Lena Hall's diverse career has taken her from hard-rocking front woman for The Deafening to a star-making role in Broadway's Kinky Boots to her current turn on the Belasco stage as Neil Patrick Harris' sullen husband in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The pigeonhole-averse actress even shortened her name from Celina Carvajal — from her days of performing in Cats and Tarzan — to her current more streamlined moniker. "I loved the way the name Lena Hall sounds. It just sounds like a singer. It reminds people of Lena Horne," Hall explained. Hers is a story nearly as rife with transformation as that of her character, Yitzhak — from destitute Croatian boy to a wannabe-drag queen and backup guitarist.
As a performer, making bold choices seems to come naturally to Hall. For her first Hedwig audition, the spunky performer came dressed in full drag with a prepared monologue, back story, and Kickstarter video for her character. Once she had successfully bagged the part, Hall threw herself fully into the work of embodying Yitzhak. Hall recently invited TheaterMania to her dressing room to discuss her transformation from Lena to Yitzhak, the intersection between rock music and Broadway, the realization that NPH is laughing at your jokes.
How did you develop the story for Yitzhak that got you this role?
I took what I knew about the character and then I thought about what my own Yitzhak's story line would be. How did I get here to America? So I made up an entire back story of growing up in a small town in Croatia where my parents worked at a yak hair factory that produced the hair for the wigs in Cats on Broadway. And so when Cats closed, my town went into ruins. And I lost everything. And my mother died in a house fire caused by all the yak hair she had brought home from the yak hair factory closing down. And her last words were "No day but today." And so I went on a journey to come to America to fulfill my dream of being on Broadway in this amazing musical called Rent and then when I got here I saw that Rent was closed and in its place was Newsies. That was all just taken from what I remembered about the character, and then I added on from my own experiences. Because I was in Cats so I knew a lot about yak hair.
Did you consciously choose to change your image in both your personal life and when you decided to audition for Hedwig?
It was a slow process, because for the longest time I guess I really didn't know who I was specifically as a performer. I knew I loved to sing rock and roll, but I knew I loved musical theater, so I was kind of lost between both worlds. I had changed my name in my band because we had alternate personas for a while and I finally settled on Lena Hall, which was a shortening of my real name. And it kind of hit a chord with me. I enjoyed performing as her so much that I thought, Why not? I am a performer in my whole life. And why live two lives? So I decided just to combine them. And as far as this show is concerned, I wanted to show range. I'm kind of a chameleon. When it comes to putting me in any costume, I look very, very different. So when I heard it was coming to Broadway, I was just like, I've gotta be seen. I love that part. It would be so much fun to be a man. And I just wanted to be a part of it so bad. So when it was postponed for so long, that was really a blessing. It worked out so perfectly. I feel like the planets aligned.
After landing the role, how did you take what you created in the audition room and turn it into the Yitzhak audiences see onstage?
I really dug it 'cause vocally, the part is very female. And also there's very few words that my character actually says. So the entire role is about the physicalization of the character and acting with my body. I studied men's walks and their mannerisms, how they pick things up. It's the little details that color the character and make me convincing as a boy, [like] the little add-ons I have, like I wear men's cologne and deodorant. And I really try to get into the mental space of how the man thinks.
What has it been like to work alongside Neil Patrick Harris?
I love him very much. He's not like I'm a star. Don't talk to me. He's very open. He makes fun of me a lot, which is great; I make fun of him too. Right off the bat, it was a very easy relationship…and [he's] open and actually like, you know, laughed at all my jokes the very first day. I can just be myself and have fun. And it's totally cool.
How did you and Neil develop your onstage chemistry?
Oh my god, the stuff that he would do to me. He used to lick my face every moment he could. They were finally like, "Don't lick her face…just…try not to lick her face. Do something other than that." It was supposed to be a kiss and then it turned into just me standing there with my mouth closed really tightly and him just licking all over my mouth and then it turned into this big huge lick all the way up my face. It's my job to be kind of like a stoic man and just take whatever Neil dishes. I can do it.
What do you love most about being in this show?
I remember even when I saw [its premiere] at Jane Street Theater, it was a religious experience for me and my sister, lifting our hands in the air at the end and just like living in that and sobbing and crying. I don't know what it is, if it's the music or the story, it's probably the way it's married together. It changes you in a weird way. It's not about acceptance, it's about like, freeing yourself.
There is a really palpable joy felt from the audience at the end of the show. It feels like the ceiling of the Belasco is gonna blow. It is just crazy. I've just never felt anything like that.