Lena Hall wasn’t sure if she wanted to do Hedwig and the Angry Inch again. The self-avowed “Hedhead” had already had the experience of a lifetime playing Yitzhak on Broadway, which nabbed her a Tony Award, and had served patiently in the shadows of four East-German, transgender, rocker wives onstage: Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall and the show’s author and original off-Broadway and film star John Cameron Mitchell.
Then the first national tour of Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s musical came around, and they wanted Hall back as Yitzhak. “When I put on Yitzhak’s wig for the first time, I cried,” she says. “It was hard. All the feelings from that year that I’d spent on Broadway, a lot had happened in my life during that year that I’d spent on Broadway — a lot of highs and a lot of lows. It was a huge period of growth for me and it all just kind of came rushing back.”
But Hall isn’t just playing the Croatian cross-dresser this time around: She’ll also be taking over the title role once a week, relieving the tour’s current headliner Darren Criss. (Criss also played the role on Broadway, but Hall left the show before he joined.) While there were talks of Hall taking over the part on Broadway for a brief stint, that opportunity never came to fruition, and the offer to play Hedwig and sing Trask’s score was one she couldn’t refuse.
The national tour launched in Hall and Criss’ hometown of San Francisco, and the production opened at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre on Tuesday, with Hall’s first L.A. performance as Hedwig set for Sunday. We talked to Hall while she was in San Francisco, the day after her first time taking the stage in the blond wig and heels.
How was your first night playing Hedwig?
I had to meditate before the show because I was getting so nervous! Every time I’m playing Hedwig, I’m doing it on a two-show day, and I wanted to do that so I didn’t get too wrapped up in my head before I went on and also to get a warm-up show so that I could warm-up into the character. And halfway through the matinee, my body started to preserve its energy and it kind of shut down during “Wig In a Box.” I had jello legs all of a sudden. It was like automatically shutting down and preserving energy for the next show. It was just nerve-wracking. I thought I was going to throw up, but once the show starts, it just goes. There’s no time to think. There’s no time to beat yourself up about anything.
Hedwig is typically played by a man — though women, such as Ally Sheedy, have played her. How do you think having a woman in the role makes the character different?
I think it depends on the actor, honestly. There have been a few people who have been super against a woman playing the role — especially a woman being cast before a transgender actor. I feel like people are missing the point of what theater is. It really has to do with the actor. There was someone who was complaining who was like, “Hedwig has to be played by a man because it’s the story of a transgender male-to-female.” And then I was just thinking about it, “Well in that case, then Yitzhak is a dude. So Yitzhak should be played by a man. So where’s your validation for the other character?” People get really passionate about that. I just believe that it should have more to do with ability and less to do with gender or race. I believe each actor brings something new to the role and does it in their own way.
What are some new things that you’re bringing to the character?
I think a sense of unforced femininity, just because I am a woman so I don’t have to work on that. So I don’t even have to think about my femininity or making my body stance more “girly.” I also have a lot from being in the background and having played Yitzhak for so long. It’s great to pull from that as ammunition — wanting to be the main person. It’s just that fight to get the opportunity to show people that you can do it and using that crazy need I’ve always had my whole life to be the center of attention and to show people what I can do. That was built into me since I was a little girl. There’s also a lot of pain that comes up. I draw a lot on my own life too. It’s a very personal show for me.
What is your pre-show prep to play Hedwig?
It’s a long enough process to get into Hedwig that it just happens as you do it. Because the makeup takes a long time, and once that makeup is on your face, you’re her. Putting the costume on, the shoes, the heels, everything — it’s so extreme. I was a little nervous that it would be hard for me to keep the accents separate. Am I going to be able to switch from Croatian to German easily? Lucky for me, the way that the day is built and the way that the costumes are, it’s such a different feeling. She just comes out.
Has your Yitzhak changed at all since you played the role on Broadway?
He’s changed a lot. I don’t know how, but I feel way more grounded than I ever did before. Maybe it’s because Darren is younger than me so I’m working against his energy. When you do the show with your Hedwig, you work with their energy, so whatever they’re doing, you pull the opposite because you’re opposite sides of the coin. It’s slower, which is weird to say.
Is it a dream for you to be playing Hedwig? Is it everything you hoped it would be?
Ever since I saw the show in ’99, I’ve wanted to sing these songs. When I heard it was coming to Broadway, I wanted to be a part of the show because I love the show so much. But for it to grow like this, it really just changed my life. But I also have to be careful because I don’t want to be known just for this show. I’m waiting for something that I’m passionate about to come back to Broadway. There’s some projects that are being written, so it’s going to take some time. I’m hoping that after L.A., I can hang up my Yitzhak hat, and hopefully they’ll give me a small run as Hedwig somewhere — like my own run where I don’t have to do both roles.