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James Corden teases inspiring Tonys opening

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Courtesy of Steve Meyer

James Corden is a very busy man these days. When he’s not conquering the internet with viral late-night sketches like “Carpool Karaoke” or “Drop the Mic” on The Late Late Show he’s getting ready to host the 2016 Tony Awards. But Corden did take a brief break from his hectic schedule to speak with New York Times culture reporter Melena Ryzik at New York’s New School s part of the TimesTalks series. Corden went deep into his own backstory and the behind-the-scenes process of his show. Here are five things we learned from the event.

His goal for the Tonys

Corden admitted he was nervous about hosting the Tony Awards on Sunday. Part of the reason, he said, was that two of the most memorable times in his life involved either the ceremony itself (where he won an award for One Man, Two Guvnors in 2012) or the 14 blocks that make up the Broadway theater community. Corden described his aim in crafting an opening number that spoke to the ceremony’s viewers and fans across the country.

“Let’s try have an opening that talks to the theater kid in Nebraska, or Ohio, or Michigan who dreams up being a performer on a stage one day, dreams of working on Broadway, and to whom it feels so far away,” Corden said. “And this one night represents the center of their world for that day, you know? Let’s try and have a song that says you can absolutely do this. We’ll see on Sunday night if that comes through. I know who that kid is, because that’s who I was. In truth, that’s who everyone on that stage was. So that’s what we’re going to try and do.”

His favorite part about Carpool Karaoke

Carpool Karaoke has quickly become the signature bit of Corden’s Late Late Show, and the host told Ryzik that it was always intended that way. Corden and his producers knew they needed a tentpole sketch to define their show in the tradition of David Letterman’s Top 10 Lists or Jay Leno’s Jaywalking. They knew Carpool Karaoke was a great idea, even if it took a little while to catch on with celebrity guests. But where everyone focuses on the musical aspects, like Adele rapping Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” verse or Audra McDonald belting out “One Day More” with Jane Krakowski, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Corden says his favorite part of the bit is the conversation between songs.

“There is an intimacy to it, which I’m very proud of,” Corden said. “You could have Jennifer Lopez on a talk show 20 times, she’s never gonna send Leonardo DiCaprio a text … I feel like with each of them, you find something out that you didn’t know.”

His earliest memory

Corden is a multitalented performer. He can act, sing, dance, dress up — anything needed to entertain his audience and give everyone a good time. He told Ryzik that there was never a time he didn’t want to perform. In fact, playing in front of a crowd is his earliest memory. When he was 4 years old at his sister’s baptism, Corden ended up on a chair near the front and started doing silly things and making people laugh.

“What I really remember clearly is is that when it finished, we went back to the congregation and I was sat between my parents staring at someone’s back,” Corden said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is boring compared to it up there. You gotta get back up there at some point. That’s where it was great.’ And that was it, really.”

How The History Boys changed his career

Corden won a Tony for One Man, Two Guvnors, but his Broadway debut actually came in an earlier show, The History Boys. After years of drama school, auditions, and day jobs, Corden finally landed a big part in the original production of Alan Bennett’s play. But unlike fellow castmembers like Dominic Cooper, the success of The History Boys (it won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Play) did not immediately improve Corden’s career prospects.

“I would get, like, the two-page scene where I’m the guy who drops off a TV for Hugh Grant,” Corden said. “I realized all these decisions were being made only based on the way I look … That’s when my friend Ruth thought, why don’t we try and write something? Why don’t we write a sitcom?”

Thus began Gavin & Stacey, the three-season BBC sitcom that helped launch the next phase of Corden’s career. Having realized he didn’t fit into the traditional route of acting careers, Corden decided to forge his own path.

The genesis of Drop the Mic

Carpool Karaoke may be Corden’s most popular segment, but it’s far from his only one. Drop the Mic, Corden’s new form of celebrity rap battle, has emerged as an insurgent contender. Corden said that as he’s been walking around New York in between Broadway shows and Tony prep, he’s already had people scream “Drop the Mic!” at him on the street.

The bit started with Anne Hathaway, but was then reprised for David Schwimmer’s appearance a few nights later. Corden said he and his producers rarely like to do the same sketch twice in one week, but Schwimmer was so enthusiastic — he even wrote many of his own lines, on the plane ride from New York to L.A. — that they decided to go for it.

“We were getting these rhymes, and as soon as I read the rhymes he wrote about me, I was like, ‘Okay, it’s on,'” Corden said. “That’s how it came about.”