Lena Hall Opens Up With New Cabaret 'The Villa Satori: Growing Up Haight Ashbury'
Photo by Melisa Hall
When Lena Hall won a Tony for her role as Yitzhak, the beleaguered backup singer for and husband of Hedwig and the Angry Inch's titular songstress, it seemed to introduce many to the real woman underneath the leather jacket, sideburns, and prosthetic penis she wore onstage several nights a week. But for anyone who already knew Hall before her star turn in the Broadway revival of Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell's offbeat, gender-bending musical, the role offered the perfect fit — here, after all, was a performer who'd moved seamlessly between the worlds of highbrow Broadway productions and gritty, downtown rock 'n' roll shows. Even before her stage career began — right after high school, with a part in the national tour of Cats (which eventually brought her to the Broadway production in 2000 at the age of twenty) — Hall was primed to perform for an audience.
The daughter of a choreographer and a ballerina, Celina Carvajal had an unconventional childhood in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, where she was raised in what she describes as a hippie house, surrounded by acid paintings, pot smoke, and incense. Long before she changed her name to Lena Hall and took on the dichotomous identity of a whiskey-gulping rock singer and a Tony-winning Broadway star, she was caught in a world of unabashed creativity — a setting that serves as the basis for her upcoming show at Feinstein's/54 Below, named after the home in which she grew up. The Villa Satori: Growing Up Haight Ashbury, which will run at the nightclub from November 28 to December 7, is an autobiographical production that sees Hall developing not just as an adolescent through her memories of the past, but also as a performer in the present.
This sort of show is a new one for Hall, who is used to the comforts of playing a character onstage — be it one in a musical or the persona Hall created as the lead singer of her rock band, the Deafening. "I had been performing with my band as Lena Hall," she says, "and I found that people would remember the name, could spell it." But she was still going by Celina Carvajal as recently as 2013, and she decided to make the change in the middle of performing with the original cast of Kinky Boots on Broadway. "It was hard for people to see me and see that name," she says. "The name was so very ethnic. I am ethnic — I'm Spanish-Filipino — but the way I look and the way people perceive me isn't. I had to look at the whole package."
And despite the success she's had onstage following the name change, performing in a splashy Broadway musical was something Hall had become apprehensive about after appearing in the ensembles of shows like Dracula, the Musical and Tarzan. "I liken it to a painting: You are the paint," she says. "You're going where that person is telling you where to go. I wanted to be in control. I wanted to be the brush or the painter himself." She was able to do that with the Deafening, in clubs downtown that allowed her to take control of the stage and her own image, where she'd throw back shots of whiskey and pierce the air with her voice alongside those loud guitars.
But even getting herself into rock 'n' roll character took some work. As a teenager, Hall was trained in ballet and played cello. "It was harder to get down and dirty and be gross," she admits, "to be not perfect, to let it all hang out. It took awhile to stop walking like a ballerina, to let loose, to headbang."
Hall is hoping to display the various sides of herself in her show, which has her reaching a new level of intimacy with her audience. The success on Broadway and the Tony win naturally earned her some similar gigs, notably a run at the Café Carlyle, where she realized that cabaret is an entirely different beast from putting on a rock show. "I just wanted to sing," she says. "I didn't want to explain myself or tell stories. But people who come to that sort of show want to know more about you as a performer." She quickly realized how difficult that was for her — to open up. Even talking about opening up makes Hall a little more reserved — the opposite, essentially, of the woman she is onstage. "It's a little uncomfortable to talk about myself," she admits, "to talk about my life..."
Maybe that's the little girl inside of her still talking, as she admits her bohemian lifestyle was not something she was proud of when she was growing up. "I hated it," she says. "I just wanted to be normal." As an adult, however, and with hindsight serving its usual purpose, she acknowledges the beauty and power of that unconventional upbringing. "My aunts and uncles were transgender, drag queens, homeless alcoholics.... There were all walks of life that came through the house, who knew me and saw me grow up. I think being exposed to such colorful, beautiful characters throughout my childhood has made me a very compassionate person."
While her role in Hedwig is inarguably her biggest to date, it also gave her the opportunity to see how a performer can touch individual audience members — and how she could inspire others. She shares an anecdote about a fan who met her at the stage door after a performance, a young girl who admitted that seeing the show had convinced her to seek treatment for mental health issues. "It has more of an effect on me than anyone could ever know," Hall says. "It's the sudden feeling of purpose, that I can change someone's life and make it more positive. But I need to make sure I can do that the right way and not turn into something disgusting. I want there to be a lot of integrity in how I perform and sing. It's why I want to break down that wall and show people who I am, too."
For Hall to perform with integrity, it involves being her true self: a multi-hyphenate, multi-genre performer. She'll be pulling out the songs from her youth, ranging from the blues-rock her parents listened to and the punk songs her older sister played ("Basically, what I was forced to listen to," she says), plus the music she discovered on her own as a teenager. She'll also be showing off her skills as a multi-instrumentalist, bringing out her guitar and trying her hand at the piano, which she admits she's never played publicly before and which incites some pretty awful stage fright. But Hall has never been afraid to push boundaries in character, and she's ready to do it for herself, too. "This whole show is a process of me opening up," she says, "and even if I fail, I think it'll still show a side of me that people haven't seen."
Lena Hall's 'The Villa Satori: Growing Up Haight Ashbury' runs at Feinstein's/54 Below (254 West 54th Street, cellar; 646-476-3551) November 28–December 7. For ticket information click here.
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