Lena Hall: From Yitzhak to Hedwig

Mar 30, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 9:57 am

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: From NPR and WNYC, coming to you from The Bell House in beautiful Brooklyn, N.Y., it's NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia, ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thank you, Jonathan. We've got a great show for you. Four brilliant contestants are here to play our nerdy games. They're backstage looking for the hidden immunity idol, but only one will be our big winner. And our special guest today is the multitalented Lena Hall. She played both of the major roles in "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," both Hedwig and Yitzhak. That's amazing. That's like playing the fiddler and the roof...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: ...Or like mamma and mia or God and spell.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Our first two contestants will play a game where singers stop being musical and start being real - real pretentious. Let's meet them - first up, Adrian Brune on buzzer number one.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: You write reports for the U.N. Welcome.

ADRIAN BRUNE: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Your opponent is Meghan Ballback on buzzer number two.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: You're a high school art teacher. Welcome.

MEGHAN BALLBACK: Thanks for having me.

EISENBERG: Adrian and Meghan, the first of you who wins two of our games will go on to our final round. Let's start with the trivia game called The Spoken Word. Jonathan and I will read spoken word sections associated with famous pop songs. You just have to ring in and identify the song or artist or both if you feel like showing off. Here we go. I'm sorry. The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why - oh, 'cause she's dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: Meghan.

BALLBACK: Taylor Swift.

EISENBERG: Yeah. That one was pretty easy, wasn't it? Yeah, well done.

(APPLAUSE)

COULTON: Before you go, there's something I want you to have.

EISENBERG: Oh, it's beautiful. But wait a minute. Isn't this...

COULTON: Yeah, yes, it is.

EISENBERG: But I thought that old lady dropped it in the ocean at the end.

COULTON: Well, Baby, I went down and got it for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

COULTON: Meghan.

BALLBACK: Britney Spears.

EISENBERG: Yeah, very good.

(APPLAUSE)

BRUNE: Impressive.

EISENBERG: "Oops!... I Did It Again." I was not familiar with that, but you remembered it.

BALLBACK: I watched "TRL" back in the day, so yeah...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: I found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn't want to self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me, so I went running for answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: Adrian.

BRUNE: Kanye West.

EISENBERG: I'm sorry. That is a good guess but incorrect. Meghan, can you steal?

BALLBACK: I am going to guess Common.

EISENBERG: Also a good guess but also incorrect. We were looking for Kendrick Lamar, "Alright." That's the name of the song.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Oh, my God, Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. It's dramatic reading.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

COULTON: Adrian.

BRUNE: Kanye West.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Sorry. It is still not Kanye West.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Meghan, do you know the answer?

BALLBACK: Sir Mix-a-Lot.

COULTON: It is Sir Mix-a-Lot. That's right.

(APPLAUSE)

COULTON: "Baby Got Back."

EISENBERG: Hey, brah (ph). How we doing, man?

COULTON: All right.

EISENBERG: It's been a while, man. Life's so rad. This band is my favorite, man. Don't you love them?

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah, oh, man, do you want a beer?

COULTON: All right.

EISENBERG: Oh, man, this is the best, man. I'm so glad we're back together and stuff. This is great, man.

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Hey, did you know about the party after the show?

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Oh, man, it's going to be the best. I'm so stoked. Take it easy, brah.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: Meghan.

BALLBACK: Weezer.

EISENBERG: That is correct.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Weezer, "Undone - The Sweater Song." Those voices actually in Weezer's rendition are the original bassist and their favorite roadie. This comes from the music video version of the song - ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: Meghan.

BALLBACK: Beyonce.

EISENBERG: Yeah, Beyonce.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: The song is "Sorry," but we all know - sorry, not sorry.

COULTON: Not sorry.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Excuse me. Can I please talk to you for a minute?

COULTON: Uh-huh, sure. You know, you look kind of familiar.

EISENBERG: Yeah, you do, too. But I just wanted to know. Do you know somebody named - you know his name.

COULTON: (Laughter) Oh yeah, definitely. I know his name.

EISENBERG: I just want to let you know that he's mine.

COULTON: No, no, he's mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: Meghan.

BALLBACK: Monica and Brandy - "The Boy Is Mine."

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: "TRL" is paying off for you, Meghan.

(LAUGHTER)

BRUNE: I'm getting killed.

BALLBACK: Sorry.

EISENBERG: There's lots of games. Don't worry about it, Adrian - lots of games.

COULTON: This is your last clue. Ladies with an attitude, fellows that were in the mood - don't just stand there. Let's get to it. Strike a pose. There's nothing to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

COULTON: Meghan.

BALLBACK: Madonna.

COULTON: Madonna is correct. That's from "Vogue," yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Do you remember that video, both of you, either of you? Yeah, oh...

BALLBACK: I do.

EISENBERG: Meghan is actually...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: ...Vogueing (ph), so yes. That was directed by David Fincher, that not-well-known director at that time that went on to do such wild, small films as "The Social Network" and "Gone Girl."

COULTON: That's kind of...

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: ...Some indie films.

EISENBERG: Some indie films that nobody saw.

COULTON: Puzzle guru Art Chung, how did our contestants do?

ART CHUNG: Nice job, Meghan. You're one step closer to the final round.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN SONG, "LADY AND MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.