Lena Hall: From Yitzhak to Hedwig

Mar 30, 2018

Tony Award winner Lena Hall comes from a long line of performers. "Seven generations back in the Philippines," Hall recounted to host Ophira Eisenberg, "my father's great-great-great-whatever ... was, like, a dancer." She continues, "My father's a choreographer; he had his own company. And my mother was his prima ballerina."

Hall herself "starting [dancing] at the age of zero," but back then she didn't go by Lena. "My real name is Celina Consuela Gabriella Carvajal," she told Eisenberg. "I found out that Carvajal is a stage name that seven generations back was taken ... so I thought, 'Well, if he changed his name and it was a stage name, my ancestors would totally understand.'"

As a teenager, Hall got her first break in the touring and Broadway companies of Cats. Soon after, she discovered the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch— the show she'd eventually win a Tony for. "I saw it when I was nineteen," Hall reminisced. "It changed me; it really affected me, and I listened to the cast recording nonstop. So when I heard it was coming to Broadway, I was like, 'I have to be seen for this.'"

Hall went all-in on her audition for the role of Yitzhak. To fully embody the mistreated boyfriend of the titular Hedwig, she auditioned in full drag. She stayed in character the entire time, fielding questions as Yitzhak and performing a self-written monologue about her character's childhood. Then she went even further, playing a "two-and-a-half minute Kickstarter campaign video that [she] filmed on the streets of Manhattan, in character." The video played in total silence, and Hall left thinking she bombed the audition. It was only after she got the part that she learned Neil Patrick Harris, the show's star, called it "the greatest audition ever."

Hall's dedication applies not only to her acting career, but also to her own work as a singer-songwriter. In her ambitious series of monthly EPs called Obsessed, she covers songs by her favorite artists. To challenge the queen of covers, we asked Hall to identify some of her favorite songs as interpreted in unconventional styles, including steel drum bands, panpipes, and video game sound effects.

HIGHLIGHTS

On her self-written audition monologue

I had decided that I would write a two-and-a-half minute monologue about my backstory being from a communist farming community in, um, Croatia that farmed the hair from the yak for the wigs for Cats on Broadway. It all comes back to Cats. You write what you know.

On referencing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in her Tony acceptance speech

At the very end of my speech I said "friendship is magic" and Hasbro found out. [...] I got a giant box of toys, of MLP stuff. I was like, "this is awesome, but why didn't I also say 'Jaguar: best car ever! I love Tiffany's diamonds!'"

Heard on Lena Hall: From Yitzhak to Hedwig.

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thanks, Jonathan. It's time to bring out our special guest. She's a Grammy nominee and a Tony Award winner for "Hedwig And The Angry Inch." Please welcome Lena Hall.

(APPLAUSE)

LENA HALL: Hi.

EISENBERG: Hi, Lena. So welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

HALL: Thank you.

EISENBERG: You come from a long line of performers and artists.

HALL: I do. I do - seven generations back in the Philippines. My father's great-great-great-whatever - far back, seven generations - was, like, a dancer...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HALL: ...And singers. There's - one of - my, like, great-great-aunt was a horror film actress. But she was, like, the monsters, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Really?

HALL: Yeah, they were an opera singer, a magician, a hypnotist, a painter.

EISENBERG: Is that - your grandfather was a magician and hypnotist?

HALL: Yes...

EISENBERG: He emigrated...

HALL: ...And painter.

EISENBERG: ...To the States.

HALL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Your parents are dancers?

HALL: Yes. My father - a choreographer. He had his own company, and my mother was his prima ballerina.

EISENBERG: I know, that's...

HALL: Yes. I...

EISENBERG: And you were a dancer for very many years.

HALL: Very many years, starting at age zero.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HALL: I came out of the womb dancing. My mom, she actually took ballet class and danced until I was born. So she said this - usually, in the mornings while she was pregnant with me, before class, she would have, like, hot, spicy chili...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HALL: ...Because I was a spicy baby.

EISENBERG: You were a spicy...

HALL: I was a spicy baby, yeah.

EISENBERG: That's what you wanted.

HALL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: That's what you wanted.

HALL: Exactly.

EISENBERG: So you have this dance background and performance background. But what drew you to go the musical theater route?

HALL: Well, my sister - she was into singing. And she's five years older than me, and I just - I always wanted to be just like my sister. And then my sister joined a young people's teen musical theater company in San Francisco. They were looking for dancers for "West Side Story," so I auditioned and was in "West Side Story" as a Shark.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HALL: Yeah, of course because I am Spanish. I'm Spanish-Filipino. My real name is Celina Consuela Gabriella Carvajal, which is interesting and very Espana.

EISENBERG: Beautiful, but you changed it.

HALL: I changed it, yes. I found out that Carvajal is a stage name that seven generations back was taken, and I always forget. I think Garcia is a real last name. And so I thought, well, if he changed his name and it was a stage name, my ancestors would totally understand. So I changed my name and shortened it so that it looked good on a marquee - Lena Hall. I don't know.

EISENBERG: Balanced.

HALL: Balanced, symmetrical. It sounds cool.

EISENBERG: It does sound cool.

HALL: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Yeah. Well done.

HALL: Well, Lena is a nickname. And Hall is whatever (laughter).

EISENBERG: Hall is whatever. Deep connection, a deep connection.

HALL: Yes, a deep connection to that.

EISENBERG: Now, in 2014, you win a Tony for your role as Yitzhak in my favorite Broadway show, "Hedwig And The Angry Inch."

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Your audition has been called the epic audition.

HALL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Why was it an epic?

HALL: Neil Patrick Harris said it was the greatest audition ever.

EISENBERG: Really?

HALL: Yeah. I really wanted the job, and I saw it when I was 19, when I was off-Broadway at Jane Street, I was doing "Cats." It changed me, really affected me. And I listened to the cast recording nonstop. And so when I heard it was coming to Broadway, I was like, I have to be seen for this. And I was like, all right, well, it's a dude. It's not a drag king. It's like a dude. And he's like a sound engineer on stage, right? I was like, so how can I kind of purvey that in my, like, first audition, which is you just go in and sing a song, right?

So I went in full drag. And I walked in the room, and there was John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, and I nearly had a heart attack and died. And then afterwards, they came up to me. And John was like, OK, so we're going to call you back. And I was like, great. And they're like, but this time, we want you to never break character when you're in the room the whole time. I was like, OK. They're like, we're going to ask you questions, and we want you to answer as Yitzhak. I was like, OK. And I had decided that I would write a 2 1/2-minute monologue about my backstory being from a communist farming community in Croatia that formed the hair from the yak for the wigs for "Cats" on Broadway. It all comes back to "Cats."

EISENBERG: Yeah, you bring it all together.

HALL: Yeah. You write what you know, right?

EISENBERG: And this is your audition?

HALL: This is my audition. There's a whole monologue.

EISENBERG: This is insane, hilarious.

HALL: And I was like, my biggest thing for that whole audition was if I have to be in this room with these people and answering questions, why am I there in the first place? I can't be me auditioning for Yitzhak to be in "Hedwig And The Angry Inch." That doesn't make any sense. So Kickstarter was like a big deal. And so I was like, I'm in that room to do a Kickstarter campaign to get them to give me money to bring rent back to Broadway.

And so after I was done with my 2 1/2-minute monologue - which was much longer than that, by the way - I took a computer out of my bag. And I opened it up. And I stood right in front of them. And I pressed play. And it was a 2 1/2-minute Kickstarter campaign video that I filmed on the streets of Manhattan in character. So the whole time, there's not a sound from anyone watching. And I was like, oh, my God. I'm bombing. And the only time that anyone laughed - it was John Cameron Mitchell. He laughed once during the video. And it was like a (unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

HALL: Like, that's how he laughed.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HALL: And so they filmed the whole thing for Neil to watch. And then when Neil got the tape, he was like, that's the greatest...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.

HALL: ...Audition I have ever seen. And I obviously got the job.

EISENBERG: I mean, if you didn't get the audition, you would petition. I think they...

HALL: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: ...Like, worried. And so Yitzhak is, of course, the love interest of Hedwig.

HALL: Yeah (laughter).

EISENBERG: So - but in addition to playing Yitzhak, you are one of the few women who also played Hedwig.

HALL: Yeah, yeah.

EISENBERG: So what was your take on the role of Hedwig?

HALL: Well, what's interesting is that because I sat and watched every single performance, I got four different takes on the show. So I got Neil's take. I got Michael C. Hall's take. I got Andrew Rannells' take. And I got John Cameron Mitchell's take. And everyone did something different. Everyone, like, had certain moments in the show or certain words or lines that would come out in a different way and mean something totally different. And so I was, like, sitting there, and I had, basically, a whole thesis going on. Do you know what I mean? It's like, I got to study the show in, like, such an intense way and know it backwards and forwards because each person brought something different out that I had to understand.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HALL: And so when it came to me doing Hedwig, it was already in my mind. It took me a week to learn the show. And, like, their little things were, like - would come in. So I was basically like the sum total of the four Hedwigs that I had been with.

EISENBERG: Yeah. You were like the historian of...

HALL: Yes (laughter).

EISENBERG: ...The entire show. Yeah.

HALL: Yeah, yeah. It was really cool, and no one's ever played both roles so...

EISENBERG: Right.

HALL: It's pretty cool. Actually - and it made Yitzhak much more complex because now I saw both sides of the story and both arguments almost.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HALL: It was awesome.

EISENBERG: One of the things that we found interesting was, of course, that you also voiced a "My Little Pony" character.

HALL: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I take it you're a fan since you ended your Tony Awards speech with friendship is magic.

HALL: (Whispering) Friendship is magic.

(LAUGHTER)

HALL: I was really obsessed with it while I was doing all the interviews for the month of the Tony Awards because the season finale had aired inside of that window.

EISENBERG: Right.

HALL: You know, and I was like super into that. I was like, oh, my God. It was, like, rainbow explosions everywhere. It's, like, amazing. It's, like, my life. You know, that's how I was feeling at the moment. And I wanted to do a shout out to MLP - "My Little Pony." But I didn't...

(LAUGHTER)

HALL: My publicist at the time was just like, no. People are going to think you're crazy. I'm like, but - but it's important, you know?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HALL: So I figured out, oh, I'll do it in, like, the sneakiest way possible. I'll just quote the show. No one will know except for Bronies, right?

EISENBERG: That's right.

HALL: Who are the older male fans of the shows - and then the pegasisters, which I am clearly. And - an older woman who is a fan of the show. They'll know. They'll get it, right? And so I did. I said - very end of my speech, I said friendship is magic. And Hasbro found out. So Hasbro - they, like, reached out. I got a giant box...

EISENBERG: Oh.

HALL: ...Of toys of MLP stuff. I was like, oh, my God. Like, this is awesome, but why didn't I also say, you know, Jaguar, you're...

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.

HALL: ...The best car ever.

(LAUGHTER)

HALL: You know, like, I love Tiffany's diamonds.

(LAUGHTER)

HALL: So - and they sent me, like, tons of stuff. And they were, like, look, we were really moved by this. We're thinking of writing you a show. I was, like, writing me a show? Like, yeah, your own character. Then you'd have your own storyline and all this kind of stuff. And I was like, (gasping) oh, my God. Are you kidding me? And then they wrote me a show. And it's the most beautiful - I couldn't have asked for a better character. I couldn't have asked for better songs. I couldn't have asked for a better storyline. I mean, I really lucked out. And I loved every minute of it.

EISENBERG: It's fun.

HALL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: All right. Lena, are you ready to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

HALL: No - yes.

EISENBERG: Yes, you are. Fantastic. Lena Hall, everybody.

HALL: (Laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: I'm going to welcome back Art Chung. So, Lena, you're releasing this series of tribute albums of...

HALL: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Some of your favorite artists called "Obsessed." We've created a game for you called Covered Covers. We're going to play a cover version of a song.

HALL: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: You just have to tell us the name of the song or original artist. OK. And if you do well enough, Ken Welty (ph) from Des Moines, Iowa will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

HALL: (Gasping).

EISENBERG: I know. It...

HALL: I don't want to mess it up.

EISENBERG: You'll be great. If you need a hint, our Puzzle Guru Art Chung is standing by. All right. First up, a steel drum cover by the University of Arizona School of Music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY PAN DEVILS STEEL BAND'S "SOLSBURY HILL")

HALL: That's "Solsbury Hill." Peter Gabriel, "Solsbury Hill"

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. Peter Gabriel's...

HALL: I was nervous.

EISENBERG: ..."Solsbury Hill."

HALL: That was cute.

EISENBERG: I know. It's cute. Peter Gabriel wanted more steel drums. So we...

HALL: He did?

EISENBERG: No, no.

HALL: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But you can imagine. Here's a chiptune cover by Professor Shyguy and Amanda Lepre.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNFLAKE GIRL")

AMANDA LEPRE: (Singing) You bet your life it is.

HALL: (Singing) Your life - this is Tori Amos.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HALL: (Singing) You bet your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNFLAKE GIRL")

LEPRE: (Singing) You bet your life it's a...

HALL: (Vocalizing). Is that...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HALL: "Cornflake Girl."

EISENBERG: Exactly. Yeah.

HALL: (Singing) Never was a cornflake...

(APPLAUSE)

HALL: OK. Oh, thanks.

EISENBERG: You kind of knew that after, like, the first sound.

HALL: (Vocalizing). Well, it reminds me so much of high school.

EISENBERG: I know, right? Yeah. All right. This is your last clue. This is Jorge Rico on pan pipes.

(SOUNDBITE OF JORGE RICO SONG, "I GUESS THAT'S WHY THEY CALL IT THE BLUES")

HALL: Yes, yes. (Singing) Time on my hands will be time spent with you. That's Elton John singing. Yeah, that's Elton John.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That is Elton John singing "I Guess Why They...

HALL: "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues."

EISENBERG: I guess that's why they call it the Blues.

HALL: That's why they call it the Blues.

EISENBERG: And that's why people love Zamfir.

HALL: That's - yeah.

EISENBERG: I think this worked out pretty well.

ART CHUNG: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Puzzle Guru Art Chung, how did Lena do?

CHUNG: You did great. Congratulations, Lena. You and listener Ken Welty have both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Lena is releasing a new cover EP every month in 2018 under her "Obsessed" series and will be performing "Obsessed: Elton John" April 2 at Pianos in New York City. Give it up for Lena Hall.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.