Lena Hall and Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
When I first heard that Neil Patrick Harris was stepping into the infamous shoes of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I thought it was a natural fit. Though I first met Neil as a co-star when he was just 14 on the set of Cold Sassy Tree (where I was his first kiss) the world now knows him as a master showman. A total magician, comedy gold, and boasting the most excellent voice—and gams to boot!—it’s no surprise that he is fantastic in the role of Hedwig. But the revelation here, is Lena Hall, who plays Yitzhak, as woman playing a man who longs to be a drag queen.
Speaking to her Tony nomination earlier this week, Lena told me:
“This was truly the greatest day of my life so far. I’ve been floating on air and in a daze for the entire day! I spoke to so very many people and felt completely loved.”
The lovely Miss Lena agreed to pop my cherry as an interviewer and talk Yitzhak, the highs and lows of musical theater, and her search to find the perfect “packer.” And I must admit, as I watched Lena at the end of the show kiss Neil, I was a little jealous!
So tell me, where are you from originally?
I’m from San Francisco. I grew up in the Haight-Ashbury.
Were you a part of that scene when you were growing up?
Well, I was a ballerina. My dad is a choreographer and my mom was a prima ballerina and is now a yogi master. Basically they were training me to become a ballerina when I was a kid, and I was training heavily until I was about 12—I had a full scholarship to the San Francisco ballet. But then I saw my sister do musical theater, and I had sung before and we’d always sung together, but I just wanted to do what she did always. So I actually quit training to be a ballerina. I was like, I am not going to do this with my life!
How did that go over with your family?
They made me keep dancing, which I’m grateful for, but they understood that I was burnt out. I actually still danced professionally as a ballerina until my teens and trained in dance, but I also got to do musical theater and explore that world more.
Lena in her dressing room before the show.
Did you go to college for theater, or a conservatory?
I went to the college of Cats. I auditioned for the show when I was 17, and I got cast to be a swing on the national tour. So I got my equity card immediately. I was sobbing when I found out at work at I’d been cast. I was working at a kid’s store on Haight Street and after the call, I hung up the phone and I ran the street to my friend’s shop, which was like three blocks away. It was raining there I started screaming crying. It was like someone had died, but I was so happy! So I went off and did that. I had just turned 18, like literally on my birthday I got the phone call go. So I went off and was a swing for the older cats, the big cats. I may have been 18, but I looked like I was 12. Two months into my contract they offered me a role and then they transferred me a year later into the Broadway company.
So you landed in New York with a Broadway show.
I landed in New York with a Broadway show. I’m eternally grateful for that. I was so young and fearless then.
Had you been to New York before?
The tour was going through Washington, DC and one of my friends in Cats was going home to New York and he asked if I wanted to come. So I went for a day, but that was it. I saw Cats the mothership and I just looked in and visited. Then I got the job offer. So yeah, it was a really exciting time. I was so young, but it was very shaping of me and my personality and who I was.
So you really went for it.
I went for it! It was that time when you’re very fearless and you haven’t been exposed to others’ regrets and disappointments and that hasn’t rubbed off yet—so you’re really overjoyed. But after a while, it’s interesting, other people’s bitterness towards the industry or their wish that they were further along than they are, or hating you because you got the part and they didn’t or you got bumped up and they didn’t, that starts to rub off and it effects your mindset and your confidence in the business.,So I went through that to where I actually became that person, and I became bitter and I became unhappy. But I think what is really lucky for me is that I actually stopped and looked out at what I was saying and how ungrateful I was being and how unhappy I was. I came to the conclusion that I was taking away someone’s Broadway debut who would be so thrilled by sitting there bitching and complaining about it. So I knew I needed to do something else for myself to make myself grateful again for where I could be. So I quit for a while.
“As Yitzhak, I write Hedwig a card before every show or have something to give her. I saw a Chinese woman in time square making these and saw that particular one. And I thought, since I look like one of the missing Jonas brothers, Hedwig would appreciate it. It’s hanging in her dressing room now!”
How old were you when you gave yourself a time out?
It was Tarzan in 2006. I was just so miserable in those shows. I looked outside of myself one day and I was like, this is so unfair to someone who would be so appreciative of this job, and so I stopped. And I took a big step back and focused on things that would make me happy and to find a way I could come back to Broadway and be extremely happy and grateful and just enjoy every minute of it and not waste it away being bitter. So yeah, that’s when I had my rock band and focused on that.
How did your involvement in the rock bad evolve?
They found me on MySpace! They said they were band and looking for a singer and my profile came up, so they asked me to come and audition. It was kind of serendipitous because just a month or two earlier I was thinking about starting my own band—maybe doing a Janis Joplin cover band or something rock n roll—something of my own that I could dive into creatively and it could be just for me. Then I called and I came in and loved the songs and they wanted me to be in the band, and that’s that. It was pretty simple.
How was your gig last night?
It was great! We played at the Bowery Electric, and had a huge audience. It was fun, but it was hard. I was so tired from opening week that I raced through the songs and did a shorter set. I gave but didn’t want to kill myself and then have to rehearse over the two days we have off.
So what was your relationship like to Hedwig before becoming a part of the show?
I saw the 1999 production with my sister, the original production, but just not with John Cameron Mitchell. I loved it so much; it was a religious experience. It was amazing and I bought the album a million times and it was the soundtrack to my life. So I’ve known about the show for a long time and have always loved it, so when I saw that it was coming to Broadway I wanted to be in it so bad. I was so nervous that I was going to get passed over, even just during the initial call. I was thrilled that I was able to get my foot in the door.
Lena backstage as Yitzhak, looking like a missing Jonas Brother.
I read a piece where you talked about the levels you went to get the role. Kudos for you, because that obviously paid off! And you’re so extraordinary in the role and you bring so much heart to Yitzhak. And your voice is banana pants!
Thank you! I’m going to quote you on “banana pants.” And it’s good for the part too because, well, banana pants.
Yeah! And what is in your pants?
It’s a thing called a “packer.” It’s a flaccid penis. It’s anatomically correct. We did some research.
Did Arianne Phillips do everyone’s costumes?
Yes, and I also requested a packer. We did research to find out what was the best thing.
How does one begin to find out what’s the best packer piece is?
Just search “flaccid big penis” and see what comes up. They’re pretty cute! Anyone can be packing.
There’s a moment early on in the play, when Hedwig is singing and you’re singing behind him on a chair and you pick up a wig. It was a very poignant moment.
I love that face and that wig a lot. It’s a moment when I pick up the hair and I caress the hair. It was a very important piece of storytelling for my character, just to portray the longing and the sadness and the desire for this wig and for this hair and for this beauty. I actually call back to it during “Wig in a Box” when I sing, “Wear it up, wear it down,” with him really high. Right before that I have a moment with that wig again in that whole section, and I’m singing about how much I love to wear a wig because Yitzhak’s favorite song in the show is “Wig in a Box.”
Lena onstage as Yitzhak.
And what’s your favorite song?
My favorite song is “Wicked Little Town.” It kills me every time. It just gets me in the gut and I love the reprise of it as well. To me the song represents the search for your other half, and looking to other people to fill that half. Tommy says, “It’s actually you, you are your other half, you have to find that and fulfill that duty, no one whose going to make you feel whole except for you.”
Tell me about your pre-show rituals—do you warm up every night?
I’m the worst. My warm up ritual is iced tea, but I guess I never warm down. I drink ice tea and before the show, I go into the bathroom and I’ll yell. It sounds like I’m yelling but I’m warming up my belt and just testing it out. Then I warm up the low part of my voice and talk to myself in a Croatian accent. The high stuff I never had a problem with and especially the talking is the most taxing, which is interesting. I have to pee before every show because if I don’t I’ll have to pee during the show and there’s nothing worse.
What would you say has been the biggest surprise about playing Yitzhak?
The audience’s response to him. When I saw the original, I was always very confused by the character. There were things about the character that I didn’t think played right because people were always conscious of, what is that girl doing onstage as a guy. It was always so hard to transform the female form into a man, and it is really hard. The thing I needed to nail was just to have people have no idea, and then they’ll find out when I sing. But it was important for me to have that immediate, initial reaction to the character to be decisively male. A lot of people come and have no idea and only get it when I start singing high and they’re like, wait a minute. Even friends said to me until they heard my singing voice they didn’t recognize me. So that’s good, and that’s something I really wanted to do. But what’s most surprising about the character is that the audience response and the empathy that I get from the audience, everyone wants the character to succeed so bad.
You have a great soulfulness in your eyes and that comes across, even on stage, as someone filled with longing for something else. So is it fun for you at the end of the play to shed your maleness and be the drag queen?
It’s amazing because it’s like shedding all the awkward and coming back polished. It’s quite an interesting journey. Instantly in the quick change, when I take all of the clothes off and I put that bodice on, I’m immediately just somebody else. It feels like somebody else because the corset is so tight and pushed up and I feel the curves. My shoulders go back and it’s instantaneously a transformation. And the response is crazy.
People go absolutely nuts! They’re so thrilled to see Yitzhak finally get to be who he wants to be.
It’s crazy and really surprising that the audience is so on my side. It was kind of my goal to make the character a little bit more essential for Hedwig’s stage survival. Any time we were in rehearsal when we were thinking, what am I going to do with this microphone or when am I going to get a drink of water, and every time I would just be standing in these conversations and I would be like, I’m a roadie, I’m here for a reason, and then personally do it. As we got into tech it was so funny, I had this prop moves list because I was so scared of missing one of my moves.
Because Neil is relying on you at this point.
Oh yeah, for microphone stands, for adjustments, for so much. And as we were going into tech and previews, my props list would get increasingly bigger, and every rehearsal before one of our previews I’d have to go to one of the stage managers and ask for a pen. Honestly, if anything goes wrong on stage with his microphone, if his microphone dies, I have backup microphones just waiting, and its my job to pick up the right one and give it to him.
Which makes your performance so active, you literally are his safety net.
And I like it that way. It keeps me active and it makes me listen. I have to listen to him and stay engaged with him for the whole show because he gives me one of our little signals if he needs anything and I have to bring it to him. And I love that. There’s not a show where I’m going to be bored and gaze off or whatever. I love it and he’s so sweet. He loves to treat me like crap, but I like it too.
Main image via Broadway.com