Lena Hall, a powerhouse of talent across stage and screen, has consistently dazzled audiences with her unparalleled versatility and magnetic presence. From her Tony Award-winning performance as Yitzhak in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" to her captivating roles in "Kinky Boots" and "Becks," Hall's journey is a testament to her artistry and dedication. Previously captivating audiences in the Roy Orbison-inspired musical "In Dreams," Hall continuously pushes artistic boundaries with her entrancing vocals and spellbinding stage presence. Join us, In Conversation, as we explore the remarkable trajectory of Lena Hall's career, delving into the insights and experiences that have shaped her into the luminous star she is today.

Lena Hall as Kenna in In Dreams. Photo by Pamela Raith

Darren: So I’m sitting here with Lena Hall, who’s a Tony Award winning actress and Grammy nominated singer. You won the Tony Award for, is it Yitzhak? In 2014, the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, which led you to the Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theatre Album again for Hedwig. How was that? How was winning the Tony? Tell us about that.

Lena: It was surreal and I had a total out of body experience and it was probably the craziest day of my life because I started as a woman. Then on Tony days, this is what you have to do on Tony day. Tony’s are on a Sunday, so usually you have a show that day. They don’t cancel the show, so you do your show, but in the morning, you go to Radio City Music Hall or wherever the Tony’s are being held in the morning and you pre-tape your performance just in case there’s something wrong with the telecast. So you wake up really early. I started as a woman. You go to the theatre. I turned into a man. I went to Radio City Music Hall, performed our number, went back to my hotel and there’s a ton of time that you have between. So I turned back into a woman. I went and had breakfast or whatever it was and then turned back into a man to do the show, then turned back into a woman to do the red carpet and then I subsequently won an award, which was, I mean, you know, wild. By this time, my face was on fire, taking off and putting on makeup. And then after I won the award, I had to immediately run to the dressing room and change back into a man and then go down and do the Tony performance and then go back up and change back into a woman and then go do interviews for the rest of the night. So I gender switched so many times that my head was spinning and my face was on fire and I was like, what am I doing? I also couldn’t have my hair properly done because it had to go up in a wig for Yitzhak and so my sister, she made me a wig that I could wear on the red carpet and wear for the parties. So that I just kept my wig prep underneath and I wore a wig prep all day and I wore a wig all day. I just switched back and forth from wig to wig.

Lena Hall as Hedwig. Photo by Rudy Archuleta

Daren: So technically, you should have won the Tony for all of that work on that one day, let alone for your performance in Hedwig.

Lena: That one day, that one day. That’s crazy. People don’t understand how insane it is to be nominated and perform at the Tony Awards, doing all of that. I mean, I guess it’s easier if you look like your character, like every day, or like, cause you’re just putting a wig on and doing that. But if you are a totally, completely different human being, including a different sex, then, you know, it’s a much more extreme changeover.

Darren: Yeah, it sounds it. That must have been a surreal moment, though, when you did actually win, cause I mean, I guess for any performer that wins a big award like that, an accolade like the Tony, and I mean, in the UK, we obviously have the Olivier. It’s not quite as big as the Tony Awards, but you know, similar. Then you’ve got obviously the BAFTA and then the Oscar. I mean, you know, all that to come hopefully. And then we’ve been Emmy for Snowpiercer. Who knows, you know, whatever’s going on there. You could actually get the Olivier.

Lena: Well, yeah, I want all the awards. Why not? I want all the awards.

Darren: But you can only get it if you have to go through all of that again. Otherwise it just won’t be worth it, will it? It won’t be the same. The Tony’s is very specific and special. I guess the Oscars, you wouldn’t really do that.

Lena: No, no, of course not. Or the Emmys or any of that. You have to, it’s like, but again, it was like specific, it was special for this one occasion because it was like me as a person versus my character were so vastly different from each other that it was, you know, it probably would never happen again. Because I don’t, yeah, I don’t know if, I mean, I hope to play a man again. That was really fun and challenging and I really loved that. I loved living in the skin of a man.

Lena Hall backstage at the Hollywood Pantages, checking the fit of the wig she wears in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo by Stuart Palley for The Times

Darren: What did you learn about being a man when you were in the skin of a man as Hedwig? What was it that you, I don’t know, from being?

Lena: I learned a lot about emotional expression.

Darren: Really?

Lena: Yeah, because women express themselves more outwardly, with their eyebrows and certain looks, and they’re much more expressive, whereas men hold it in, more stoic. There’s not as much, there’s a lot going on under the surface that they will not show. And I’m talking about a certain type of man. Of course, there’s always exceptions to every generalisation. But generally, what I noticed was that men were more reserved, and so that holding that emotional fire for a long time and not playing your cards on your face was interesting. And there was a certain kind of power in that, where no one knows what is going on under the surface. You’re really playing your cards close. It’s like a really good poker player. So that was something that I learned in it. It gave me a certain kind of a power that I felt. I also, even just the stance, even just walking around, that gave me a certain kind of confidence and kind of a… It’s the confidence and this kind of swagger that I don’t have. I’m such a dorky dork and I run around and I flop around and I’m just like, I’m an idiot.

Darren: Are you very much a girly girl?

Lena: I’m not a girly girl, not at all. If anything, I’m kind of in the middle. I have masculine traits and feminine traits and I kind of wash between the two. Back in the day, we would call that tomboy.

Darren: Tomboy, yes.

Lena: You know, and I’ve never been into pink and into anything that is girly. You wouldn’t catch me dead in a dress unless it’s for an event. At work, yes, absolutely.

Lena Hall as Audrey in Snowpiercer. Photo by Justina Mintz

Darren: When you played Hedwig, then, how did that come about? On Broadway, you played Yitzhak. And then for the tour, was it, you went on to do, play Hedwig? Have I got that right?

Lena: So they wanted me to open the tour with Darren Criss.

Darren: I love Darren.

Lena: I love Darren. And I was not interested in revisiting this character. I wasn’t interested in revisiting Yitzhak because I felt like I had done everything I could with him. And also, it’s a really heavy character and what I was going through in my life at the time when I did it on Broadway was dark. I mean, I was going through some dark shit. And so I had just gotten sober. And then they wanted me to kind of reopen this character. And I was like, I don’t know if I can do that because my life has changed so drastically. And for the better. And then they were like, well, you know, we have to do eight shows a week. And Darren is not going to do eight shows a week. So we were thinking that on the eighth show, you could play Hedwig. They knew how to get me. I was like, okay, yeah. But then I had rules for this. One, they couldn’t just put me on a Sunday night or on a Wednesday night. It had to be like a Friday night or Saturday night. And two, it always had to be a two show day. So it always had to be the second show of a two show day. I don’t know what I was thinking. And so because in my mind, I was like, all right, I’m going to be stressing all day about playing Hedwig. So I need something to take my mind off of it. And the show is the perfect thing. So I would come in. And also I thought it’s also a good reminder for the show for the night. If I come in and play Yitzhak in the day for the day. And then Hedwig at night for the evening. And so that’s how I did it every single time. And oh my God.

Darren: Yeah, I can imagine it’s been quite a lot of work.

Lena: It was awesome. There’s nothing ever that’s going to be that difficult ever again. I’d like to play Hedwig and not go back and forth between the characters. I only got to do it eight times because it was two months. And I just started discovering things. But usually when you play Hedwig, there’s something crazy that happens. And that is you go on stage and then in five seconds you’re bowing. It’s an out of body. It takes over. And it’s a freight train that you can’t stop. And it happens so fast in the blink of an eye. You’ve done the show. And I really want to do that again. But I want to do my own idea of it.

Lena Hall and Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Darren: So you’ve had quite a colourful career, reading up from Off-Broadway, Broadway and stuff. Where did it begin? I mean, you’re originally from San Francisco, as I read up. And then you kind of jumped around a bit. But where did the actual inspiration to become an actress and singer come from?

Lena: I was always around the arts. My father had a ballet company, and my mother was his prima ballerina. And I was born to be a prima ballerina. That was supposed to be my path in life. And I was doing really well with that until, because I started dancing, I was like two. And by the time I was 12. I was burnt out from the ballet world just because it was so negative. And body image wise was not good for me. And I knew that. And as my body changed, because I went through puberty, it wasn’t changing into the ideal ballerina body at the time. My legs were very muscular and I had a very muscular behind. And the teachers didn’t like that. And so then they started saying things to me. And there was nothing I could really do about changing that. So I got kind of discouraged, I guess. But I also didn’t like being told things that I had no control over about my body. And so I tried to fully quit ballet when I was 12. But my parents wouldn’t let me. My parents were like, No, you have to keep dancing. You just won’t do it at San Francisco Ballet. Well, you can do it. You know, you’re still going to do ballet every day. But you’ll do it here and there. And you’ll dance for your dad’s company and things like that. I was like, all right, fine. So I did that. But at the same time, my sister joined this teen musical theatre company that was like an after school kind of program. And the first show I saw her in was 42nd Street. And I was like, ooh, I want to do that. I always wanted to do what my sister did. But I also knew musicals because that was the era of Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, like singing and like that was such a part of growing up in my childhood. It was a very strong part of growing up. And also like my mom, when I was like nine years old or eight years old, she took me to go see Cats. And after I saw that, I looked at her and I literally told her, I’m going to do that. And then she took me to see Les Misérables when I was nine. And I liked the Gavroche a lot. And I was like nine or I was 11 or something like that. I was really little, but I looked like the poster child. So they had an audition for kids in the city. And she took me to audition and they prepped me and I learned a song and all of this stuff. And when I got into the theatre, I was so nervous. I nearly peed my pants. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t audition. I was so nervous. So it was like my first audition was probably a huge, huge, you know, it was a huge mistake. Not mistake, but like it didn’t happen. I went on the stage and it didn’t happen. And so I’ve been exposed to musical theatre a lot, but then my sister started doing it and I was like, ooh, I want to do that. So I joined this theatre community for teens in San Francisco. It’s called the Young People’s Teen Musical Theatre Company. It’s very cool. It’s still around. And that’s basically where I got all my training for theatre. That and I still was dancing in high school. I went to a school of the arts in San Francisco and I my major was dance. So I’d have academics during the day and then I’d dance in the afternoon. And it was all types of dancing too. It was jazz and application and ballet and tap and every kind of dance you can imagine. So by the time I graduated high school, I had a really good grasp on theatre, musical theatre. But I didn’t want to do it for a living. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, but I didn’t want to do anything in the arts. It was like my thing. I was like kind of trying to figure out, well, what would I be interested in? That would be something I could do and I could do theatre on the side. And at the time I was working at a kid’s store on the Haight-Ashbury. Selling and buying kids clothes. And do you remember Beanie Babies?

Darren: Yes, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Lena: I had a lot of them. And so I was working at a kid’s store after I graduated high school. I graduated high school early. I was 17. Just because I went to school early, my parents, they put me in school early. So I was always the youngest kid in school. And so I graduated when I was 17. And then that fall, my friend called me and was like, this is an open call for cats. You should come in. The women’s call is like in an hour. Get here. And I was like, okay. And so I just had a book, you know, from the musical theatre stuff. I threw on an outfit, put my hair in pigtails and I went to the open call. And then it went very, very well. It was a very long audition. And then a few months later, right before my 18th birthday, they called me and offered me a job on the Tour of Cats.

Lena Hall as Kenna in In Dreams. Photo by Pamela Raith

Darren: Yay. And that’s where I guess your main stage career started then, didn’t it?

Lena: It did, yeah.

Darren: What about you as a musician though, as a singer within your own right? How did that all come about?

Lena: That happened later because I left home. But I still had really big tonsils. This is a strange story. This is going in a weird direction. My whole life I had these gigantic tonsils. They looked like testicles in the back of my throat. They were huge. I was constantly sick. But I was singing. When you sing with giant tonsils, you’re pushing against something that’s really hard. You have to push hard to get the sound out. You also have to push hard just to get anything out. It’s just like always being held like that. That’s how I sounded with this. I don’t know if you can hear that. Restricted. While I had a good ear, I had played the cello. I was also a classical pianist. I had a really good ear. I had this restriction that was preventing my voice from doing anything here. I either had a head voice that was high or I had a chest voice, but nothing in between. The sound was also a little muffled because of my tonsils. Then in 2006, I had just turned 26. I just aged myself. In 2006, I was doing Tarzan on Broadway, but we were mounting it, so I was part of the original company. And we were rehearsing in the same place that they were building the sets. And so there was a lot of stuff playing around. And in one rehearsal, I was getting really sick all the time because of my tonsils. And in one rehearsal, I looked in the mirror, and it looked like I had this blood-filled balloon hanging off of one of my tonsils. And I was, that doesn’t look right. So I went to Shuler Hensley, and I said, Hey, Shuler, does this look weird to you? And I showed him and he, no joke, he was like… So he took me to Tom Schumacher, and he was like, Tom, look! He looked at my throat, he was like… You know, he was shocked. Like it’s like a horror film. And so they contacted a vocal specialist that I had never been to before. I had only ever been to like just random ENT doctors. But I had never been to a vocal specialist. I went to her that day, and she took a look and she was just like, You’re a singer? How are you a singer? How are you singing with this in your throat? This is crazy. She was like, We have to get them out. So basically, I had to wait until after the Tony Awards happened, which we weren’t a part of. And after the Tony Awards, I believe it was the end of June, I got my tonsils removed and I had to take five weeks off from the show. Yeah, and basically when the tonsils came out, first of all, it’s like two weeks of no speaking and no eating, you know,

and then after that two weeks, I talked to the first time and I was like, this sound this voice, I had a deep voice, my voice kind of changed, because suddenly I was like placed up here. And so then I had to kind of learn how to sing again, but I had a clean slate. So all my old bad habits were kind of like hard now, because I didn’t have that pressure here. I didn’t have the tenseness. And so then this band, randomly, this band reached out on Instagram, not Instagram, sorry, on MySpace. Remember MySpace?

Oliver Tompsett as Ramsey and Lena Hall as Kenna in In Dreams. Photo by Pamela Raith

This band reached out on MySpace, and they were like, hey, we’re looking for a singer for a band called Cocaine the Band. I was like, yeah, right. Should we sing now? I want to be in a band. Let’s see what this is about. Anyway, I auditioned for them and I liked music.

And so that was kind of right after I got my tonsils removed. So then I started rehearsing with the band like every day. And this band, they were not like professionally trained musicians.

They were like garage band players. So they played at the volume of 11. They wanted to be rock stars, so they just pretended they were rock stars all the time. So I was like thrust into this rock star people. And they wouldn’t change the key because they wanted to play in open chords. So I had to learn how to do all these songs that were so high. And then they would make fun of me. They were like, it’s too theatre. And I was like, I don’t know. And they were like, we want you to sound like Lemmy from Motorhead. I was like, well, I don’t think that I can sound like Lemmy from Motorhead, but I will try and see what I can do. So, you know, it was this education suddenly of all this rock music that I had listened to before and I was very into it, but it was a different type of rock. It was more like my parents’ rock, right? Like Hendrix and Beatles and Janis Joplin and, you know, Led Zeppelin and that genre. Now, they were, these guys in the band, they were showing me a different genre of rock and roll, a much harder genre. And they were like, well, we want you to sound like this guy, like that guy, like this, like that, you know? And I was like, I mean, okay. So then I was kind of getting this education in like rock and roll and real rock and roll. And I really grasped to, you know, Stephen Tyler and Bon Scott, who was the original singer from ACDC. And I pulled inspiration from them because it was like they had this grit, but they were able to sing like crazy, like all the time. And I wanted to know how they did that. And so when I really listened to it, their voice sounded in a totally different place. It didn’t sound guttural, low. It was a certain sound that came out. And so I was trying to mimic that sound. And just from trying things with my voice and seeing where things sat. And I knew what would hurt and what was not good. But everything else was just like, that’s kind of weak, like that’s weak. So maybe I can figure out how I can work that and get it strong again, like get it strong somehow so that it’s something that, because that feels right to me. And then I found the dirt and the grit.

And it was just like all up here in my nose and the back of my soft palate. And that’s where I found all the grit. So it’s not on my chords. It’s above my chords, right? It’s totally not even a part of my chords that are doing that.

Darren: So this must have influenced your musical theatre career as well then.

Lena: Very much so. Yeah. After Tarzan, I had quit the business for a while because I was just unhappy with what I was doing. And I didn’t know what I wanted my career to be. I had never really thought about musical theatre again when I was young. It wasn’t my go-to ideal of what I wanted to do with my life, you know? I just, it happened, you know? And so at this point I was like, I think I need to figure out what I want to do with my life and where I want my career to be and what I want to do. And this rock band was amazing because I was really loving rock and music. I was loving singing it. I was loving being in a band. I was loving the chaos of it. Like it was really something that I enjoyed. And I loved the Boys Club kind of vibe of it. Even though it’s a very negative thing, I wanted to be that girl that could hang with the boys and prove them wrong, right?

Pablo GoÌmez Jones, Alma Cuervo, Gabriela Garcia, Lena Hall, Fabiola Ocasio in In Dreams. Photo by Pamela Raith

Darren: So with all that in mind, this kind of show you’re doing now In Dreams, okay? I’ve seen the trailer. I’ve heard you sing on the track. It’s very much a kind of rock, not country rock, it’s not a pop musical and it’s not a traditional musical theatre piece either. So I’m guessing this voice that you have, it lends itself very much to this style of music, you know, the Roy Orbison style. So let’s talk a little bit about In Dreams. It’s a brand new musical developed by David West Read, who obviously is Schitt’s Creek fame and did & Juliet. Did you see & Juliet?

Lena: Yes.

Darren: And obviously Luke Shepard, who’s a mate and obviously & Juliet as well. And Fabian Aloise’s choreographing. So it’s a nice team you got there. What can you tell us about this show? What’s so different about this to any other kind of musical theatre piece that you’ve done before?

Lena: Well, I think the thing about this show is it’s a play with Roy Orbison’s music. It’s so well written. David did a gorgeous job with the script. It’s very, very funny, but there’s so much, there’s this undertone of this, I would say like this melancholy undertone, which definitely mirrors Roy Orbison’s music. It’s like he took that and ran with it. But I love his writing because he did an amazing job with & Juliet where he took the Shakespeare iambic pentameter and was able to put it in there. It’s such a brilliant way, it’s so beautifully and how he folded the songs into the storyline was just brilliant to me. I was like this is the best jukebox musical, I think I’ve seen in a very long time that wasn’t about a band or wasn’t about the musician. You know what I mean? You have two different types of jukebox musicals. You have the one where it’s about the person who wrote the music and then you have the other that’s a fictional story with the music and the music comes in and tells the story. A lot of times with those, it feels very just kind of shoved in like we’re going to name this person this because of this song.

Noel Sullivan, Sian Reese-Williams, Lena Hall and Oliver Thmpsett in In Dreams. Photo by Pamela Raith

Whereas with & Juliet and with In Dreams, it feels like the music was written for the moments, especially In Dreams. In Dreams, it’s very interesting because it feels like the music was written for the show and not the other way around. I think it’s so clever how he’s weaved these songs into the story. And their sensibility is… It’s interesting because you have David, who is used to writing… I mean, he’s written… This is his third show now, but he’s used to writing sitcom and… And then Luke is very musical theatre. He’s got an amazing eye. He’s got this penchant for storytelling. But it’s very, very rooted in musical theatre. And then you have me coming in and fucking it up and being like, that’s not rock and roll. That’s not, you know, you, this is what you would do in theatre, but let’s do something different. This is all being done and it’s been done, so why don’t we try to mess it up and do something a little bit different that’s more unexpected. And so this is what I think is really cool is that they’re, they both really respect me and I really respect them and their opinions. And I can sit with them and tell them my concerns about the show and then they’ll listen. And some of them, they’ll take it, and some of them, I’m wrong, you know, which is totally fine. But like, I can’t stand a button. You know, but that’s because I’m allergic to buttons. Right. But that’s just, you know, that’s just like ingrained in me from having been in a rock band for so long. It’s really cool because I get to use all of that life experience and infuse it into this show. So you can get a real authentic look into this character’s life. I can play it authentically.

And then you also get this flavour of musical theatre. And that is, I think that is pretty much me. I have this musical theatre side, and then I have this real rock and roll side, and I can marry them really well, and I can do them both authentically. It’s just, usually I’ll go to the rock, but you want theatre, I can do that, no problem. And I think the show is a beautiful marriage of the two. And it’s not trying too hard, you know, it’s not trying hard to be rock and roll, it’s just allowing, which I love. The comedy of the piece is really very, very brilliant. And the message of the piece is gorgeous. And I always say like, you will go home after the show and you will call someone who is very close to you. And you will tell them that you love them. Because it really is about the amount of time that we have on this planet. And not taking anyone or anything for granted. And that message is so important, especially for me. I have been through the steps. I am sober and I have been through the steps. And there is a lot to the gratitude of waking up every morning and being able to live this life. And that anything that you feel is a big problem, it’s really small in the grand scheme of things. And we can get through literally anything. As long as we have, as long as we, you know, are willing to reach out to friends and family or whatever you want to ask for help. Because there will always be someone there who wants to help. I think it’s an important show because of the pandemic and because of social media and because of media and everything that’s happened in general. We’ve been through a very isolating and divisive time. And life is way too short for that. And I think the show is a beautiful example of just how precious our time is. But it is all done through comedy, so you will laugh your ass off.

Full company of In Dreams. Photo by Pamela Raith

Darren: So this is your first UK theatre production then, isn’t it?

Lena: It is, yeah.

Darren: And then hopefully it comes to the West End, hopefully it comes to London.

Lena: I would love to do a show on the West End, whether it’s this one or another one. I’ve always wanted to do a show on the West End. I’ve been close.

Darren: Oh really, what was the show that brought you close?

Lena: Well, we were supposed to do Hedwig.

Darren: Oh yeah, I’ll remember that. Eight years ago, I think it was.

Lena: No, no. More recently. And then we lost the theatre. Would have been with Neil. But then I wouldn’t have been able to have done this. Count your blessings. I’ve done Hedwig before, and I really want to play Hedwig. You know? And this is like, it’s new, it’s me, it’s just raw and gorgeous and it really reflects the time in my life that I’m going through right now. It’s great. It’s really, really gorgeous. And you know, how many times do you get a character, a woman in her 40s who decided not to have kids and that’s okay? You know, you never get that representation. You never get the other side of the coin. And I think that this is a fantastic piece.

Darren: Well, you’ve got to go back to rehearsal and I’ve had you for 40 minutes, which I’m thrilled about, so I’m going to let you go, but thank you so much for the conversation and good luck with everything and I will come up and see you in Leeds.