts or 36 Questions, Homunculus is something very much like what its trailer-park protagonist, Ceann (Mitchell) is creating himself: a splenetic work of outsider art.
Homunculus, like Hedwig, takes its form from a performance suited to its medium. Where the stage show and film of Hedwig capture the blazing final concert delivered by an East German “girlyboy” singer, Homunculus instead documents Ceann’s livestreamed crowdfunding attempt to pay for treatment for a tumor. Rather than rock ’n’ roll’s thrills and catharsis, we have a telethon—one broadcast, we learn in the first episode, from the same trailer near Junction City, Kansas, that Hedwig once rented.
It’s a laid-back telethon at that, despite its scabrous monologues and Ceann’s insistence that listeners “help my fucking tumor go viral.” Neighbors and family members pop in to visit the same way the postman used to visit Mr. Rogers’ house, and if you didn’t know they were played by the likes of Bridget Everett or Cynthia Erivo, you might not guess. Don’t expect the star turns or featured showstoppers of musicals, or the twists or cliffhangers that predominate on most narrative podcasts. This is a mood piece, concerned first with its protagonist’s state of mind, and then with the state of the world.
In early episodes, between bursts of audio-collage tape-recorder art, Ceann dishes bons mots about the terrors of American health care or the alone-in-public oddness of our online lives: “Grindrs can’t be choosers out here on the lonely prairie,” and “In the future, we’ll pray we will be anonymous for 15 minutes.” Sometimes he’ll pass out and be visited by a ghost from his past, like the Catholic priest Ceann tells us raped his younger self, or his own tall tales, like a hilarious one about sex with William S. Burroughs, longtime resident of nearby Lawrence, Kansas. That story leads to a wrenching reminiscence of losing a loved one to AIDS, which is Homunculus in a nutshell. It’s powered by its own free-associative emotional logic, not by plot.
The songs arrive just once or twice per episode, and the Hedwig-style barnburners are rare. The LuPone number is marked with despair, its mix intentionally muffled in Ceann’s memory as it’s sung by the protagonist’s heroin-addicted aunt, at a Kansas City club, when he’s a pre-pubescent runaway and she’s already washed up. Other numbers include a cosmic country ballad about the world burning up; the mounting, mutating epic “Homunculus”; and the easy-listening ballad “The End of Love,” which might take a hearing or two to click. As in Hedwig, their mode is rock rather than musical theater, and the singers never sound as though they’re being accompanied by a pit band with sheet music.
Mitchell and his collaborators are pushing the dude-talking mode of so many podcasts and AM radio toward something more delicate and perhaps even mesmerizing, if you can get on its wavelength. But like a high-plains AM radio signal, that wavelength takes some effort to catch. With Anthem, Mitchell shakes off the crowd-pleasing prerogatives of both its genre and its medium.
Musical theater often offers a dazzling communal uplift, a sense that our individual weirdness is honored and even made triumphant via the heroics of the extraordinary singers onstage. Podcasts, meanwhile, tend to be intimate and inviting, the hosts not just hosts but our most intimate of buddies, whispering right into our ears. Not long ago, Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards carped that most podcasts are “tedious and samey and sedative.”
But Anthem: Homunculus is none of that, nor is it some glorified cast recording of a rock musical that never hit the stage. Instead, it’s a challenging work of hybrid art that demands much more from a listener than the rest of its cohort in the iTunes store. If you stream it on the treadmill assuming (quite reasonably) that a star-studded rock musical podcast would strive to be invigorating and likable, prepare to be disappointed. It is, after all, titled Anthem: Homunculus. It’s not your buddy. In it, the human spirit perseveres rather than triumphs.