BWW Review: Full of Contradictions and Multitudes, Lena Hall Nails the Part in THE ART OF THE AUDITION
The Tony winner, who picked up the Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical award in 2014 for her transformative role of Yitzhak in HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH, has had a very well-documented rise to stardom, and, with one now-famous audition, has made the reasons behind that success clear. She has frequently shared her grueling and wildly innovative audition for the character, in which she, on the first pass, came dressed in complete drag, playing the roadie role to her accompanying electric guitarist, and, on her final callback, created a two-minute backstory monologue that ended with her Yitzhak sharing a Kickstarter video that would fund RENT's return to Broadway.
Of course, a great audition isn't unheard of, or there wouldn't be any actors on the stage. A bad audition is significantly less rare and, once recovered from, makes an excellent story. Feinstein's/54 Below has an entire annual series, LET ME TRY THAT AGAIN, devoted to it, in which actors take the stage to recreate their worst audition for the joy of the (slightly sadistic) audience.
Hall is filled with great stories in the form of great and bad auditions. In her new show THE ART OF THE AUDITION: FROM FALLING APART TO NAILING THE PART, which runs until March 17 at the Café Carlyle. she takes the audience on a journey through her audition ups and downs, "from epic fails to career-defining 'nailed it!' moments." The narrative is separated into her early years, her journey to her first major role in the national tour of CATS, the songs and parts she wasn't right for but that her mother would've loved to see her in, and, of course, the "Why haven't you ever played X part?" (Most of the latter category is made up of roles Idina Menzel made famous.)
A tour through her audition history, as well as the compendium of headshots she came with and passed out to the Carlyle crowd, shows a very real struggle for not just Hall, but for many female and femme performers on the big stage. How do you find your category without being cordoned off and typecast for the rest of your career? And, generally, how do you find your category, particularly if you don't fit into the brackets?
For Hall, it's been a journey from sexy to sweet to somewhere in between, and the middle ground has defined her entire career thus far. She is a classically-trained pianist, a soprano, and a dancer, but her time separate from the Broadway stage includes leading the rock band The Deafening and releasing a monthly series of OBSESSED EPs, which has, so far, focused on Elton John, Peter Gabriel, and HEDWIG. There are songs she nails without fail and songs she knows she doesn't but has kept in, anyway, like "Out of my Dreams" from OKLAHOMA!, playing them for laughs while also proving the foundation is there.
Unquestionably, Hall is a one-woman powerhouse and could likely do an entire show unaccompanied and yet still made the best possible decision by enlisting one of the community's best and brightest, Brian J. Nash, as her pianist/musical director for the show. Nash is a perfect fit for Hall, both a supplement and a luxury, an interpreter of the songs and a vital piece of them as he bounces and leans into the keys like they are an extension of himself.
And Hall, who says she still feels like the young girl who showed up to her LES MISÉRABLES audition having not prepared "Castle on a Cloud" like the rest of the auditioning young Cosettes but, instead, Gilbert and Sullivan's "I'm Called Little Buttercup" ("I've snuff and tobaccy and excellent jacky / I've scissors and watches and knives"), has grown and evolved significantly. Thinking back on that HEDWIG performance four years later, thinking of the short-on-words roadie who ends the show strutting down the aisle to uproarious applause in a piled-high blonde wig, sequin leotard, and bustle, that is Lena Hall, the "one-of-a-kind, came-out-of-the-sky kind of performer," as Stephen Trask once called her.
The Tony winner today is the same person as the girl who sang "Dance 10, Looks 3" from A CHORUS LINE and "Losing My Mind" from FOLLIES at her CATS audition, 17 years of age. Now, at age 38, she can stand on the stage of the Carlyle in a red velvet gown and move from Mozart's "Der hölle rache" from DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE, to the growling, gritty "Take Me Or Leave Me" from RENT, to the chosen encore of "Meadowlark" from THE BAKER'S WIFE. It is a catalog of songs which are, on paper, inappropriate for her, and somehow (with only a few exceptions) tailor-made for the dramatic, powerful, subtle, and subdued contradictions of her voice.
Hall, herself, laments that there are really no edgy characters on Broadway, at least not at the moment. If there were, she likely would be the first person called in to audition, as, unfair as it is, that may be where Broadway has bracketed her at the moment. The reality is that the majority of the female characters on stage at the moment are not simply edgy, but then again, neither is Hall. She contains multitudes, and the parts, songs, and auditions she touches are better because of it.
Ashley Steves is BroadwayWorld's Cabaret Editor and an arts and entertainment writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @NoThisIsAshley.