By Kia Standard
Lena Hall’s voice blows your hair back, in a good way; it’s high‑voltage, like travelling through a wind tunnel at one hundred miles per hour with no brakes. And you don’t even miss the brakes – you’re just along for the ride. So, it’s hard to believe this Tony Award‑winning, Grammy‑nominated actress ever had to audition, let alone ever had a bad audition. Ms. Hall shares her audition stories in her semi‑autobiographical show, “Lena Hall: The Art of the Audition,” at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street.
“Introducing Celina Consuela Gabriella Carvajal,” her accompanist announces from the piano, as Ms. Hall glides onto the stage wearing a sheer lace dress. Lena Hall is her stage name; it’s a condensed hybrid of her original name. She was born in San Francisco to artistic parents and is of Spanish, Filipino, and Swedish descent. Her father, a ballet dancer and choreographer, is the co‑artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival; her mother was a prima ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet.
She credits the pair for preparing her for her first audition at the age of eight, an open call for the role of Young Cosette for a touring company of “Les Misérables.” For the audition, the other child hopefuls prepared the song “Castle on a Cloud” from the show itself, while little Celina’s song selection was Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I’m Called Little Buttercup,” from “H.M.S. Pinafore.” The result was disastrous. Nerves got the best of her; she started the song, then froze in the middle, so the accompanist began again. During her second attempt, she burst into tears and then bawled through the entire song. Sometimes Ms. Hall still carries this memory with her into her present‑day auditions.
At the age of twelve, she followed into her older sister’s footsteps by joining the Young People’s Teen Musical Theatre Company in San Francisco. This is where she really honed her audition skills, while singing, dancing and acting her way through a repertoire of musical theater classics. The only problem is Ms. Hall saw herself a bit differently than the way the rest of the world saw her. For “Into the Woods,” she imagined herself as the sexy witch, but she was cast as the cow, “Milky White.” Also in “Gypsy,” she imagined herself as Gypsy Rose Lee; however, she was cast as Baby Louise in Act One, and the back of the cow in Act Two. Still, her experiences at YPTMTC helped her build self‑confidence.
Lena Hall tells her anecdotes in a conversational tone; she is candid, funny, and at times irreverent. At the age of seventeen, after making it through three dance cuts for the national tour of “Cats,” she sang “Dance 10, Looks 3,” looking directly into the eyes of the casting team seated behind the table. An audition no‑no. She landed the job anyway. However, when she auditioned for the Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” she wasn’t so lucky. She exaggerated her ability to play the alto saxophone on her resume under “special skills.” “How hard can it be?” she said. She was cut when asked to play at the end of the audition, and could only screech out a few notes.
Ms. Hall also shares the failures of her onstage career. She talks about her immediate firing from Garry Marshall’s “Happy Days’” musical, when they realized Pinky Tuscadero could not play the alto sax (she forgot to delete it from her resume); and she briefly mentions her ensemble work in the Broadway shows “Dracula” and “Tarzan,” both of which turned out to be box office flops. Many auditions later, Lena Hall finally hit her stride when she got the chance to originate the role of Nicola in the musical “Kinky Boots.” What followed is her most epic audition to date, which landed her the role of Yitzhak in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” opposite Neil Patrick Harris. This star turn led to her winning the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Ms. Hall’s charm is infectious; she recounts her journey while laughing along with the audience at her various foibles. Adding to the humor are the screen‑sized projections of headshots that seem to tell a story of their own. The progression goes from black‑and‑white photos to digital color shots. They begin with a baby‑faced Celina, then go through a variety of hairdos (and don’ts): bobbed cuts, electrocuted hair, blonde, and red, until she finally settles into her current long mane of jet black. Her wardrobe choices go from short sleeves to bare shoulders, then a Kelly‑green turtleneck, which she has since traded in for a cropped black leather jacket.
Lena Hall is an undeniable talent, a vocal sorceress, with an extensive range to match. Ms. Hall can belt out a standard show tune, lull you with her ethereal soprano, or blast you with the rock‑and‑roll growl that she is most noted for. Frankly, who cares whether or not she can play the alto sax? Now she can add audition master and Tony winner to her list of “Special Skills.”
“The Art of the Audition: From Falling Apart to Nailing the Part”
Performed and conceived by Lena Hall
Musical Director and Pianist: Joshua Stephen Kartes
Photo Credit: Genevieve Rafter Keddy
February 9, 2019 at 8PM
The Loreto Theater at The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture
18 Bleecker St
New York City
KIA STANDARD is a writer and musical theater performer, who has appeared in regional and international productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and I”, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” She received an MA in Creative Writing/Nonfiction from The Johns Hopkins University, and has published articles and profiles for various talent magazines. Ms. Standard is currently working as a musical playwright.