Metro Weekly

The Musical Man: Q&A with Andrew Rannells

One of the stars celebrating "50 Years of Broadway" at the Kennedy Center, Andrew Rannells reflects on his stage and screen career

Andrew Rannells -- Photo: Luke Fontana
Andrew Rannells — Photo: Luke Fontana

Many, even most, musical theater performers get their first taste of Broadway somewhere miles away from New York’s theater district. Whether it’s a trip to see a Broadway touring production at, say, the Kennedy Center, or catching the rare broadcast presentation of a stage musical on TV, theater kids across America fall in love with the idea of singing and dancing on Broadway with no idea if or how they’ll ever get there.

Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Andrew Rannells got his first hit of Broadway musicals watching the Tony Awards on TV. “I just decided, ‘I think I want to do this. I want to be one of those people,'” he recalls. The Catholic school student had done some children’s and community theater in his hometown, and watching the pros do their thing just drove home where his passions lay.

“There was just something about being able to express yourself in that specific way. Because a lot of actors, I feel, want to tell stories, but I think musical theater is so specific in that you get to express it in a very emotional and visceral way through song. And when I saw all of those shows lined up, I just felt like this is the career for me. I want to do that. I wasn’t even sure if I could be a singer at that point, but I just thought that must be the best feeling in the world if you’re able to do that.”

Rannells has found that feeling many times over, essaying acclaimed musical roles on Broadway, including Tony-nominated performances in Falsettos and as missionary Elder Price in the original Broadway cast of The Book of Mormon. In 2018, he starred alongside eight other out gay actors in Joe Mantello’s landmark production of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band.

While the show nabbed a Tony for Best Revival of a Play, Rannells, a Grammy winner for Mormon, found romance with co-star Tuc Watkins. The pair reprised their onstage roles as bickering lovers Larry and Hank in the 2020 Netflix film adaptation, produced by Ryan Murphy, who also produced the play. Notably, it was Murphy who, along with Ali Adler, gave the actor his first leading television role on NBC’s too-short-lived sitcom The New Normal, portraying Bryan, a TV producer loosely modeled on Murphy, married to obstetrician David (Justin Bartha).

The only network sitcom to date built around a gay married couple, The New Normal aired a single season, around the same time Rannells debuted in his best-known TV role as gay bestie Elijah Krantz on HBO’s Girls. Last year, continuing in the Murphy TV pipeline, he joined Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and James Corden “changing lives” in the director-producer’s adaptation of the queer-themed Broadway hit The Prom.

Well-received adaptations like The Prom, tick, tick…Boom!, and West Side Story seem to represent a fresh wave of post-Hamilton, Broadway musical popularity. It’s an opportune moment, then, to celebrate the form with 50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center, a two-nights-only performance featuring a dazzling cast, including Rannells, Stephanie J. Block, Vanessa Williams, Norm Lewis, Gavin Creel, Christopher Jackson, Andrea McArdle, Beth Leavel, and LaChanze paying homage to the legacy of Broadway musicals, and Stephen Sondheim, at the Kennedy Center.

The program offers Rannells a chance to take the stage with some of his favorite performers, and acknowledge Broadway’s current moment in the spotlight.

“I feel like if we really look back, there are always these moments that happen where something from Broadway crosses over and becomes a cultural phenomenon,” he says. “If it’s A Chorus Line or if it’s Rent, it pops up every once in a while, but it’s always very exciting to see. I feel like it’s sort of a cyclical situation, that it does happen periodically. I’m certainly happy to be living in the moment right now, where it seems like more eyes are on Broadway than not.”

The Prom: (L to R) Jo Ellen Pellman, Nathaniel Potvin, Sofia Deler, Nico Greetham, Logan Riley Hassel, Andrew Rannells -- Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix.
The Prom: Jo Ellen Pellman, Nathaniel Potvin, Sofia Deler, Nico Greetham, Logan Riley Hassel, Andrew Rannells — Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix.

METRO WEEKLY: Fitting the theme of the 50 Years of Broadway celebration, what was your first Broadway musical, and is that the show that got you hooked?

ANDREW RANNELLS: No, I mean the first Broadway musical I saw was Rent. So it was a real good one, but I was 18, and it was the first time I had ever been to New York and that was the first show I saw. But what really got me hooked — because I’m from Nebraska and was not really able to come to New York just to see shows for fun — was the Tony Awards. The year that it was Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Who’s Tommy, Blood Brothers. It was a crazy year for the Tonys. And that was the telecast that really got me hooked on musical theater. And, specifically, then later seeing Falsettos at the Tonys really solidified it for me. As a gay kid, I had never seen that exact portrayal of gay characters onstage — onstage or anywhere, quite frankly — and it just hooked me.

MW: How much can you tell me about what you’ll be performing for the 50 Years of Broadway program?

RANNELLS: Well, I think I can tell you at this point, because I’m locked in. I mean, I’ve learned these lyrics, so it better not change at this point. My very good friend from the revival of Falsettos, Stephanie Block, she and I will be doing “Move On” as part of a Stephen Sondheim tribute. We got to sing it at Carnegie Hall a few years ago as part of a program that we did there. So I’m very excited about that. And then another friend from Falsettos, Betsy Wolfe, will be doing “Suddenly Seymour,” from Little Shop of Horrors, also a show that went through the Kennedy Center. And then I’m very excited that Chris Jackson and I, who I very briefly did Hamilton with, will get to sing “You’re Nothing Without Me” from City of Angels, a really fun show — it’s wild, the score is incredible, and I’m really excited to get to sing with Chris. Because when I was doing Hamilton, I only got to sing the one song that King George sings, and I was alone onstage the entire time. But Chris and I, our dressing rooms were very close to each other, and I just completely fell in love with him. And I’m very excited to get to perform with him.

MW: Do you have a favorite Sondheim musical, whether or not it’s going to be in this program?

RANNELLS: Well, that’s a tough call. I would say that my initial favorite was Into the Woods, because it was on PBS and I got to see it in my living room in Omaha and watch that show, which was very exciting. And I watched it constantly. I recorded it on a VHS, and just kept rewatching it.

MW: The production with Bernadette Peters?

RANNELLS: Oh yeah, it’s the original cast. But as I get older, I feel like Sunday in the Park with George is maybe more… I don’t know. There’s just something about that. So it’s a coin toss. I love them both. And both James Lapine, by the way, who I got to work with in Falsettos. I just think he’s one of the greatest book writers and directors ever, and the fact that he worked on both of those shows is no surprise. The fact that I got to work with that guy, it’s pretty crazy.

MW: I’ve asked this question of actors before, and Sunday in the Park keeps coming up.

RANNELLS: I know. It’s a really big thing with, I think, actors and people who want to be artists. It raises a lot of questions about what is art. I think that show is so layered and so beautiful, and it’s no surprise that James and Stephen Sondheim won the Pulitzer for that, because it’s just such a beautiful, beautiful show. So if anyone who’s reading this does not know that show, you should definitely watch it. And that original production, that was also aired on PBS, it’s Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. And it’s just incredible. I think that it informed a lot of actors my age — I’m 43. I think it really informed a lot of us about going into the business, and what it is to be an artist or a performer.

MW: We’ll get back to musical theater, but I was actually just watching the animated series Invincible, which I loved. Will your out gay character William return for season two?

RANNELLS: I’m really not sure. I mean, I would like to think so, but I don’t know. My fingers are crossed that yes, that will be a thing that happens. That’s so nice of you to bring that up. I was so blindsided by that offer to do it. And it was so fun to get to do. And I think, especially for queer kids — I’m not saying that it’s a role model, but just that they included that in the story, I thought was really great.

MW: Also, I think it’s cool that William got a storyline of his boyfriend being turned into a zombie android.

RANNELLS: I know, I know. It was a sad end.

MW: I’m not someone who’s usually shocked by TV violence, but that show is really hardcore. Have you seen it?

RANNELLS: Yes, I have. But I appreciate the way they did the animation, because it looks like sort of more old-school cartoons. It’s not CGI stuff. It looks like a comic book, right?

MW: Yeah, it does. But it is gory and bloody. Is it the kind of show that you would watch if you weren’t doing it?

RANNELLS: Not necessarily. I don’t tend to veer into that. Well, actually that’s not true, because I just watched all of Ozark in three days. That’s a pretty violent show. And I love a murder podcast. So I’m not averse to that, but yes, on paper I would say, “No, I don’t like violence.” But then it turns out I do watch a lot of that stuff.

MW: I think we all do.

RANNELLS: But a lot of people don’t subscribe to that, and they don’t like to watch that stuff. I don’t know what that says about each individual’s psyche about why that’s interesting, but I like to watch Laura Linney shoot people on Ozark. I just like that. I don’t know.

MW: Is the locale attractive to you, too, being from nearby Nebraska?

RANNELLS: No. I never want to go to the Ozarks. No offense to the Ozarks, let me be clear. But that show is not exactly a brochure for tourism to go to the Ozarks.

MW: Oh, for sure no. Would you ever be down for reviving Elijah Krantz if the call came for some kind of Girls reboot?

RANNELLS: Sure. I think, Lena just gave an interview recently about just giving it some space, and giving it some air, and you would not want to revisit those characters unless there was a new story to tell. So I think that I would leave that up to Lena and Jenni Konner to decide when is a good time to revisit those folks. But I’ve thought about Elijah and where he might be.

MW: Where might he be?

RANNELLS: Well, I think Elijah might be more successful than people thought he would be. But I also think he would still be with Dill, I think he would still be with Corey Stoll, and we would still be together. I feel like, yeah, that would be a fun thing to get to play, but we’ll see. Maybe one day.

MW: Not accounting for Broadway shows, where you’re playing the same material over and over and over, on a TV show, you get to–

RANNELLS: There’s an arc.

Rannells in the original Broadway production of “The Book of Mormon”

MW: Right, a character gets to grow and do different things. How much did Elijah stick with you, or any other character that you’ve portrayed that way?

RANNELLS: Well, it was a little tricky with him because I was a good 10 years older than that character was, so I got to sort of revisit my 20s when I was in my 30s, and that was an interesting place to go back to.

I guess the one character that keeps coming up for me is Elder Price from The Book of Mormon. I find that the work that I do and the parts that I’m offered are often sort of a little bit of a fish out of water guy, like a Midwestern guy, who’s trying to navigate a new world. So that keeps seeming to come up. I mean, I loved playing Elijah because he was so confident, even though he was sort of doubtful of himself in the end, but he also, he loved to read those girls to filth. And I loved that he dragged them all to hell. It was really fun to get to do that. And in some ways, as the series went on, I got to sort of be the audience voice, and be like, “Are you gals fucking kidding me?” I got to call them out on all of their stuff, which was really fun. It was a really fun thing to get to do.

MW: Actually, an Elijah read just crossed my Twitter feed a couple days ago. Him telling Hannah, “You’ll be a horrible mother,” that one. Which is just so mean.

RANNELLS: [Laughs.] I know, I know. It’s not great. But he was hurt. He was a hurt person.

MW: Hurt people hurt.

RANNELLS: Well, yeah. And I loved that experience, and I love that they didn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes you’re meanest to people that you’re closest to. And that’s a really hard thing to admit, but sometimes you say really mean things to your friends, and it’s not great, but you do. You feel the closeness that you have with them, and sometimes you often say mean things to them.

MW: Yes, that is true.

RANNELLS: Are you saying that from experience?

MW: Oh, I just know that personally, I can only really feel hurt by something if it’s someone that I love saying it. I don’t really care too much about what other people say.

RANNELLS: No. But if it comes from someone who knows you, that’s really tricky.

MW: Moving on to The New Normal, which I’m bringing up because it’s a show that I enjoyed and because I’m talking to you. I want to ask: Do you think that show got a fair shake?

RANNELLS: I think it was a little too soon. If we did it now, it probably would have a different audience. But I think the idea that the center of the show was a gay couple — even though it was only 2012 when that show came out — was maybe a little too soon. Maybe the audience, especially on NBC, was not quite ready to watch a show centered around a gay couple. I’m very proud of the stories that we told and I think the writing that Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler did was fantastic. We dealt with a lot of really amazing topics and beautiful story lines. And I was always very moved by all of the episodes, but I think it maybe was a little too much for folks. But I wonder if maybe, if it was to happen now and it was on Netflix or on Hulu, or it was on a different platform, it might have found a different audience.

MW: Checking into it, in the 10 years since, there hasn’t been any other network show centered on an LGBTQ couple. There hasn’t been anything else, and there are married couples on literally every television show.

RANNELLS: I know.

MW: Where’s ours?

RANNELLS: I know, but they’re never the center of the story. The gay couple is never the center of the story. And I feel like Ryan was very bold to make that move, and to pitch that to NBC. And I applaud Jen Salke for putting it on the air, and Bob Greenblatt. And Dana Walden, who was also an executive producer on it. They put it out there and they tried to make it work, but I just don’t think the audience was there at the moment.

But it’s always very nice to me, even all these years later, hearing people that have found it or watched it, and it meant something to them. Maybe they were young people who were looking at it sort of aspirationally, or maybe you were in a couple and you thought, yes, I am also wanting to start a family. And I just think that the fact that Jen and Dana and Ryan chose to put that out there, I think is really amazing.

MW: It was the first place I ever saw Bebe Wood, who now I enjoy watching on Love, Victor.

RANNELLS: Don’t get me started. That kid, I mean, she’s a fucking pinup now. She’s so beautiful. She’s always been such a smart and wonderful person, but to watch a kid go from 10 to, I don’t know how old she is now, she must be like 22. Jesus, it makes me feel old, but she’s just the best. I just, I love that kid.

MW: A fun fact about New Normal. I saw a ranking list on www.Ranker.com of the all-time best LGBTQ couples on TV, and New Normal‘s David and Bryan ranked 29th.

RANNELLS: 29th?! Who was number one?

MW: Honestly, I don’t remember who was number one. I remember another couple, though, Bob and Lee from Desperate Housewives, played by Tuc Watkins and Kevin Rahm.

RANNELLS: Alright, Tuc. Tuc was in there. Okay. That’s good.

MW: Yeah, 55th.

RANNELLS: What the fuck is this list? Well, I’ll look it up now. Who the hell was number one?

MW: We have to find out.

RANNELLS: We’ll do that later.

MW: But that was also my segué into a semi-personal question. What are the benefits and challenges of being part of a two-gay actor partnership?

RANNELLS: It is tricky in some ways, but it’s also really great if you’re with an actor who understands the business. I’ve tried to date people who are not in the business — in my business, sorry to say the business like it’s the only one — but not to be in show business, because there are just certain aspects of it that are really complicated. Like, how long is your work day? My work day could be anywhere from six hours to 16 hours. So you can’t really plan a dinner. And then if you’re on Broadway and you’re doing a show, or if you’re doing any sort of theater, then you’re not done until 11 at night. It’s kind of a complicated schedule to explain to somebody, to be, “I am basically a vampire.” If you’re doing a show, it’s a little tricky. There’s a shorthand if you’re dating another actor that sort of understands days can be long, days can be short, you have a lot of responsibility in the middle. So, that’s helpful, to sometimes date another actor.

MW: You happen to be the third Boys in the Band-er that I’ve interviewed for the cover of this magazine, after Joe Mantello and Robin de Jesús. You’re all lovely people. The impression I got from seeing the show, as well as talking to people about it, is that it was a uniquely special production for you guys. What did it mean to be part of that?

RANNELLS: Well, I think that the biggest part that was — and I always get weirdly emotional when I talk about this — but it was that Mart Crowley was so involved. And 50 years later, the show had never actually made it to Broadway. It was an off-Broadway show that was very successful, and then was turned into a film. And that Mart got to see it come back 50 years later and be a big success on Broadway and win the Tony Award for best revival of a play. And then we turned it into a film for Netflix, and he was on our set and got to see that all happening again in a really major way.

I can’t speak for Mart, but I think that he was perhaps touched by the fact that it was nine out actors, who were boldly out, who were very much out, who all got to perform that story. I think that was a big deal for him, so that he got to see that was really great.

Falsettos
Rannells with Christian Borle in Falsettos

MW: It is. So, to another Ryan Murphy production, The Prom.

RANNELLS: The Prom!

MW: What was your favorite part about making The Prom? I can imagine all kinds of possibilities.

RANNELLS: I mean, that was insane. Probably my favorite thing that happened about The Prom, aside from making it, was the phone call I got from Ryan Murphy. He said, “I would like you to be in this film adaptation of The Prom, and it’s going to be you and Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and James Corden.” And we were the first people cast. And I was like, “One of these things is not like the other. And what the hell are you talking about?” That he included me in that was really — I mean, it was not on my radar that that was happening. And that Ryan reached out to me and asked me to do it was just incredible.

The whole experience was so much fun. I was terrified, obviously, to work with those people. And I was very nervous and I felt like I was not qualified to be there, but everyone made me feel so welcome and so included. And everyone just sort of jumped on board in the real musical theater sense of, let’s rehearse and let’s do this. It was a really joyful experience, I got to say. It was several months of just going to work every day and being very excited to be there.

MW: I interviewed Jo Ellen and Ariana for The Prom. They were really great.

RANNELLS: The sweetest. And they’ve really taken their opportunity very seriously, in terms of, they have this Unruly Heart Foundation that they started. And as two queer actors, who are much younger than I am, they really took it seriously and took that platform seriously. And they started this nonprofit foundation. I’m so happy for them and very, very proud of them.

MW: Your big number in the movie, “Love Thy Neighbor,” is a song with strong messages — ‘You can’t cherry-pick the Bible’ being one of them. Since you grew up in a religious environment, how much did you relate to the message of that song?

RANNELLS: I definitely related to it. I will say my Catholic school was pretty light on the Bible. And I know that’s weird to say, but at least in my experience, Catholics don’t really dive too much into the Bible specifically. There are certain parts of it that are sort of beat into your head, but I can’t say that I know a ton about the Bible, even though I went through twelve years of Catholic school, which is pretty funny.

MW: What were they teaching you guys?

RANNELLS: I guess just the scary stuff. But I love that number because of what it does drive home, which is, “just be kind.” That is actually the number one rule, is just treat others the way you want to be treated. I loved getting to do that number, and it didn’t hurt matters that I got to dance around in a fountain with a bunch of children flipping around me. That was very exciting. I felt like I was in an old MGM musical, so I loved that.

MW: Okay, last two questions for you. What memorable interactions have you had with Mormons who approach you because of Elder Price?

RANNELLS: Not so much, after the fact, but I did do a little research before we started. I went into the Church of Latter-day Saints in Lincoln Center, and pretended to be interested in it, which I know is not great, but I wanted to talk to some missionaries. And I can’t say that I befriended them, but I did have a few meetings with them. After maybe the third meeting, I said, “Look, I got to be honest. I’m not going to join your church. I’m doing this musical that the South Park guys wrote. And I just wanted to know what your experience was like in New York.”

And they were so sweet. They were probably both 19 years old, and very nervous to be in New York City, and very open about how scared they were to be in New York, having come from Salt Lake. And so it was a really interesting experience to actually get to talk to them, and take down the wall of pretending that I was actually interested in joining the church — which I know is probably not great, but it was research to figure out how to get into that. But I will say those two guys were very, very helpful to me, to actually learn about what it is to be a missionary.

MW: I don’t think it’s so bad. To them, it should indicate that you wanted to get their experience right.

RANNELLS: Well, and in my defense, I did come clean, at a certain point. They were not mad at me. They were just like, “Oh, that’s fun.” I hesitated to say, “You should come see the show.” Maybe they did. Who knows?

MW: This is your last question then, Prom-related: How old were you when you found your zazz?

RANNELLS: My zazz? Well, I think the first time, and it’s tricky, because the zazz comes and goes. But I would say the first time that I felt like I might have some talent, I’m not saying all the talent, but the first time that I felt like maybe I could be good at this, I was 17. And I was doing a show in Omaha, Nebraska called 110 in the Shade. And I basically only had one number in the show, but I did it, and I felt like, “I think I could actually make a career out of this.” And then of course there were years of self-doubt, that I felt terrible, but I would say at 17 there was enough of a push that I felt like, maybe you should try this. Maybe you should give it a shot.

MW: And how do you reconnect when the zazz is feeling a little depleted?

RANNELLS: Ugh. It just comes and goes. It just comes and goes. I mean, it’s a nice thing to try to remember, but Jesus, it’s a hard thing to hang on to.

MW: And actual last question, what South Park character is that hanging on the wall behind you?

RANNELLS: Oh, that’s me.

MW: You as you?

RANNELLS: Me as Elder Price. Trey and Matt made me that. It’s all the South Park kids, and then me as Elder Price. They were very sweet. They made one for me, and for Josh, and I think they made one for Nikki and Rory. They gave us these fun pictures of the cast of South Park with our character from The Book of Mormon in it.

MW: That’s awesome. Finally, I’m going to tell you that the number-one ranked couple on that list is a TV couple I’ve never heard of, Ian and Mickey from Shameless.

RANNELLS: I mean, really? It’s two straight actors playing gay people, is what I would say. And what was I? I was 35, and Tuc was 50-something?

MW: You were 29th. And he was 55th.

RANNELLS: Interesting, is all I will say.

50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center performances are Friday, Feb. 11 and Saturday, Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m. at Kennedy Center Opera House. The event is sold out, but some tickets may still be released. Check by calling 202-467-4600 or visiting www.kennedy-center.org.

Follow Andrew Rannells on Instagram at @andrewrannells.

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