Andrew Rannells talks 'Hedwig' pressure, 'Girls' Broadway connections
Broadway’s most exhilarating rock concert burst onto the boards earlier this year when Neil Patrick Harris stepped into the silky fishnets of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, earning a Tony for the role and ushering the East German rocker into the hands of a new generation of fans. After Harris departed the show in August, The Book of Mormon veteran Andrew Rannells was tapped to fill Hedwig’s high heels. To say his turn is electric, heartbreaking, and wholly different from Harris’ would still be underselling the performance.
With TV turns on Girls (as gay frenemy Elijah) and How I Met Your Mother and movie appearances in Bachelorette and The Intern, Rannells’ return to his theater roots is a thrill for fans and for the actor himself. EW paid a visit to Rannells’ dressing room backstage at the Belasco Theatre to quiz the Tony nominee about his Broadway return.
EW: I went running five days ago and my legs hurt, and I just had pad thai for lunch, and now I feel gross. Do my pitiful body woes make you laugh?
ANDREW RANNELLS: Oh, please. No! This is certainly unlike any show I’ve ever done before and has very unique challenges, but this is sort of what I was used to for so long, this schedule and this physicality. There’s something about it that feels really normal for me, to snap back into this eight-show-a-week thing.
Is the snap reminiscent of Mormon, or eight shows a week dancing in the chorus of Hairspray?
In terms of the pain… there are moments in The Book of Mormon. I remember doing “All American Prophet,” which is that song in the middle of the first act where I was just running all over the stage and there were a million words and nothing ever repeated. It was hard as hell to learn, and doing that and thinking please, Jesus, let me survive through this. If I don’t die in the middle of this number, it’ll be a good one. But the crazy thing about this show is that, really, the anticipation of it starting is the worst part. Because once you’re doing it and you’re in it, it’s fine, and it moves really quickly once it starts, but it’s that gearing up to do it—that’s stressful.
Do the nerves kick in when you get here for make-up?
Until the second I set foot on stage.
Is there a hump in every show—the highest note, maybe—that you have to get through each show before you can sort of breathe and say, “Phew, okay, that’s over”?
For this one, once “Wig in a Box” is over, then I feel like we’re in a different show. The story changes, and shit gets real. And it’s my favorite part of the show to do as an actor just because I think it’s got all these really interesting elements.
How was the transition between you and Neil? Did he give you any advice? And will you give any to Michael C. Hall?
It was really speedy. Neil and I have known each other for a long time, so we didn’t really get into too many specifics about the show, just because I wanted to make sure that he had his space to finish his run. I didn’t want to feel like I’m breathing down his neck as I was coming in here, and truth be told, I was finishing Girls and this movie The Intern with Nancy Meyers.
With Anne Hathaway! She must be a big fan of yours. I don’t know why I assume that, but I do.
It was legitimately fun. Anne and I really hit it off and had a good time, and Robert De Niro was very nice. We knew each other because she had worked with Josh Gad on Love and Other Drugs prior to Mormon. Not a ton, but we knew each other a little bit. But I was doing those two things… it really wasn’t until I wrapped Girls and I wrapped The Intern that I had a solid week free to really focus on Hedwig, and then Neil’s last show was a Sunday, and I spent Tuesday on stage, and then I did it Wednesday night.
Was that an “oh, s–t” moment?
The whole thing was an oh-s–t moment. It was really tightly organized but also all over the place. You’d wake up and be like, okay, I think I’m going to work on Girls today, and then the next day I have Hedwig rehearsal and then the next day I have to go to The Intern. I really had to compartmentalize things in a way that ideally you would not have to do when working on something like this.
But I feel like out of anybody, theater people really thrive on pressure.
It’s really all I knew. The first two seasons of Girls, I was still in Book of Mormon, so I would work on my day off or during the day and they had to let me out in time for the show. I sort of thrive on that energy a little bit. The crazy anxiety of that. The hardest part about Hedwig, the thing that was missing from rehearsals is the audience, and there’s no way to practice that. You just have to be in front of people. I felt like I was as prepared as I could have been, and then I just had to do it.
How crucial is the audience to a show like this?
The audience obviously informs the whole base of the show so that’s a huge x-factor in preparing. Michael knows that, I’m sure. That’s not going to be a surprise to him, but it is a surprise because you get on stage and you go, oh, so this is how this works.
How often do you think back to your first show as Hedwig and how your performance has already changed?
I certainly feel more settled and relaxed about certain things. I’m sure there are things that feel like huge changes for me, but they’re little to the audience. Unless you tank hard, little things that seem so massive, you realize that they’re not a big deal. One of my favorite directors that I’ve ever worked with, Jack O’Brien, who directed Hairspray, he used to tell us all the time that the only thing that matters is nailing the finale because that’s what the audience leaves the theater remembering. And in Hairspray, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” was a huge finale. But it was a very forgiving approach to not worrying too much about little things.
You really can’t dwell on a small mistake in act one.
For a lot of us, Hairspray was our first show. I wasn’t in that original cast but for many people that was their first Broadway show. Everybody was very nervous and very skittish, so that was a very supportive way to look at things.
You did a production of Hedwig in Austin a decade ago. Do you have déjà vu?
My younger sister and my mother were just here, and they came to see that production in Austin, so it was weird to have them in the audience and think back to that. This is such a huge, blown-up production, but the core of the show is the same, so once we get to that point where I’m just sitting on that stool telling the story of what happened between me and Tommy Gnosis, that’s sort of the thesis statement of the show, and at least for me, that remains very much the same. Even though it’s on Broadway and it’s this huge production, that quiet moment is still the story.
Does it occasionally blow your mind that your TV and theatre worlds are so connected? For instance, you’re replacing Neil after appearing with him in How I Met Your Mother—with Cristin Milioti for that matter—or how John Cameron Mitchell was also on Girls?
When dots start getting connected like that, it’s really odd. Laura Benanti and I met when we were 19 and the fact that we’re still friends and hang out is very strange. I remember meeting Nikki James when she was in Tom Sawyer, years and years ago. But it’s great when people come up. Like it was weird, with Cristin Milioti. I remember going to see Once because Steve Kazee and I are friends, and meeting Cristin and thinking she was so great. And then randomly being on that show with her. And Neil was friends with Gavin Creel, so I first met him when he replaced in Cabaret many, many years ago. We’ve been friends for a long time. So it is a small community. There are weird moments of synchronicity.
What’s on your pre-show playlist?
I’m so lazy. It’s like an hour to get into that make-up, and Nicole and Josh do the make-up and I lay in the chair. We’ve just been doing the Pandora thing, but the anchor is this group The Blow. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them or not?
I know Adele and Broadway.
Hey, that’s fine, too. So I listen to that or, like, Phoenix.
So you really go for a chilled-out vibe, rather than some club beat that’ll pump you up?
Not for me. I just need to be at ease and I want to be relaxed, and that is at least up enough. I’m sure Stephen Trask, who wrote the Hedwig music, would be so horrified to hear this, but I still warm up to, like, Jason Robert Brown. I sing Last Five Years, I sing stuff from Bridges of Madison County. It could not be more musical theater. That’s how I sing, so that’s how I have to warm up for this gig. I’m sure he’d be horrified, but I need to warm up to musical theater.
Does Hedwig exist in Elijah’s world? Or Mormon, for that matter?
I don’t think that The Book of Mormon would exist in Elijah’s world. I think Elijah, in my mind—and again, I didn’t create him so Lena would be better to ask about this—but in my mind, Elijah would be one of those annoying people who obviously knows that Broadway exists because he expresses interest in it, but I don’t think that he has any idea what’s really going on in the city. I think he would be very confused as to what shows are running. He probably thinks The Producers is still on Broadway. He would have no concept.
I would have thought he’s a Hedwig snob who saw it in ’98.
I mean yes, that’s probably true, but I feel like in terms of current things, he’d be so, “Ohhh I don’t know, I’m not sure.” He wants to be a part of it but doesn’t know anything about it.
But Mormon doesn’t exist for him.
I don’t think so. But Hedwig, certainly. I’m sure he’s… seen the movie at least. [Laughs]
Based on the song “Sugar Daddy,” what is your personal candy fetish?
I mean, weirdly, gummy bears. I also am a sucker for gummy cola, not going to lie.
“Wicked Little Town”… what don’t you miss about Omaha?
It’s so stupid, but I don’t miss the winter there. It’s the most grotesque landscape. Have you ever seen the movie About Schmidt? Alexander Payne really captures the, like, 50 shades of brown in the winter. And as a child I would always get sort of depressed in January and February, as would everyone. Clearly the entire city suffers from seasonal depressive disorder but it just goes undiagnosed because that’s where we live. But it is frickin’ bleak there in the winter. Just depressing.
What is the Andrew Rannells wig in a box?
I have weird pompadour hair. I’ve said it before, but it was very much inspired as a child by Michael Carrington in Grease 2. All I wanted was my hair to look like Maxwell Caulfield’s. I feel like my whole adult life I’ve chased that hairdo.
What should my question be about “Midnight Radio?”
Here’s something I will say about that song. And again, it’s something that Stephen Trask would be so horrified by, but in the last part of the song Hedwig sings “Here’s to Patti and Tina, Aretha and Yoko.” And he lists the names of these women… but the first one is Patti, meaning Patti Smith, but in my mind it’s Patti LuPone. Sorry! That’s what really grounds it for me. And John Cameron Mitchell sort of gave me his blessing with that.
Off of “Tear Me Down,” what was the worst review you ever read about yourself?
When I was on tour with Jersey Boys, I was playing Bob Gaudio, so this review went through all the boys saying nice things about them and then for mine it said, “Andrew Rannells is tall as Bob Gaudio.” Is tall.
I know. Is tall. It wasn’t exactly the most genius review, but my little snippet was, “Is tall.” I was like, F–k. You. “Andrew Rannells is tall.”
Andrew Rannells headlines Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre through Oct. 12.