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Re-Toolng the Great American Songbook

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Lena Hall at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street. | DAVID NOH

New York can be such a small town, especially if you’re in the business of show. It had been a hectically busy week and I’d had to reschedule an interview with actress/ singer Lena Hall, who then coincidentally popped up that same day performing with John Cameron Mitchell at the opening night/ birthday party for Trudie Styler and her film “Freak Show” at the Public. With her genius, electrifyingly high range, and emotional immediacy, Hall did a killer version of that modern classic Radiohead’s “Creep,” which drew cheers from the crowd including Styler and her husband, Sting, raptly listening to her while embracing as if on their very first date.

I mentioned this to her when we did finally meet, and she said, “Thank you. I love that song. The whole thing happened so randomly. John asked me to do it, and I’ll do anything for him pretty much. Trudie and Sting were awesome and I got to talk to him afterwards, and he was very sweet and said I inspired him, which is all I could ever hope for, to inspire someone like that, and they sent me flowers.

“I had first sung ‘Creep’ at the Café Carlyle, and I felt that was a good place to do it. I always feel totally outside the musical theater world, and to be in this very fancy place and be doing rock’n’roll instead of Cole Porter, that song I felt was very appropriate to sing at the very end of my show. The club, by the way, has been very nice and supportive of my bringing new music in, telling me, ‘Just do your thing because we want you to bring a new crowd in.’ I still wanted to be classy — I wore a gown — but I wanted to bring a rock’n’roll edge to it.”

IN THE NOH: Lena Hall brings a rock edge to everything she does

Despite having won that “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” Tony — playing a male roadie named Yitzhak — and accepting it in a gorgeous Zac Posen gown (“all a blur, and that Sunday we had a matinee, so I changed sexes like six times, as did Neal [Patrick Harris], only he did it in reverse), Hall, amazingly, describes still feeling like a creep in the musical theater world.

“I guess you wouldn’t know it unless you were in the audition room, for that’s where I feel most like I don’t belong. Because when I walk in I realize that when I sing it’s such a different sound from what people are used to, and they can’t grasp it or understand that this is really not my scene. Obviously, I can sing anything and can manipulate my voice to be clean and pretty, but I want to bring my personality. I’m a bit of an edgy person, and I don’t want to play the stereotypical ingenue. That’s not something that interests me or would bring me joy, and I would be bored with it. There are people who are amazing at it, like Kelli O’Hara and Laura Osnes, but I’ll never be that.

“I had this idea for a new Great American Songbook, taking all the old standards, which are great but for an older generation, and throwing them by the wayside, saying, ‘This is the new songbook for our generation,’ which we recognize as classics, our Gershwins and Porters. ‘Creep’ certainly is one, Beck, Nirvana, The Cranberries. It’s our turn to recognize them as classics and I’m doing this on my new EP series and very excited about it.”

“Obsessed” is the name of Hall’s new music project: “A monthly album series: every week there will be a new song with video until the end of the month, 12 albums in all. ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ is the first in the series, as it was the most impactful thing that ever happened to me musically. I listened to its original cast album endlessly, and it was the first show I ever saw that represented how I felt, with the sound I like, heavy punk rock. It was ahead of its time — ‘Hair’ and ‘Rent’ just weren’t quite grungy enough. And, being in the show obviously changed my life, all these people I met through it.

“The series is basically a love letter to these artists or bands that affected me personally, done in a very loving way. Each song by each artist represents a memory of mine, something very important and very specific in my life: Peter Gabriel, Beck, Elton John, The Cranberries, Nirvana.

“There were so many I wanted to do but we were limited to 12 artists, one for each month, and four or five songs from each, depending on how many weeks were in a month.”

If there are more male artists represented than female it is because “although I’m a huge fan of so many females, I really feel that I am so much like them that when I do a cover of their songs, they’ve already done it better. What could I possibly add? I think there’s more to a female telling a male storyline. But we are doing Pink!

“They are all acoustic, very pared down and simple, so it really showcases what I have, and I rock out with my voice. It’s all very stripped down to introduce people to new artists they maybe have never listened to, from Bowie to Beck to now, a cross-pollination of various artists.”

Incredibly, Hall completed both recording and video-making of the entire series in three days. “It was crazy, but really easier to do that way. They are all basically live performances — I was getting kind of sick of the over-production of albums these days, which loses the emotion and a real sense of the performer. Some people love that, but I think it takes away from what is important about the song and the performer.

“Here, I wanted to make sure people got the feeling of a live performance and they recorded it so well. I sang 150 songs altogether. Sometimes it’s better when you don’t have a big budget, which forces you to be more creative. I’ll be doing a real rock show at Rockwood [Music Hall]. It sold out, so we’re planning to add another.”

At the moment Hall isn’t slated for any new plays but her plate is quite full.

“My TV show, ‘Snowpiercer’ [on TNT] is based on a French graphic novel set in the near future about class wars, when the earth has become uninhabitable. The only habitable spot is a train that goes around the world and it’s an enclosed world with the dilemma of how to go on living with ever-depleted resources and still keep people in their respective place. I play a complicated character who is sort of the eyes and ears at the back of the train, and I connect everyone. I even get to be girly, which is nice because I’m so used to playing a dude or a butch lesbian with no makeup or glamour.”

Hall’s butch lesbian appears in the indie film “Becks” (just finishing up a week-long run at the Village East) in which she plays the titular role of an aspiring singer songwriter who, after a nasty breakup with her hot New York girlfriend (Hayley Kiyoko), returns home to live with Mom (Christine Lahti), a forbidding former nun, in St. Louis.

“There’s a disconnect between her being gay and her mom’s values, and it’s just a story about self-discvoery and finally growing up and doing things for yourself, getting out of that need for co-dependency. It’s so exciting because this is my first big film, playing the title character. Lahti was fabulous, and she’s very good in this film and so much fun to work with. We filmed St. Louis in Brooklyn, a race to finish in two and a half weeks, but Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell directed it and did an excellent job on their first feature film. They knew exactly what they wanted and we all had a good time: Hayley; Mena Suvari, who plays my new love interest, is amazing; Dan Fogler plays my best friend who never left home after high school. We all came together and it became this magical film.

“Alyssa Robbins wrote all of the music and it’s rather based on her life. I love the music which is very folksy and it’s a new kind of musical, very intimate and personal, like ‘One,’ with characters that are great because they’re all flawed in ways that everyone is.”

Hall confessed that she is actually straight.

“I’ve had so many people ask me if I was gay. I want to say, ‘I’m sorry. I know, I know.’ It’s funny because the Out 100 wanted to include me in their annual round-up, but I had to tell them I’m not gay. ‘Bisexual?’ they asked. ‘No, I’m sorry, but I’m flattered you asked.’ I can’t lie — I would rather just live my life and not deny anything. I did try it at one point, thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’m a lesbian, maybe someone’s telling me something.’ But it’s definitely not my thing, so I just go for what is natural to me.”

Hall is very happily partnered to Jonathan Stein.

“He’s a total white boy, tall and handsome and also edgy, rides a motorcycle and has tattoos. He’s not in my business, a real estate agent, and amazing at what he does. It’s really nice because we do not have to talk about showbiz 24/ 7, but things we mutually know nothing about, and it’s so much fun to have that conversation, and also very healthy.

“It’s my first real adult relationship in that we’re our own people but then we come together at the end of the day and it’s just wonderful. What’s great is we’re going slow, which I’ve never done before. I’m usually in a relationship where I move in right away with that person, always way too fast and you never get to really know them or become friends, had you taken the time in the first place. I always wanted to change my boyfriends into what I wanted them to be, instead of saying, ‘Wait. This isn’t going to work, and it’s not because you’re a bad person.’ This is the first time I’ve been with someone where I just loved everything about them, and we are not living together. Slow. He’s so positive and my number one fan who comes to everything I do, a first. I always had very critical lovers, and a lot of that has to do with the way we feel about ourselves. We attract people according to how we want to be treated, and the ones I attracted before didn’t treat me very well because I didn’t treat myself very well. Once I found that out and opened my eyes and started being better to myself, I had this gem come out of nowhere. It’s amazing, and now life is completely easy and drama-free. I feel much more supported and that I can accomplish anything. But I’m still doing everything on my own and that’s crazy, finding someone who makes me feel more independent and less co-dependent. It’s almost like we’re each other’s power source, lifting each other up, and it makes me stronger.”

LENA HALL | Café Carlyle, 35 E. 76th St. | Mar. 13-17 at 8:45 p.m. | $40-$130 cover charge | Food & drink minimum is $75; $25 at the bar | bit.ly/2qpp9GV

Rockwood Music Hall, 196 Allen St. at Houston St. | Feb. 26 at 8:30 p.m. | $25 at ticketfly.com/event/1629828-lena-hall-new-york | Two-drink minimum at tables; one-drink at the bar

Updated 2:20 pm, September 4, 2018
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