Lena Hall has performed the entirety of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As in: every song, every line, all the way through. Aside from the band, there are only two characters in the show, and, as of October 9, she’s played them both. After taking home the Tony Award for her portrayal of Yitzhak, the Jewish drag queen from Zagreb and Hedwig’s back-up singer and husband, she was asked to join the production’s national tour (with a sweet deal!). Once a week, she goes on as Hedwig, the iconic East German transgender glam-rocker.
Following her first time on as Hedwig, we caught up with Hall (11 AM her time in San Francisco) to talk about what it was like on the opposite side of the Hurt Locker.
How was your show last night? Tell me everything!
Lena Hall: It went very well. It was like being shot out of a cannon. I was nervous, of course, but once the show starts, it kind of never stops. The response from the audience was nuts, and I think people liked my choices a lot. I tried to really bring it back to the original show that Neil [Patrick Harris] and I did back in the day, so [I’m] bringing back a lot of the old jokes that Neil and I did, but I also got to pick and choose from all my Hedwigs that I’ve had—all the special things that I liked out of theirs—and incorporate it, but then also bring my own spin to it. The music was great—the songs went really well, and I think the band really loved it. It felt big. It felt special. It felt amazing, and the audience was so on my side, so it was great.
What was it like being on the opposite side? You’ve been doing the show as Yitzhak for so long. Was it surreal?
LH: Once the show kind of starts, you’re just in it, so all I was really doing was focusing on just telling the story—her story—and trying to be as focused on that as possible, but unfortunately for me, I don’t get the everyday run. I don’t have the moments where I can relax, so I’m very, very hyper-focused. The only weird thing is that when I see photos of last night from the curtain call, I think [understudy] Shannon [Conley] is me, so I think I’m Krystal [Nacht] in the photos, and I’m like, “Oh wait, no! That’s not me! That’s Shannon.” [Laughs.] I’m next to her, and I don’t recognize myself at all, so it’s kind of a weird thing. It was definitely an out-of-body experience. I had a lot of laughs…and I can’t wait to do it again.
How did it all come about? Tell me about your reaction when they said, “Hey, do you want to play Hedwig, too?”
LH: [Songwriter] Stephen Trask and I had talked about maybe coming into the Broadway company for a really short run between big[-name stars playing] Hedwig and playing Hedwig with Stephen playing Yitzhak. That idea had been tossed around for a while, but never actually happened. They really wanted me to do the tour. They really wanted me to do Yitzhak, and they knew that I was very reluctant to come back to the role because I had said goodbye in such a huge way, and nothing would replace that or top that—that special, special night—so they knew that the only way they would get me to come back is if they had some kind of big carrot or nugget for me. This was a great way for me to experience the other half of the show and also prove to them that, even though I am a woman, I can do it just like the boys do. We all knew I would be able to sing the sh*t out of the songs, but I don’t think that they knew how I would act it, and I think I did a really good job. Maybe one day, they’ll consider giving me my own run [as Hedwig].
What is your favorite part about being Hedwig?
LH: She’s a sassy bitch, and I love that! It’s fun to [have a] punk-rock kind of rawness, but with such a quick wit, and I’ve been told my facial expressions are really funny and make a lot of the character. I love her sense of humor. It’s the way the show is written. There’s something funny in everything. … It’s fun to have a German accent because a German accent is really funny. It’s fun to play all these different characters. It’s fun to play Tommy [Gnosis]! I love Tommy so much. It’s hard, but it’s great to go on her journey and to really break down that and be that vulnerable. It’s just right up my alley.
What was the hardest part?
LH: Honestly, the hardest part was just standing backstage waiting to go on. The journey of the show is so seamless, and it all just makes sense, and it goes from one section into the next, and it just takes you on this emotional roller coaster ride, and it’s very easy because you get to tell such a detailed, beautiful story. I was so nervous I thought I was going to throw up. That was scary. It was scary to be the Queen Bitch.
Who was in the audience to see you?
LH: My sister. She flew all the way from New York to come, and my parents and friends. People from New York, Hedheads from New York, Hedheads from around the world and childhood friends as well. It was a great group of people.
Did you celebrate with a big party after?
LH: We went to a diner! I ate. I was tired. I was wiped out. Now, doing both roles, I have a greater respect for the boys when they were tired after the shows, but I found that the quick changes they do… Hedwig has two quick changes. One is the “Wig in a Box” quick change, and the other is into Tommy Gnosis at the end, and I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is nothing! They should try and do my quick change from Yitzhak to Krystal—that’s insane!” They don’t know. They don’t know. [Laughs.]
What were some of the special moments you put into your Hedwig? You’ve seen so many amazing actors play the part, and you’re bringing yourself to the role… How do you fuse it all into your Hedwig?
LH: I keep remembering certain things that were done in the past, pre-John [Cameron Mitchell]. Because Andrew [Rannells] and Michael [C. Hall], they all learned the Neil show. Neil set the show, obviously, and everything was very specifically done—all his jokes and most of the adlibs. The only time he would “go off” what seemed like adlibs was when he would interact with people in the audience, but a lot of the show he did was very, very set. Comedy is hard, and comedy takes really good timing. I learned a lot from those three Hedwigs.
The show changed a lot when John came in because John added all his own stuff and all his own adlibs, and he can do that because he is Hedwig—he wrote the show, and it makes sense for him to do things like that—but then when people came in after him, they learned off of John, so they kept a lot of John’s stuff, and I felt like the focus of the show was so pinpoint with Neil. So it was nice to get back to that pinpoint storyline. All the stuff that’s written in the show, I’ve heard it said so many different ways, so many different inflections on different words that have made the lines mean so many different things, that I’ve been able to pull what I loved about the way each person said these things, and I adjust them and make it my own. Essentially the show was read to me five different ways, and I’m able to gain a really strong understanding with what’s being said because I’ve heard it said so many different ways, you get so many different interpretations. It’s like I’m doing a thesis on this show!
I have an understanding that no Hedwig has, and that’s from the Yitzhak point of view, and that also brings a whole new color to the show as well. I don’t feel like there’s going to be confusion or anything at all. Actually, they’re completely compartmentalized, accent and everything. I know what I’m doing when I’m on for each role.
You were just talking about audience interaction. What are you doing? Are you kissing people in the audience, like the boys?
LH: Well, there’s things that are very different… The boys, they climb on the set and stuff like that, and I wasn’t feeling very comfortable. Because I’m only doing this once a week, I was like, “I need to feel safe,” and I’m not comfortable enough on the set yet, so I’m taking my dance abilities from when I was a kid and infusing them into my Hedwig! I car wash, and I go out into the audience and things like that, but I do something very different than when the boys would go out and kiss someone. I think it’s great and hilarious, and it’s my own thing. I won’t tell you; I’m sure [people will find] out. I’m also a girl, so it’s a little bit different. I can’t go out there and… I feel like it would be different if I went out and kissed a man. It would be a different story only because I’m a woman, and even though people are on my side and they understand the story already, any kind of clue into [the fact that] I’m not actually a girly-boy is pretty important to me.
What has been your favorite Hedwig memory from the past few years? What sticks out to you?
LH: Honestly, my favorite memory is my last show as Yitzhak—my final show in New York. Just the general love from the audience was nuts—standing ovation like every time I opened my mouth, and then in the finale, a fan had given roses to everyone on the aisle to give to me as I walked up the aisle to go [on as Krystal Nacht], and I had all these roses. It was like something out of a movie. John Waters had a rose, and he handed it to me! [Laughs.]
For tickets and information visit HedwigBroadway.com.