LENA HALL’S TURNING HEADS IN HEDWIG

About a year ago (to the day) we posted our first interview with Lena Hall.  Back then, her show Kinky Boots had just opened and was about to explode on Broadway as the hottest show in town.  A mere 365 days later, the same thing is about to happen…only this time Lena’s the star.  Her show Hedwig and the Angry Inch is currently in previews and will officially open at the Belasco Theatre on April 22nd.  It has already extended its run and has been selling out night after night.  In the show, Lena completely transforms herself into roadie, and Hedwig’s (Neil Patrick Harris) romance, Yitzhak.


MC: I read that you went full drag for the audition.  Why did you decide to go full throttle from get-go?

LH: Because the character is actually a man…Most of the girls at the audition looked like tomboys and I thought: well, this character is actually a man and it’s not at all a woman dressed up as a man. I thought it would be appropriate to come dressed in full man because sometimes it’s easier for me to get into it if I am dressed up in the character.  It just tells you how to be while you’re auditioning. Usually when you audition, you want to walk in the door and you want the casting agent to be like, “That’s the character!”  Even before you open your mouth.  That’s definitely a plus…

Yitzhak is a roadie.  I brought my boyfriend and he played electric guitar for me.  So when they announced my name, he went in first, and I came in second carrying his guitar with a cord and an amp [Lena laughs], and then set up all the instruments for him while he stood there and looked cool because that’s what roadies do. It was helpful to set up in my own head who I wanted this character to be and how I was going to play him.

That’s awesome because I feel like everyone’s advice for auditioning is, “Just be yourself.”  But maybe that’s not always the best choice. 

It depends on the show.  This is a crazy show; this is certainly different.  I would never do what I did for this show for a different show. Be yourself, yes, as in your personality and your openness, but also be whom you want the character to be and how you’re going to perform the character.  Brian Cranston said this and I took it to heart because I really liked what he said, “An audition is not an audition, it’s your one and only chance to perform the role….”And that really helped me especially for this show because to play a man is extreme, different from how I usually am.

Especially coming from Kinky Boots where you were super girlie.

I was a girlie girl in six-inch heels all the time.  Every costume was fit perfectly around my girlish figure.

What did you learn about auditioning during your auditions for Hedwig?

To be bold.  Make big bold choices.  It’s not always going to work out in your favor.  I am pretty lucky that it worked out in my favor.  It could have gone horribly wrong [Lena laughs].  The willingness to play and see how open you are and how creative you can be and what you can bring to the character.  It’s just be bold and make big choices.

Do you think it was easier for you to get in the mindset of playing the opposite sex and what that entails from being in Kinky Boots?

Well, it’s funny.  All the guys [in Kinky Boots] are not playing the opposite sex, they are drag queens always dressed in the opposite sex.  I think it’s so funny that I went from that show where all the guys had to do all this draggy stuff and now I’ve got my chance to go into a show and be drag…

Hedwig & the Angry InchBelasco Theatre
Lena in Hedwig

I don’t think Kinky Boots set me up for this role, but I like playing a boy; I’m a tomboy at heart and being a guy is much more grounded.  It forces me to not move around so much like shuffle my feet and not move my hips.  I already have a male mindset.  I’m not as girlie as most people think.  In my band, I like to be really feminine looking but then rock out like a man would on stage.  Sometimes I wear a tiny little sailor outfit, like a bra top and look really scantily clad, and I like to put on a mustache so it ruins the image.  I’m disrupting the image.

That must be so empowering.

Yeah, I love it. And when we were in rehearsals [for Hedwig], it was just me and the band…But then when we went into rehearsals with Neil [Patrick Harris] they wanted me to dress like a guy and I came in and all the guys in the band were like “you’re f**ing with my head right now because you’re really hot as a girl, but now you come in here and now I think you’re hot as a guy!”  

What does it entail exactly?  How have you been finding Yitzhak?

I just watch men walk around, hang out, stand around.  Also the look of Yitzhak has changed from what Miriam Shor did so they did a total redesign of the character.  He’s a bit more put together.  He’s a mysterious bad boy who’s always deep in thought but he has a real charm about him.   That’s why I like Marlon Brando a lot because he’s really intense but he’s also charismatic and it kind of sucks you in.  I’m trying to do that.  I’ve also been working out and working on my body.

But the thing is, I can’t go too far in any direction…I can’t get all butch because I get really, really revealed and am feminine beneath it all.  I want to dive fully into being a man but I can’t because I still have to have that femininity about me.

Did you use the film as resource at all?

I had seen the film but I didn’t want to watch it again before the auditions because I wanted to come up with my own identity. I’d also seen the Jane Street show and I had bought the original cast recording.  I really didn’t do too much research.  I wanted to go off with what they had given me and have my own ideas about it.  The old look of Yitzhak (from what I remember) is with that bandana and long hair…I really tried to stay clear of that for a while so I could have my own identity.

But after I got the job I watched the movie and I found a bootleg of the Jane Street on YouTube.  I watched that a bunch of times, too, and that was really interesting.  It [was] informative…

What was it like balancing Hedwig rehearsals with doing Kinky Boots at night?

It was so weird.  In the mornings I’d have to dress up for rehearsal…we’d rehearse at the New 42 [Studios].  I’d go to rehearsal and get all manned up and we’d rehearse.  Then, I’d have half an hour till my half-hour [call] so I’d run [as a] man and I’d go get something to eat.  I’d show up in the theater in full drag and I’d sign in and then I’d go to my room and wash my face and transform into a girl.  It was just a funny experience to go from this grounded dude in big heavy boots and then to literally run to the theater and take off my makeup and put on my lashes to become this British girl was not horribly hard.  The characters are so different.

The accents are extremely different, the movements are extremely different, the motivation of the characters are extraordinarily different, it was so much of a ying and yang situation that I thought it was fun and funny. It was more entertaining for me than anything else.  I loved it!

Your position was what everyone dreams of doing.

Yeah you’re living two different lives.  It’s amazing.

What’s it like to be in a two-person show?

It’s great.  It goes by so fast.  I’m so busy the whole time.  I mean I’m the roadie so I’m really in charge of everything Hedwig does.  I’m kind of her right hand man so anything she needs I have to get it and have to take care of it.  I have to always be on point.  It’s

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Lena and Neil Patrick Harris

nice.  Last time, in Kinky Boots, I spent most of my time off stage….Being in a two person play or musical there’s more camaraderie between us and a dependence.  “I’m willing to depend on you and you’re going to depend heavily on me.”

I know that Neil has a huge role that’s unrelenting so the best thing I can do for Neil is to always be there.   Any time he looks at me and needs something, just be there for him.  And then at the same time you’re telling a storyline…There’s so much to do and tell with two people…

You’re going to be belting it out a ton the next few months with Hedwig and your band The Deafening!  How do you keep your voice healthy?

I don’t really drink or smoke.  I get a lot of sleep and I just try to stay hydrated.  I have yet to see how hard the show is on me, vocally.  The range is really big.  I’m singing really high and I’m also singing in the basement of my voice.  I’ve never really done that before.  I’m curious to see how these next few weeks of previews play out for me.  I have some shows with my band coming up so I just have to make sure I’m staying healthy and I’m not pushing too hard and essentially it just comes down to your lifestyle as well.  You just need to take care of yourself.  Eat healthy and rest, your body will be good to you.  And it also has a lot to do with muscle.  Muscle memory.  Singing is like a muscle.  If you don’t exercise it, it gets weak. And when you do new exercises with it, it takes a while for it to get strong.   Once it’s strong, it’s always there as long as you are working it out…The show is a new muscle and I’m just working it out and after a couple of weeks I’ll really be able to relax a little bit because I’ll have the muscle memory intact.

I was looking at your schedule.  Are you guys dark two days a week?

We do seven shows a week, which is kind of brilliant.  I did the show, Empire, a tent show and circus.  We did ten shows a week and I sang every song in the show and that was so hard.  That was the first time I ever had a problem with acid reflux.  It was from the stress of the whole experience.  I had no understudy—it was just me.  Yeah, so this show will be easier than that show, but it will be much different from Kinky Boots where I barely sang so I have to take care of myself.  Not that I didn’t take care of myself in Kinky Boots, it’s just that it was easier to go out to do a huge long set with my band and come back the next day and do a Kinky Boots show.  The worst thing that would happen to me would be my neck hurt from head banging!

That’s the coolest injury a person could get!  What’s something valuable that you learned early on in your career that you still live by today?

Go for it.  Don’t let other people get you down.  It happens a lot.  I let other people get me down, get me kind of doubting myself and I let other people’s issues and bitterness, or emotional state, from the business or their own issues kind of hating on you, don’t let that get into your head too much.  I’m super sensitive about what other people think and I struggle with that all the time.

And also, never poo-poo—I can’t think of the word [Lena laughs]—where you are.  Always enjoy it and be grateful for it.   I found that when I started Kinky Boots I was like, “I’m going to be grateful for every moment.”  I’ve done shows where I’ve felt like I deserved more and it’s just no way to be.  It’s no fun for anyone and it also gives off the wrong kind of vibe.  It also just hurts yourself, your mind, in the long run.  So doing Kinky Boots I was like: I am going to be open to whatever, and I’m going to be so grateful and happy and thankful to be here every moment, and I’m going to try not to sweat the small stuff and also be aware when I am wrong.  We’re emotional creatures.  I would have moments when I would have frustration about something that was happening in Kinky Boots and I would take it out on Jerry Mitchell…When that happened, it only happened once, I made sure to apologize to Jerry for [my behavior].  I had no place to do that.  You’re place is on stage to do your job the best that you can.  Their job [the director’s job] is that they see the big picture and so they know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work…

It’s important to be truthful, honest and open but also really grateful for where you are.  The more grateful of what you have and where you are now, the more will come to you later on… It’s really important to be so in the moment to be happy and thankful for what you have because all that stuff that you want and think you deserve will start coming to you.  That was the biggest lesson I learned on Kinky Boots.  I spent a lot of time with Annaleigh [Ashford]—she was like my best friend on that show. We shared a dressing room.  It was nice to have someone like that, she never took for granted where she was and I really learned by example from her.  And I’m grateful to her for that.  I just sit here in the moment now and I live in the moment and try to do the best job I possibly can. ♦

Photo Credit: Manish Gosalia Photography, Walter McBride, Playbill
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