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Sin, Salvation, and Lena Hall

Sin, Salvation, and Lena Hall

Lena Hall photographed by JD Urban
JD Urban

After hanging up her wig as Yitzak in Hedwig, the rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, Lena Hall takes on a fresh challenge at the famed Café Carlyle.

aaronhicklin

Lena Hall won a Tony for her brilliant performance as Yitzhak in the Broadway revival of Hedwig. Last week, after a year of playing the role--opposite four different Hedwigs--Hall stepped down to focus on a very different gig. Starting tonight she appears at New York's legendary Cafe Carlyle for Lena Hall: Sin & Salvation, a two-week residency performing a rock and blues set inspired by her varied and eclectic tastes. She took time to chat about her hard-earned breakthrough, performing alongside Judy Garland, a.k.a. John Cameron Mitchell, and the night she found herself strapping on a packer in front of Aretha and Gladys.

Out: You paid your dues on Broadway over many years before landing the role of Yitzhak in Hedwig. Now you're about to perform at New York's legendary Cafe Carlyle. It seems like Yitzhak was the role you needed to open the doors.

Lena: Oh yes, absolutely it was. For a long time I was kind of frustrated, and I didn't know why I was doing anything, or what the point was. I had a pivotal moment where I finally decided that I would do things that I wanted to do, instead of for the credit or for the money. That really changed everything. I feel if you're really into what you're doing and you're happy doing it, then you shine through. If you are miserable, that shows too. So, you always have to be in love with what you're doing.

When this role materialized, did you know it would transform things for you?

No, I didn't. On paper, the role is very small. It doesn't look like some huge, Tony Award-winning turn of a role. It's not meaty. Even in past productions, how Yitzhak is utilized depends on who plays the role. I understood him. I have a band, so I've done a lot of shows at horrible clubs. I've seen the sound guys, the tech guys and the people who have been there for years and are miserable. I also know a lot about teching, and what his role would have been to Hedwig, on that stage and in that moment. So, it was cool that [director] Michael Mayer and the whole team allowed me to inject myself into every conversation. To be like, "I'll take care of it. You need me to get rid of this? I'll take care of it." It ended up that all the stage moves, all prop moves, everything on stage fell on my shoulders, which is right for the part. To be the crew guy as well as her husband. It gave me and the character more face time, where the audience was curious about who that guy was.

So you grabbed the role by the horns and turned the performance into something for the audience that became about this duality at the play's center. That transition and transformation, particularly at the end, is an extraordinary revelation.

The whole show for me is like a set up for that moment, to make that moment as spectacular and impactful as possible. So it was important for me for people to feel, like, How did that person become that other person? It was to set up the surprise, and also the emotional journey. For me every night, it's my chance to have fun and have fun with the audience, show them what I can do. That moment is a big catharsis for everyone. It's a huge moment of release.

Lena Hall

Lena Hall with her four Hedwig husbands at her final performance: Andrew Rannells, John Cameron Mitchell, Neil Patrick Harris, and Michael C. Hall

You've seen a lot of Hedwig's come and go at this stage.

Yeah. They're all extremely different. No one will respond the same, so I adjust accordingly. I have no power and no say. [Laughs.] So, when they come in, I have to adjust for what they want from me, how they want to respond to me. It's my job to adjust so that the story makes sense. All of them have been amazing. For me, I've been so lucky to work with these awesome leading ladies.

If you took each one in turn, starting with Neil Patrick Harris, what would be the single quality you would describe that they brought to the performance?

Neil [Patrick Harris] was the show girl. Andrew [Rannells] was the cheerleader. The mean cheerleader. Michael C. Hall was tragic, in a good way. Of course, John [Cameron Mitchell] is Hedwig. It's like Judy Garland back on stage. [Laughs] There's just no comparison. He wrote the damn thing. It's not fair.

How does it feel to have finally taken your last curtain call as Yitzhak?

I was supposed to leave in December, and I sort of extended and extended. I am so happy because I wanted to do the show with John [Cameron Mitchell]. That's been incredible to be with him. I've loved his show for such a long time. I saw it with my sister, Callie, when I first moved to New York and it opened my eyes to what theater could be. Ever since then I've loved it. It's been the soundtrack of my life. Once my replacement was announced, I became really annoyed [Laughs]. You know what I mean? But I had to leave. My wrist and my body needs to rest really bad.

Take me back though to you and your sister in the audience, the first time?

I had just moved here from San Francisco. I left home on my 18th birthday to do Cats on tour, and then I moved to New York, right after I turned 19 with a Broadway credit. I was living my dream, and what I had known from theater, what I had done in high school...Bye Bye Birdie, Gypsy, all those kinds of shows. I was a ballerina and I was not really that exposed to rock music. My parents listened to a lot of Joplin and Hendrix and Beatles, so that was my basis for rock music. When we saw Hedwig we were completely sucked into the story, so hardcore. By the end of the show, our arms were in the air and we were both sobbing. It really opened my mind to what theater could be and what it could say, and how it could touch you in such a deep way.

And now you are at Cafe Carlyle, a whole other New York, an intimate cabaret space renowned for hosting such legends as Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt, and--still to this day--Woody Allen. It's a quintessential, unchanged, uptown New York scene. What's your goal for your residency there?

Every song will be very unexpected. The idea is to bare my soul through music for the audience to take in, really close up. So every song I've chosen, I have a connection to. I am going to keep the talking to a minimum, because I'd rather have the songs and let the music do all the talking for me. Sometimes I open my mouth and say the stupidest things and I don't want to ruin anything. [Laughs] A lot of people have asked me to sing more, so they're going to get a whole night of me singing everything. I'll use every part of my voice. It will be very different for the Carlyle. It will be my aesthetic.

So no interpretations of the Cole Porter songbook?

Absolutely not. For example, I'm doing "Take Me to Church" by Hozier, as the theme of the show is Sin and Salvation. We go all the way back to James Brown's "It's a Man's World," and all the way up to current songs, and everything in between. It's my night, so I'm going to sing my face off. [Laughs.] I'm going to be playing percussion too, so I'll be playing the tambourine and shaker. I have a great four-piece band and a pianist. The guitarist and the bass player will also be amplified as well. It's going to be a big range. It's gonna get rockin', but it'll be rockin' in a bluesy way.

What would you say is your single biggest influence in terms of music or songs?

I grew up listening to music all the time. My parents always had the classical channel on or some really weird Frank Zappa album. The only time the music was ever off, was if someone was not home or we were in bed asleep. My sister would listen to punk rock in her bedroom and she introduced me to The Cramps and Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, things like that. So I had this wide range growing up and it was always a part of my life. I was randomly picked to perform for Pope John Paul after another kid had dropped out. I was like, Yeah! [Laughs]

So your first public performance was in front of the Pope?

Not really, because I had been performing in L.A. my whole life. It was never a question of what the bug was, because the bug was instilled in me from when I was a baby. The only time I ever doubted myself vocally when I was told that I couldn't sing by someone, when I was in Tarzan. That got in my head and so a lot of things changed. I got my tonsils removed, and I gained my confidence back with my rock band. Now, here I am. If someone tells me I can't do something I one up them one hundred percent. So that person told me that I couldn't sing and I won a Tony Award. [Laughs]

Tell me about going up on stage to receive your Tony Award?

I can't, because I don't know what happened. I was sitting and being so nervous. I didn't even want to be there. I wanted to be out of my skin, because I hated sitting there waiting. It was the worst wait of my life. You can tell from the video, I am like scrunched all the way down in my chair. When they called my name, the only thing I was thinking was that I had 90 seconds from being called up to getting off stage again. It was an out of body experience. Apparently, Leighton Meester was up there and I'm a huge Gossip Girl fan. I didn't even see her. I didn't even notice her. All I knew was that a camera was on my face and that I didn't want to be there. Callie was in the building to do my hair, and when I came off stage, I had to rush and become a man because I had to perform. So I ran upstairs and I had just won the Tony and there was my sister. That was the best thing ever. I couldn't have been happier. Someone was, like, "You gotta get undressed!" I put on a fake penis--a packer--and and Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin were standing right there, with me putting on a fake dick. [Laughs] I had no idea who was in the room. Not a clue. My thong was going insane, and I had to put all that makeup on and get myself on stage. It was a wild, wild day.

For tickets for Lena Hall: Sin & Salvation, playing through Saturday April 18, calling 866-663-1063 or by visiting TicketWeb.com.

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