2014 Tony winner for Best Featured Actress in a Musical Lena Hall talked with the Ms. Blog about reprising her award-winning performance as Yitzhak in the Broadway debut of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and being a part of Hedwig‘s national tour. Also on the agenda? Hall’s own history making turn as the title character, meeting fans, the the universality of John Cameron Mitchell’s cult classic rock musical about the life of a struggling band’s genderqueer East German front(wo)man.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re not the first women to play Hedwig, but you are the first to play both Hedwig and Yitzhak [Hedwig’s husband and erstwhile drag performer] in the same production. How did it come about that you would play both roles when you rejoined the cast for the national tour?
Well, after I left Broadway…I know that my name had been tossed around to play Hedwig, but there [was never really a right time], and the show eventually closed before that could happen. And then the producers came to me and we were all really intrigued because they told me the tour was opening in San Francisco and coming to LA and they were doing longer stretches [in those cities]. I wanted a challenge [and] for me to be doing it is really super special, because when I did this show on Broadway, it just changed my life completely and we knew that the Hed-Heads [Hedwig’s biggest fans], would appreciate it so much and it would become this kind of “event” once a week.
Hedwig and Yitzhak project such a different energy on stage. What is the transition like from Hedwig to Yitzhak and going from one headspace to another in those roles?
People [ask] me “how do you keep them separated?” If you look at the characters, they’re on the same journey emotionally. It’s just two different sides of the same coin. So, you have the brash and the talkative and the outwardly emotional side of the coin [in Yitzhak] and then you have the [other] very stoic, quiet other side. So they’re two completely different shows, but they have the same emotional journey, which is great. Once I’m onstage, it’s just so obvious to my body, my brain, everything [who I’m playing]. What’s cool about being Hedwig is that I get to relax in my own skin more than when I play Yitzhak. As Yitzhak I’m just so stiff and tense; my entire body is choreographed so that I don’t break the mold of the character. How you see Yitzhak walk and stand, it’s very much not me, it’s very much Yitzhak and very male.
Then, for Hedwig…physically I can just be myself and be a woman, which is already perfect for the character because she is [that idea of] feminine, but she’s also not overly feminine. She’s someone who was a man whose now [because of circumstances] living life as a woman and she is so comfortable in her female form that…it’s kind of effortless. It’s so natural for me to inhabit that, it feels great! The men all had to learn to be in heels and I’m just like, “Oh, I’m used to it!” Heels were no problem, the heavy makeup was no problem, [lots of long] and hair was no problem. It’s a very different experience for a woman playing that role than for a man.
Your last scene of the show as Hedwig, do you think it changes when there’s a male versus female body in that scene?
It definitely changes the ending a lot. As a woman playing it, I feel the ending is more powerful [when it’s a woman in the role of Hedwig]… The audience can’t really tell what’s going on with my body until much later. And then, of course, at the end of the show I have a moment of just very much female empowerment…and I’m just standing there, just like the men [do]…When a woman plays the role, it has such a strong meaning, I just love it.
Hedwig and Yitzhak–would you say they’re feminists?
Oh my God—or, as John Cameron Mitchell says—Oh my Goddess! I do think they’re feminists! When you think about it, Yitzhak is a man [who] feels most himself when he is dressed as a beautiful woman. I see that [a form of] liberation. It’s not a joke. It’s a celebration of a woman and his embracing his complete and utterly beautiful femininity. Hedwig is certainly a feminist. I think the thing about Hedwig is that we when we [meet] Hedwig, Hedwig’s lost. Hedwig is on the verge of a complete meltdown, breakdown, and rebirth into whatever form that takes, whether that’s male, female, or somewhere in between. Hedwig has taken on all the wonderful properties of women, and the freedom of sexuality and [how] it doesn’t shock Hedwig or keep Hedwig from [self expression]. Hedwig is so strong and has been through everything and is still standing. You can’t tear Hedwig down. Right now [with the election] it feels like the whole country has taken a huge leap backward for women’s rights, which is nuts, and these men forget where they came from. Women are the strongest people on the planet! It’s amazing to me that people are trying to control that more than ever…its just madness.
What do you think people coming to see the show in the wake of the election will be able to take away from Hedwig?
A: I think the message of the show is very, very universal. We are all looking for our other half. We are all looking to fulfill whatever void we may feel through someone else, or something else. But what many don’t realize is that the void won’t be filled until we love ourselves completely. What’s great about the way Hedwig is told is that [story] is told through the eyes of someone who is transgender and because the story is so universal, it [drives home] that we are all human, we are all cut from the same cloth, and we should all feel compassion and empathy for everyone.
Catch Lena and the rest of the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch Onstage at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles Through November 27. Tickets for Hedwig and the Angry Inch are also on sale nationwide.