InDepth InterView: Lena Hall Talks HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH, Plus KINKY BOOTS, CATS, Upcoming The Deafening Gigs & More
Today we are talking to a Broadway leading lady making a major mark in the gender-bending role of Yitzhak in the new Broadway production of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's masterful rock musical HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH starring Neil Patrick Harris, the affable and idiosyncratically alluring Lena Hall. Discussing sharing the stage with NPH in the raucous and wild rock showpiece, Hall offers a vivid view of her participation in the Broadway iteration of the cult hit - ranging from polishing her vocals for a cover of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" to donning a prosthetic penis and much more. Additionally, Hall opens up about the larger themes of the prescient and timely musical, as well as shares her affection for the rock, pop and punk sound the score so evocatively emulates and winningly recreates. On that note, Hall also sheds some light on her other ongoing endeavor, as lead singer of the band The Deafening, and shares some of her favorite songs to sing at gigs around town - including an upcoming show at Arlene's Grocery later this week. As if that were not enough, Hall also looks back at some of her most fondly remembered roles to date, reflecting on her time spent in the corps of CATS and the lace-ups of KINKY BOOTS through to a new jukebox musical project featuring the music of iconic rock songwriter Holly Knight. All of that, hilarious throwback tales involving NPH and much, much more in this wide-ranging conversation with one of the most uniquely compelling Broadway stars of the new season.
More information on HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH is available at the official site here.
More information on Lena Hall & The Deafening at Arlene's Grocery on April 16 is available here.
The Long Grift
PC: I adore your mash-up of Heart and CATS. Are you a big Heart fan?
LH: Of course! And, if you don't know him, Bon Scott was the original lead singer of AC/DC and I always tell people that I am Von Scott and Ann Wilson's illegitimate child.
PC: Have you ever sung "Barracuda"? It's treacherous.
LH: Oh, yeah! I am totally a huge Heart fan. I actually tried to do this three-person musical using all their music once, but I couldn't get the rights. I did a concert version of it, just to see how it would go, and everyone loved it!
PC: A Heart jukebox musical is one of the great gotta-happen-someday projects.
LH: Exactly! I thought they might be open to it, but their manager just wasn't into it. It would have been so cool, though.
PC: Did you embrace your rock side or your theatre side most growing up?
LH: Well, my parents were both very strange people - they were hippies and so they listened to The Beatles and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and The Who; and, some weird rock n roll, too. Do you know Frank Zappa?
PC: The concept album king! Of course.
LH: Yeah, lots of kind of odd things that I'm sure were inspired by acid trips. So, they liked to listen to that kind of stuff and that's what I grew up with. But, my sister was big into musical theatre and my whole life I always kind of wanted to do what my sister did, and, so, she was doing musical theatre, so I wanted to do it, too. I did ballet before that, but then I joined the same company as her. So, once I got into musical theatre I didn't really listen to a lot of rock n roll anymore for a really long time - until I moved to LA briefly.
PC: What happened in LA?
LH: Well, in LA, since you are in your car so much, you listen to a lot more music. So, I would listen to the classic rock radio station and that sort of re-ignited my love for all things rock n roll. [Laughs.]
PC: How long ago was that?
LH: Yeah, that was a while ago - maybe 10 years ago.
PC: What was your first big professional musical theatre job?
LH: I did CATS when I was just a babe - a wee little child.
PC: Ballet led to CATS, I take it?
LH: Yeah, that probably had something to do with it, I'm sure. I played Demeter.
PC: Did you enjoy your time in the show?
LH: Oh, I loved it! I absolutely loved it. I mean, I was so young that I was still very naïve of everything - I was just kind of there enjoying it. It's interesting, when you are young and you get a job like that you tend to enjoy it more - because later on there is some sort of strange bitterness that appears that you inherit from other people, just from being around other people in the business who are bitter.
PC: It spreads.
LH: For a while, I was in that bitter place myself, actually - yeah. When I was young, I was just like, "This is great! I'm living my life! I don't care about what other people think!" And, the more that people don't like you, the more you let it affect you - you become less outgoing and you start to believe their point of view instead of your point of view. So, it took me a while to get out of that.
PC: What got you out of it eventually?
LH: Joining my rock band, The Deafening - being a part of a rock band and having a totally different life outside of theatre.
PC: Stephen Trask and Neil Patrick Harris both seem to have that same sort of passion and outgoing energy - as I'm sure you've noticed.
LH: Oh, yeah! They totally do. And, even Michael Mayer does, too; it's like a blatant honesty and a sort of childlike innocence - even though they're not childlike at all - in saying what is on his mind. He also says it on his face! [Laughs.]
PC: Nothing is held back.
LH: There's a really nice, welcoming, open honesty about him. I mean, sometimes, though, I see the faces he is making and say, you know, "Why are you looking at me so horribly right now?!" [Laughs.]
PC: Tell me about reinventing Yitzhak in HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH for 2014.
LH: It's exciting! It's exciting to start with what had been done and taking it into account - all that Miriam [Shor] had done - and now taking the time to sit around and ask, "Well, who am I as the character? Who am I as this man from Croatia? Would I be the same way as her? Would I wear the bandana?" So, we addressed all of that and we ended up changing a lot of things. I mean, I look nothing like the character that Miriam created! Nothing.
PC: How did you come up for your striking look in the pre-rehearsals promo YouTube video you recently posted with yourself as Yitzhak?
LH: Well, that was inspired by her - because that's what I knew Yitzhak as at that point; you know, wearing the bandana with the long hair hanging down and everything. The roadie look. So, I did that for my audition, and, from then until now, they have completely re-imagined the look - I don't look anything like that in the show now.
PC: Can you take me through the audition process?
LH: Basically, I had a million auditions for this show! [Laughs.]
PC: What was the most memorable one?
LH: Well, when I went in for John Cameron Mitchell and Michael Mayer, I went in dressed as Yitzhak and I brought my boyfriend in with me, who is a guitarist, and he played the electric guitar and I had an amplifier that I plugged in for him - like a read roadie would - and then I did the whole audition. I would break character during the audition, but when we did the scenes I would go into character.
PC: What did you sing?
LH: I sang some stuff from the show - including Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" - and I also did "Kiss Me Deadly" by Lita Ford.
PC: What was the reaction?
LH: Well, they must have liked it a little bit since they asked me to come back and audition again. But, for the next audition, they told me up front that they didn't want me to break character and that they wanted me to tell a story or read a joke or an obituary or something as the character. So, I thought, "Hmm," and, instead of searching for something, I wrote an entire monologue - and it's actually in the description of that YouTube video we put up - and it's basically all about his past and everything that led up to that Kickstarter video, which I then showed them then and there on a computer after I did my monologue.
PC: How inventive!
LH: Yeah, I guess I felt a certain spark of creativity when they asked me to do something as the character. I was like, "Absolutely! I'm gonna go for it."
PC: How does one get attention in 2014? Social media.
LH: Exactly! Exactly. I actually tried to get a real Kickstarter campaign going, but they wouldn't let me because it is obviously made-up. I wanted them to be able to see all the gifts and everything I was coming up with - you know, for a certain amount, I will hold a candlelit vigil in your name and stuff like that.
PC: What else?
LH: Oh, there were a bunch - I'll send you a recording of me doing your favorite song; the candlelit vigil thing for anyone who gives a dollar. I mean, what if a ton of people gave a dollar and I really had to do all those candlelit vigils?!
PC: Method acting run rampant!
LH: Exactly. Exactly.
PC: Do you know who else auditioned for Yitzhak?
LH: Oh, they looked at a lot of people - a lot. I think Michael Mayer wanted to see a lot of people that he had already worked with, too, which makes a lot of sense. I thought because of that that I had sort of an uphill battle because he didn't know me, but it all worked out.
PC: It could go so many different ways.
LH: You're right. And, you know, not all women can pull off being a man. For me, I have a very large jaw line and chin, so that helps me a lot.
PC: Yet, you're a former ballerina.
LH: Right. Right. It's a pretty far jump from the barre.
PC: Is HEDWIG your first real rock musical or have you done something along these lines prior to this?
LH: Well, I did PROMETHEUS BOUND a little while ago, which was a lot of fun to do.
PC: Lea DeLaria recently spoke so favorably about that to me, as well.
LH: Oh, Lea was f*cking phenomenal in that! She was awesome. It was a crazy, crazy score - really heavy metal stuff, belting out Fs and crazy high soprano notes; and, then, I'd be singing something very beautiful and clean and sweet. It was a wild score - so great. So exciting. I did the Jeff Buckley ROMEO & JULIET at Williamstown, too...
PC: A hot property. What was that like?
LH: Oh, that was a lot of fun, too. I played Rosaline, who isn't even actually in the Shakespeare play - they just talk about her. So, I got this great big sexy dance number and had some cool stuff to do. I had a good time doing that.
PC: Do you know what the future of the project will be?
LH: I don't know. They did it at La Jolla and it got good reviews, I think, so I hope that it moves forward. It's such a great idea - I remember being like, "F*ck! I wish I thought of this idea!"
PC: What have been some projects you have worked on that you hope come in in the near future?
LH: One project I am working on that I am really excited about is this musical using the songs of Holly Knight - "Simply The Best" and "Love Is A Battlefield"; a lot of Tina Tuner, Pat Benatar and powerful female rock anthems. So, I met her through Desmond Child and she has a show that she is working on using her catalog - it's sort of a jukebox musical based on her life and I am playing her. It's totally all music in my wheelhouse, so I'm really excited about it.
PC: What is the current status at this point in time as far as you know?
LH: I've done a couple of table reads of it since it's still in the basic stages and we have a reading coming up, too. It's such an exciting project - I think all of her music is brilliant. She's the rocking-ist chick, too - she's just so cool. We're also working together on some of my other stuff, too.
PC: Speaking of The Deafening, tell me about the song "Jesse".
LH: Oh, I fought for that song! I fought hard for it. The guys in the band were like, "This is sick!" And, I said, "That's why it's awesome!" I wrote it with the guitarist in the band, Burt, and that was a total last-minute add-on track. It's about a friend of his who he grew up with who was the prom queen and who died from a cocaine overdose.
PC: Does it have single potential, do you think?
LH: Well, we actually have a single coming out soon that is a song we used to do when we were Cocaine, The Band - it's so good that we just couldn't ignore it. It's going to be our pop single.
PC: What's the title?
LH: It's called "Wasted". It's not even out yet - we are getting it mastered right now and I am already planning the music video for it. It's going to be a minute before it comes out - it will probably come out after we open, but hopefully sometime in May.
PC: On the subject of The Deafening's singles and videos, how did you do that levitation effect in "Death Rattle N' Roll"?
LH: My friend, Bobby, works at these studios where they do flying and silks and all that stuff - they have this huge space in Williamsburg. So, I said to him, "Yo! We have this idea, can you do it?" And, he just put it together for us - and it worked! We filmed that in like a week - from conception to getting it filmed. How it works is that we are all suspended from our hips and the ropes are just loosely tied up above us. Also, of course, they cleaned it up in post with after-effects and stuff like that - it was as simple as possible, but it looked really cool.
PC: So, is "Wasted" part of a new album project?
LH: We are working on writing songs for a new album right now - yeah. Before that, though, I am going to be releasing an EP with Holly of two or three singles - I just finished mastering one of the songs that she wrote, actually. She really gets my style - a little edgy and a little rock. I guess I would say it is sort of a cross between Katy Perry and Pink.
PC: Will there be a promo video or any singles from HEDWIG as far as you know? Have the orchestrations been updated?
LH: I think the music in this show is pretty timeless, honestly. They have definitely switched some things up, though - there are definitely some new takes on some of the songs. But, really, this score is classic, I think - it will never, ever go out of style.
PC: What's your personal favorite moment in the score to sing?
LH: My favorite song is "Wicked Little Town", but my favorite song to perform is probably "Midnight Radio" - all that crazy belting at the end is just ridiculous. I love it. There is really nothing more invigorating that ending a show on a high like that.
PC: As a KINKY BOOTS alum, you must have heard Cyndi Lauper's "Midnight Radio" cover, yes?
LH: No! I had no idea she did one! No sh*t!
PC: Will you be performing any HEDWIG songs at your band gigs?
LH: Well, the band for HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH, Tits Of Clay, is going to do gigs with us outside of the show - we did one at the Mercury Lounge recently that was really exciting. So, I think we are going to be doing a few more of those. And, we have some special guests coming in, too, so it won't always just be Neil, either.
PC: Is there really no understudy for Neil in the show? Would John step in if it was necessitated?
LH: No, it's true - Neil does not have an understudy. That's an interesting question, though - if he got really sick, would John do it? I imagine that they would just cancel the show. Actually, I've been thinking about that - if he has to drop out of a verse or something, I better know all the lyrics! I have to be able to fill in if he needs a moment to catch a breath or something. We're just gonna roll with the punches, I guess - and they're gonna be good punches, too.
PC: Tell me about your tambourine bruises, as seen on Twitter.
LH: Oh, yeah! [Laughs.] I bruised the bottom of my hand and so I was using my leg to bang the tambourine on, but I ended up bruising up my leg a lot doing that.
PC: Will Neil be doing "the carwash" for a lucky audience member every night, as in the original?
LH: All I will say is that you are going to see the things you want to see, and, also, you will see some new stuff, too! [Laughs.]
PC: Are there any new songs you are trying out? Do you have a solo moment?
LH: Yes - I sing "The Long Grift".
PC: How fabulous.
LH: Yeah, I am really excited about it! I love that song.
PC: Have you met Miriam Shor yet or talked to her about the role at all?
LH: No, I haven't! I hope she comes to the opening, though - and I hope she approves, of course. And, I hope the fans approve, too!
PC: Did you see the original production of HEDWIG Off-Broadway?
LH: Yes, I did. I mean, I've bought the album a million times since, too - like four times! [Laughs.] I am such a fan.
PC: Do you prefer the movie soundtrack or the original cast recording?
LH: The original cast. That's what I've listened to the most - especially because it has "Random Number Generation", which I love.
PC: Will "Random Number Generation" or "City Of Women" or any of the other band numbers be in the Broadway HEDWIG?
LH: No, but we are working on a contingency plan in case something happens and the show needs to take a pause - then, we will use other music. I love "Random Number Generation" and "Freaks". We already worked a little bit on "Freaks" and "Random Number Generation".
PC: The movie soundtrack has a couple fabulous additional songs, too - "Nailed" in particular.
LH: That's right - I love the other stuff that Stephen Trask wrote for it.
PC: Will you be doing those hi-pitched squeaks that Miriam did? What is that even called?
LH: I have no idea! I will be doing them, though! [Laughs.] I think it's basically just hi-pitched screaming - that's all it is.
PC: Did you have any hesitance taking on a classic like "I Will Always Love You", even in this context?
LH: I'm totally comfortable with it. They let me do it Dolly Parton or Whitney Houston, so I was like, "OK. Cool." They gave me some room to play. When I was auditioning, though, they really wanted it to sound just like Whitney Houston, so I really worked on trying to make it sound just like her. I worked really hard on that. But, to answer your question: I took it with open arms.
PC: Are you over the moon that HEDWIG has finally landed on Broadway? As a big fan, you must be like me and barely believe it is happening.
LH: No, I know what you mean - but, it's f*cking happening, man! I couldn't believe it either. Even when I got the job, I was like, "This isn't real," and the other day it finally hit me and I'm like, "Oh, my God! I can't believe it's really happening!" [Laughs.] Now, I'm in a man's costume, wearing a prosthetic penis.
PC: You're going the full hog, then?
LH: Yes, I am. I am wearing a piece - it's called a packer.
PC: What has your experience been like adjusting to that?
LH: It makes you walk really differently - there's something about having something there that really helps me get into the character a lot better, though. I don't know if people remember the show, but Yitzhak leaves and then come back onstage as a woman for the bows. Hedwig puts the wig on me and then I go offstage and I have about one minute to completely transform into a woman. It is the craziest - it's insane - what I wear at the end. I am so, so excited about it. You don't even know, Pat! Your jaw is gonna drop on the floor. Lots of skin. [Laughs.]
PC: Having spent so much time seeing Neil develop the role in rehearsal, what have you taken away from the process? What was the first time you two even met?
LH: Well, it's a long story - and this was a long, long time ago - but I dated a friend of his who he was living with in LA and I would call him and Neil would sometimes answer the phone, and, since they sounded so much alike, sometimes I would get them mixed up. Sometimes Neil would pretend to be his friend, too. So, I'd call and be like, "Oh, I miss you so much! I love you," and Neil would pretend to be my boyfriend and say, "Oh, I miss you and love you, too," and sound just like him doing it. [Laughs.]
PC: What was the first time you met about HEDWIG?
LH: Our first rehearsal together - I think it was in early February? I have my time-lines really mixed up now. I remember that he told me right to my face, "That was the greatest audition I ever saw anyone do - ever." And, ever since then, he's just been super easygoing and fun and a jokester - I've always felt really welcome with him. He's a doll - just the greatest. Of course, the dynamic changes between us as rehearsals go on - we were much more lovey-dovey in the beginning. As we've gone through the process, we've realized that it shouldn't be very lovey-dovey and we have to build to that big moment where they break-up. So, now, it's a little darker.
PC: Since HEDWIG is a rock show and you are in a band, I'm curious: what are the most popular tracks on your iPod right now?
LH: Well, there are a lot of The Deafening songs, of course. "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden. "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel. Oh, and, the Theme for THE NEVERENDING STORY.
PC: Why that?!
LH: You have to watch the original music video for that song - it's hilarious! This guy with the most hilarious mullet you've ever seen is in front of this screen playing THE NEVERENDING STORY. It's so great - and so horrible.
PC: This was so much fun, Lena. You are a true star on the rise and we all can't wait to see what you bring to HEDWIG!
LH: Thank you so much, Pat. This was a lot of fun. I hope you like the show! Bye bye.