Broadway Actress Lena Hall Discusses Upcoming “Hedwig” Tour and Her Filipino Heritage

Tony Award-winning performer Lena Hall (Celina Carjaval).
"I wasn't faced with a lot of obstacles in being in the arts. It was always something that was very supported by my parents."

Lena Hall has quite a resume of Broadway credits to her name, including musicals such as Cats and Kinky Boots. However, she may be best known for her role as Jewish drag queen, Yitzhak, in the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock musical about a genderqueer East German singer who takes on a female persona following a botched sex change operation. Hall earned a Tony Award for her performance in 2014, and will soon embark on a two-month tour for the show where she’ll not only be reprising her role as Yitzhak, but will also play Hedwig one performance a week. It all starts October 2nd in San Francisco, her hometown as well as where she first got her start in her performing arts journey.

Hall discusses how she comes from seven generations of Filipinos in the arts, how she first became involved in musical theatre, and why she changed her stage name.

-Lauren Lola

It’s been announced that you’ll be playing Hedwig one performance a week throughout the tour. How did that come to be and what’s it been like for you, playing that role?
I had always wanted to play Hedwig, ever since I saw the show when I was nineteen. When I heard that the show was moving to Broadway, I knew that the only way I was going to be a part of it was to play Yitzhak. I love that role and I love the show so much. I have so much respect for the show. I did whatever it took to be a part of the show and make the character mine to put my mark on.

We have been touching on the idea of me playing the role during the Broadway run, but obviously that never came to fruition. So when they came to me with opening the tour with Darren [Criss], I was a bit hesitant, because I had my final show as Yitzhak, and I had put that character to bed. I had said goodbye to Yitzhak in such a grand way, the idea of putting the boots back on and becoming that character again wasn’t appealing for me, because I thought I had done everything I could have done with the character. Maybe sensing my hesitation, they were like, “Well, what if you play Hedwig once a week?” and I thought, well that makes it more interesting because then it adds a challenge and I actually get to play a role I’ve always wanted to play. It’s just a good piece of art and to be able to play her and not only play both roles in the same production… It’s so unheard of, especially in a new thing. It’s definitely a challenge for me. I like to challenge myself. I’m just so excited.

Lena Hall (Celina Carvajal) with her father, Carlos Carvajal, at 11 years-old.
Lena Hall (Celina Carvajal) with her father, Carlos Carvajal, at 11 years-old. Photo courtesy of Carlos Carvajal.

What originally spiked your interest in musical theatre and how did your parents encourage you on your journey?
Well, I started off in ballet. My father—he had a ballet company and my mother was a ballerina, choreographer and artistic director. I started very early on in ballet and then my sister was doing musical theatre with the Young People’s Teen Musical Theatre Company. I saw her do that and I wanted to do that as well. And so my parents were very supportive that I was in the arts and doing something that I was involved like dance and performance-related or artistic. They were very supportive. It wasn’t hard for me in the arts because I had the support from my parents.

They just kind of allowed me to go on my own journey and it finally brought me home. This will be my first time doing a big production in San Francisco. That was another draw was to be able to come home and do a big production, to do my Tony winning role as well as playing Hedwig in my hometown. It’s just crazy—it’s a dream.

So they’re excited. I wasn’t faced with a lot of obstacles in being in the arts. It was always something that was very supported by my parents.

When you were growing up in San Francisco, did you feel a strong connection to your Filipino heritage?
I’m a quarter Filipino, which is different than Darren. I think Darren is half Filipino. But I do remember always feeling like a part of the club. I have a ton of friends in San Francisco who are part Filipino and part white. David Greenbaum is one of them and he and I, we did theatre together. I was in a band called Generation Nation with him and we were all Filipino. Almost all of us were all Filipino so it was kind of like this club to be a part of.

I don’t know a ton about my Filipino heritage, but I know that my family in the Philippines is basically seven generations of artists. My father is first generation in San Francisco and my father’s father—he immigrated to San Francisco from the Philippines.

My dad, to this day, still makes lumpia and it is by far the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. Unfortunately, now that I’m a vegan, I don’t eat any meat, but when I did eat meat, boy did I eat that lumpia like nobody’s business. My dad would make them so well.

As an actress, you have quite a resume on you, with shows like Cats and Kinky Boots making the list. Finding work in theatre is something I can imagine to be a challenge in general, but were there any challenges finding work as an Asian American in particular?
No, the biggest challenge that I had was, I believe, my name and finding who I was or finding my brand essentially. My name, Celina Carvajal, is very Spanish-sounding and it reads very Spanish on paper. So I was reading for very ethnic roles and I wasn’t getting cast a lot because the person that walked into the room was not necessarily someone you’d think would have the name Celina Carvajal.

So I had to change my name to Lena Hall to make it match more for what people were getting when they would walk into the room. It really did help streamline me as a performer, but I haven’t changed my name legally. I’ll always be a Carvajal.

You actually just answered my next question which was about your name change. That is your performance name for The Deafening [Hall’s band] as well, right?
Yeah, I first had the name with my band. It sounded like a rock star name, easy to spell, easy to remember, it was simple, there’s a lot that goes into that. It took me a while to really realize that my name going into auditions, it did have an impact on: Can a casting director remember my name or spell it? Can the fans remember that they like this person, this name, and look it up on the Internet?

Carvajal is actually a stage name taken seven generations back and kept it as a family name. I found this out not too long ago. That was one of the reasons why I was able to let go of the Carvajal name because it was a stage name and it felt like, you know, my ancestors would agree with me, as far as changing my name.

L ena Hall in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, Belasco Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.
L ena Hall in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, Belasco Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Going back to the touring production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, what are you most excited for and what do you hope to get out of the experience?
I’m just doing the tour for San Francisco and LA. I’m just doing two months. I want to play a big show in my hometown and I want people who did not have a chance to see what I did in New York be able to see it, and also to break the mold and be the woman who plays both roles and kicks ass at it and be able to kind of show. Maybe open up people’s eyes to the casting of that part or just kind of break a mold there so it opens up for other casting opportunities as well. I just love Hedwig’s story. I love the show’s story. I love the message of the show and to be able to live in it with both characters is just a rare, rare treat and I’m definitely not taking it for granted at all. I’m privileged to have the opportunity; I’m privileged that they took a chance.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Are there other projects you’re working on that we can look forward to?
I have a new album coming out. I did a show at a place called 54 Below here in New York and it’s about my childhood growing up in San Francisco and childhood experiences I had and music that went along with that. So it has all the music from the specific show. I’m looking forward to releasing that, getting the album art work done and doing the finishing touches on it so it should be coming out pretty soon.

I just finished filming a movie. I was the lead character and that was an independent feature. So that is currently being edited and put together so I’m excited for that. I did that right before I started rehearsals for Hedwig.

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Catch Hedwig and the Angry Inch starting October 2-30, 2016 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.

Listen to Carlos Carvajal’s StoryCorps about his Filipino performing arts family.