Lena Hall: From the Haight to Hedwig

It’s easy to fall in love with Lena Hall.

She exudes a warmth and a particular personal style that feels deeply rooted in her quirky San Francisco upbringing. She’s vibrant. Both talented and kind, Lena Hall laughs out loud at all the things worth laughing out loud about. However, anyone who gives a shout out to ‘My Little Pony’ and the value of friendship in a Tony acceptance speech is truly someone we want to know more about.

In her latest solo show, Hall guides audiences through her upbringing in Villa Satori, her psychedelic family home in the heart of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. Her story recounting the trials and tribulations of growing up in a legendary hippie household is brought to life through intimate storytelling, interpretive dance, and humor—all set to a dizzyingly eclectic soundtrack that features classical, soul, new wave, punk rock, and more.

Consider yourself warned—this performance will contain explicit use of embarrassing home videos and incense.

She comes from good stock. Her father is Carlos Carvajal, a native San Franciscan and a sixth generation theatrical artist who is an internationally respected choreographer of more then 200 works of ballet, opera and television. Her mother is Carolyn Houser Carvajal, who apprenticed with the Joffrey Ballet and began her professional career with the San Francisco Ballet many years ago.

Most recently, Lena Hall toured with multi-platinum recording artist Josh Groban during his Fall 2015 North American tour, The Stages Tour. Hall also starred as Yitzhak in the hit Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for which she won the 2014 Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Musical. Prior to Hedwig, she starred as Nicola in the Tony Award winning musical Kinky Boots.

Want to see the cutest acceptance speech ever:

Previous Broadway and Off Broadway roles include starring in the award winning Toxic Avenger at New World Stages, Tarzan (Original Cast), Dracula (Original Cast), 42nd St (Anytime Annie), Cats (Demeter), Beg Bugs (NYMF) and Green Eyes (Fringe). TV and film roles include upcoming guest roles on HBO’s “Girls,” “Good Girls Revolt” (Amazon Prime), and “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, Lena Hall traveled the world performing and received her first big break singing for Pope John Paul II at Candlestick Stadium for over 50,000 people at the young age of 7. Hall was a member of the Young People’s Teen Musical Theatre Company in San Francisco and at the age of 17, joined the national tour of Cats.

After a sold-out engagement this past April, Tony Award winner and Grammy nominee Lena Hall (Hedwig and the Angry Inch; Kinky Boots) returns to Feinstein’s at the Nikko with her brand-new musical memoir, The Villa Satori, Growing Up Haight Ashbury on Friday, January 15th (8 p.m.) and Saturday, January 16th (7 p.m.).

We caught up with Lena on New Year’s eve to talk about her upcoming San Francisco return later this month.

Happy New Year! Can you believe it?! The year is already over.

I know it feels like it was only Gay Pride yesterday. <laughs> Gay pride?! Is that the event by which all time is measured? <laughs>

You grew up in San Francisco. You know that we have a foggy and seasonless existence here. Time is marked only by the passing of events… We don’t have spring, summer, fall and winter — we have White Party, Pride, Folsom, Halloween, etc. <laughs> Oh my God! You’re so right! I never thought of it like that, but you are totally right. That’s very San Francisco. <laughs>

This new show of yours is also very San Francisco; you are born and raised right here in the City. I was indeed! In fact, my Mom and Dad still have the same house in San Francisco that they’ve lived in since 1967.

Well, they better stay there because they can’t afford to move now! <laughs> I know! The market is absurd! It’s such a blessing that my parents have held on to it all these years. It’s the house I grew up in and a really special place that helped mold me — not just as an artist, but as a human being. I love coming home to San Francisco.

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Well, I’m sure it’s worth $20 million dollars – at least. <Laughs> It hasn’t really even been renovated since the 1960s so it still has this weird, hippie, eclectic charm. It should be a museum honestly. I love it.

Doesn’t matter. It’s a house in San Francisco. Trust me. It’s worth a LOT of money in 2016! <laughs> I know, right! I’s hard to believe that San Francisco has exploded the way it has with the tech industry. There have been so many changes.

Growing up in San Francisco in the 80s, were you exposed to the gay community here? <laughs> Are you kidding?! I was practically raised by the Gay community in San Francisco! It was a huge part of my childhood. If you were transgender, drag queen, queer, whatever you were – I can’t even begin to go into the types of characters that were part of my life growing up. I’m actually really grateful to those people who helped shape me and teach me.

I’m sure that exposure prepared you for some of these roles in gay-friendly and gay-themed shows like Kinky Boots and Hedwig. Well, I played an uppity label whore in Kinky Boots <laughs> which is the opposite of how I grew up — but yes, because I was exposed to so much that existed on the fringe of the mainstream culture, I am completely desensitized to anything shocking about gay, transgender, different, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, whatever you think you are – nothing surprises me. Nothing shocks me. In fact, I embrace it.

There is a real beauty in that. You are lucky to have been born and raised in such a fabulous, progressive city. I think so. I was exposed to so many types of people from the ballet and opera to the streets, I now have a tendency to see people simply as human beings. I tend to absorb more of their essence. I am sensitive to personalities and to inner qualities rather than to outward appearances. I see people in a very real and honest way.

It’s a very different way to grow up. I was immersed in everything so much more than my friends were growing up. Because of what my parents do — and their friends – I was surrounded by the gay culture so much more than most kids. Here in New York there is a wonderful gay community, as you wold expect. And there are these pockets in the United States where people are out and proud – being who they want to be. There is nothing like San Francisco.

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Do you find comfort in the gay community? I have a lot of friends in Miami and I’ve spent quite a bit of time there and I am just shocked at the lack of gay community there. I thought that it would be a gay mecca, like Fire Island or something, <laughs> but there is this weird lack of an arts scene and the gay community seems almost tame. I always find that when there is a strong gay community, then you have a strong arts scene. I’m drawn to that. I always have been. I seem to look for the crazy in the world. <laughs>

In San Francisco we don’t just accept crazy – we celebrate crazy. We have entire street fairs dedicated to crazy. <laughs> That’s absolutely true! God, I miss that!

Did you recently film an episode of Girls for HBO? Did I read that somewhere? I did! I think people are going to love my character too!

What was it like shooting with the other Lena (Dunham)? She is a joy to work with. I actually did all my scenes with her and she is absolutely hilarious. You know, when you are on a set like GIRLS and everyone who is there – including the crew – is happy and excited to be there – then you know you’re working with a great group of people. There is this wonderful family vibe. From the top down, the people who bring that show to life are really engaged in what they’re doing and they have a true happiness in that process. It was refreshing to see a team of people working together like that. It’s inspiring. It makes me want to do more. <laughs>

You need your own show! <laughs> I know! I should probably write my own show someday, but it would be far too complex I think for the small screen. But for now, this stage show I’m doing at Feinstein’s is as autobiographical as I have ever been. It’s inspired by my parents in San Francisco and my home and all the things that have come from that.

Why now? What is driving you to open yourself up like this to the world? I went through a bit of a life change recently and decided to get a life coach. I know it sounds weird, right <laughs> But it’s totally not weird. I just felt like I needed to work though some of the traumas and issues in my life. That process just brought up all of these faded memories and from that were specific songs that triggered these emotions and feelings that I had just kept buried for so long. As I heard each song, these beautiful stories came to mind – and I just sort of linked the songs to the stories and everything just flowed organically from that. What I ended up with was a body of music and stories that were all intimate and exceedingly personal. It’s all connected to me. All of it. It’s all an extension of me – and there is no filler. <laughs> It’s all meaningful.

Do you feel really vulnerable up there doing something so personal? Believe it or not, I have a hard time putting myself out there. I was always ridiculed as a kid for being so weird and so wild. When I was a little kid, I had tons of self-confidence. I wouldn’t allow anyone to tell me I couldn’t do anything. I was fearless. Over time as an adolescent, however, the words of my peers and other people started to get to me. I made the mistake of listening to other people and that outside criticism and I slowly started to doubt myself. I started to listen to those voices and build up a wall. I became more insecure. It affected me. Putting myself and my life on stage was hard… but the hardest part was that it was going to be reviewed by critics! <laughs> I mean, really?! My life is getting a review by a critic?! Really?! How can someone review my life? <laughs>

You seem so confident; I find it hard to believe that you were ever self-doubting. Self-doubt is something we all have to overcome in our lives I think. For example, playing the piano was also a big part of my life growing up – and yet I have terrible stage fright. Because of that fear, I always held back and resisted playing for an audience. I had to work through that. For this show, I picked up a guitar and said ‘you know what, I don’t care what people think and I don’t care how hard it is – I just wanna do this. I wanna play and sing with a guitar.’

Did you know how to play the guitar? Not at all. <laughs> But I did it. And you know what?! I am not terrible. <laughs> I’m not super great, but you know, what I learned is that I can do it if I put my mind to it. Overcoming that fear was the real obstacle for me. Letting go of all that fear was a big release. It’s hard to carry that around; it becomes this distraction if you let it.

We all carry our baggage from our childhood and we all have to work though it. But most of us do that privately… not on stage. <laughs> Doing this show is therapeutic. It’s like I’m rounding a new corner. I feel like for the first time I want to tell my story. I want to write. I have so much to say. I feel this real urgency to tell my story now and share what I’ve learned. It wouldn’t even fit in an hour long movie… It’s set in a strange setting because of how I grew up – but I went through everything that everyone else did. However, within the framework of my home and my hippie parents and San Francisco, it takes on this really artistic edge. It’s a truly remarkable way to look back at my life – and I look forward to sharing it with my San Francisco friends.


The Villa Satori, Growing Up Haight Ashbury on Friday, January 15 (8 p.m.) and Saturday, January 16 (7 p.m.). Tickets for Lena Hall range in price from $50–$70 and are available now by calling 866.663.1063 or visiting www.ticketweb.com.

All seating at Feinstein’s at the Nikko is cabaret style and available on a first-come, first-served basis within the section purchased. Guests who purchase the prix-fixe dinner at Restaurant Anzu will receive a complimentary section upgrade (subject to availability) and get to choose their exact seat locations within the upgraded section.

Guests of Feinstein’s at the Nikko can enjoy a variety of food and beverage options before performances. Kanpai Lounge, located in Hotel Nikko’s lobby, offers light cuisine, a full bar and specialty cocktails. Restaurant Anzu, Hotel Nikko’s intimate restaurant located on the second floor, serves sustainable California cuisine enhanced with Asian flavors. Restaurant Anzu will also offer Feinstein’s at the Nikko guests a special three-course prix-fixe dinner ($45 per person) prior to all performances. Reservations can be made by calling (415) 394-1100.

For additional information on Lena Hall, visit www.lenahall.com.

For additional information on Feinstein’s at the Nikko, visit: www.hotelnikkosf.com/feinsteins

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