InDepth InterView: Andrew Rannells Talks NY Pops JOURNEY ON Gala, BOOK OF MORMON, New TV Series & More
Today we are talking to one of the biggest new stars on Broadway who first burst onto the scene in HAIRSPRAY but has since carved out a place in the great pantheon of theatre history in creating the iconic lead role of Elder Price in the Broadway hit of the decade, THE BOOK OF MORMON - Andrew Rannells. One among many on the incredibly impressive list of performers at Monday night's NY Pops JOURNEY ON gala at Carnegie Hall celebrating the music and lyrics of Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty, Rannells joins many of the other accomplished Broadway/Hollywood crossover stars of modern Broadway as well as those who predominantly tread the boards. Illustrating his journey with the edgy and ribald musical smash THE BOOK OF MORMOM from workshop to Broadway, the Tony Awards and beyond, Rannells paints the picture of the show's road to success and imparts his effervescent enthusiasm and all too apparent joy to be appearing in such a crowd-pleasing and joyous experience eight times a week. Additionally, Rannells shares his thoughts on the upcoming national tour starring Gavin Creel and whether or not there will be a MORMON film version sooner rather than later. Plus, Rannells gives also us the first look at his 21st century parenting and adoption-themed NBC pilot, THE NEW NORMAL, and outlines the finer points of the story, his character and the themes of the hotly anticipated new single-camera comedy series coming from the creator of GLEE, Ryan Murphy. All of that, his favorite Ahrens & Flaherty songs, future acting plans, the 411 on his character arc on HBO's GIRLS and his upcoming role in the feature film BACHELORETTE - and much, much more!
The New York Pops 29th Birthday Gala: JOURNEY ON will be presented on April 30 at 7 PM. More information is available here.
Check out the previous entries in this series with InDepth InterView: Lynn Ahrens, available here; InDepth InterView: Stephen Flaherty, available here; and InDepth InterView: Marin Mazzie, available here.
PC: What is it like doing a five show weekend in THE BOOK OF MORMON? Are you used to it yet or is it still a challenge to keep up your energy?
AR: Well, it's tough! You know, it definitely gets in your body - but, I'll be honest, it's not easy. Come Sunday night, everybody is dragging a little bit! But, surprisingly, Sunday nights are usually a very lively house for some reason - it used to be that mostly theatre folk would come on those nights because there are not a lot of shows with a Sunday night, so it was a chance for our friends in other shows to come and see us.
PC: Most shows don't have the five show weekends, of course.
AR: Right - exactly. There is always this very lively and loud audience on Sunday nights, even now, which is a really nice way to end the week.
PC: Since THE BOOK OF MORMON is the biggest new hit on Broadway, audiences are lapping it up, no doubt.
AR: We're definitely pretty lucky here!
PC: What do you think will be legacy of THE BOOK OF MORMON ultimately - do you think it will play for many more years on Broadway? What do you think about a film version someday?
AR: Well, I don't know - you know, there are all these sorts of rumors that somebody started about a movie. To my knowledge, that is not a thing that has ever actually been seriously discussed. Since some fan created an IMDB page, I think that that has created a lot of buzz, but there has been no actual official talk about that. I think that Trey and Matt set out to create a Broadway show and right now they are very happy that they succeeded in doing just that - and, now, it's about to go on tour and open in Chicago and go to London next year.
PC: It's becoming a brand.
AR: Yeah - maybe they won't even make a movie of it; I don't know. Longevity-wise, I don't know how long it will end up running, but I do know that the reach of the show is about to become much broader with these new companies starting up - and that's very exciting; many, many more people will be able to see the show outside of just New York, so that is very exciting.
PC: Gavin Creel will be playing your role on tour. Have you crossed paths with him at the show or offered him any tips on doing the show eight times a week?
AR: Well, he will have all his own rehearsals this Summer, but, I mean, Gavin is one of my best and oldest friends here in New York, so I was very, very happy to hear that he was going to be doing it. I think that Elder Price is definitely in exceptional hands - there are definitely no worries there!
PC: He is more than capable of handling it in your opinion, then?
AR: Oh, yeah - I think they start rehearsals in July and I think that Trey and Matt and Bobby are very committed to finding the show again with a new cast; not outright changing the show, but they will allow the actors to find their own version of the roles. As an actor, that's the best possible case scenario and I am excited to see it - I am very excited to see it.
PC: Did you ever happen to see any of the earlier versions of the show in workshop form? Some big names did the workshops - Cheyenne Jackson and Christopher J. Hanke both told me about their involvement with the show when they did this column.
AR: Cheyenne did it; Daniel Reichard did it; Ben Walker did it - as far as I know, Christopher didn't do it. I didn't see any of them, though, because they were all private workshops.
PC: Was your audition your first exposure to the material?
AR: Yeah. I started from scratch - very generously, Trey and Matt and Bobby sort of let me do that and really put my own stamp on it and really kind of find who Elder Price really was; or, who I thought he was. They were super, super generous with me in letting me do that.
PC: You were a part of the collaboration of creation.
AR: I never felt like I was replacing or anything - I felt very much that I was creating this part, which was very, very exciting and rewarding.
PC: Was any material in the show written explicitly for you once you become involved in the process of shaping it?
AR: "You And Me (But Mostly Me)" was written for me, I suppose - it was written in the workshop. And, the "All American Prophet" song was written when we started rehearsals for the Broadway show, which was fun.
PC: When did "I Believe" become a part of the score as far as you know? That's one of you big iconic moments.
AR: "I Believe" had been written right before I joined, I think. That already existed, I know, because I sang it at my audition.
PC: That probably sealed the deal!
AR: It's one of those memories I hold very dear - when they brought me "You And Me (But Mostly Me)". You know, we got to set the key and everything - as a singer and as an actor, it was a really thrilling moment to get to create a number with people like that. And, I love that song - so, it was really thrilling.
PC: An old-fashioned out-of-town moment - with the song to prove it.
AR: Yeah, yeah - it was.
PC: You are one of the most popular stars on Broadway now - is it exciting to know that you have a growing fan base who will be following your career because of your MORMON breakthrough?
AR: Well, it's very, very nice and it certainly means a lot to me that people are paying attention. The support that has come from doing the show is really, really fantastic - you know, this is not my first Broadway show; I have been around for a while as a replacement, too. So, to be given the opportunity to open a show, particularly this show, was obviously life-changing for me - it's really no joke. Everything from a year ago until now - the opportunities that this experience has afforded me - has changed my whole life. It's pretty crazy.
PC: You're definitely on the map.
AR: I say it to Trey and Scott Rudin often - "You guys changed my life!" It's no joke.
PC: That HAIRSPRAY production had such a wonderful group of people who originated and replaced in the various roles. Did you enjoy your time as Link in that?
AR: Oh, I loved it - yeah! It was my first Broadway show and a lot of other firsts, too - I was an understudy first and then I got to replace Richard Blake as Link Larkin. Link was the first lead I ever did on Broadway. That experience will always be really special to me because it had so many firsts for me, and, also, I just loved that show.
PC: It is one of the highlights of the 21st century on Broadway.
AR: I think you're right - I feel like it attracted a very special group of people. People in even the original ensemble and stuff have gone on to do big, great things - Jenn Gambetese is a very close friend of mine who has done so many great things; and Matt Morrison. You look at that cast who did that show and you see a cast packed with really great young talent and it was a real honor to be a part of all that.
PC: And Matt Morrison went on to become the lead of GLEE and you are now the lead of Ryan Murphy's new TV series, THE NEW NORMAL.
AR: I know! I know. It's a very, very small world, isn't it? [Laughs.]
PC: How did you get involved with THE NEW NORMAL? Did Ryan come and see you in THE BOOK OF MORMON?
AR: Yeah - Ryan had seen THE BOOK OF MORMON and I guess it was in October that I went to LA and we sat down and had a meeting about THE NEW NORMAL; a sort of general meeting that led to us talking about THE NEW NORMAL, which was great. Then, about a month later, I got a phone call from him asking me to be a part of it - to play him in this pilot. It was a really mind-blowing and thrilling moment, and, again, it all came from THE BOOK OF MORMON.
PC: The gift that keeps on giving. Are you enjoying your experience working with Ryan so far?
AR: Oh, Ryan is just fantastic! You know, he takes big chances with actors - Matt is a good example of that, as am I. You know, we are guys who had done a little bit of television, but not a lot of television. So, now, to be given the chance to be one of the leads of a show for him? That's a real gift.
AR: It's also lovely that, like with Lea Michele and Matt Morrison, Ryan's eye is very much on what is happening here in New York and that is not always the case with the television world. He definitely keeps very close tabs with what is happening on Broadway. He is a very, very cool guy and I am very, very happy to work with him - it's been awesome to get to know him and to play him in THE NEW NORMAL.
PC: What he did to change TV and have an effect on pop culture itself thanks to GLEE is just extraordinary - POPULAR, NIP/TUCK and AMERICAN HORROR STORY, too.
AR: Really - he really did; he really has. And, this show is so, so different, too - you know, people keep asking me, "Is it a musical? Is THE NEW NORMAL a musical?" And I have to tell them, "No, no - not at all. It has nothing to do with GLEE at all." You know, Ryan isn't interested in a formula with his shows, he just sort of does what interests him in the moment and it is really, really exciting to be a part of that.
PC: Where does THE NEW NORMAL take place?
AR: It is set in Los Angeles.
PC: So, is it a MODERN FAMILY-esque style or a different vibe?
AR: Well, it's a single-camera half-hour comedy, so it's somewhat like MODERN FAMILY - as opposed to the old fashioned sitcom with a studio audience. It has a 30 ROCK sort of look to it.
PC: What is it about?
AR: Well, essentially, it is a story about myself and Justin Bartha who are a gay couple who are wanting to start a family. They find a surrogate, who is played by this really great British actress named Georgia King - she has done a lot of work in the UK, but this is the biggest thing she has done in the States.
PC: How is recent Tony-winner Ellen Barkin involved?
AR: Ellen Barkin plays Georgia's mother - and she is just fantastic! Ellen and I sort of got to be friendly last year at the Tonys and all the events and everything.
PC: Ryan is currently preparing the film adaptation of THE NORMAL HEART, as well, coreect?
AR: Yes, correct - he is.
PC: What is like it working with a fearless performer like her?
AR: Oh, Ellen is so fantastic. In the pilot we only had one scene together, but she is just so fun to work with and so funny, too. Obviously, I was a big fan of hers prior to working with her, but, now, getting a chance to actually work with her has been a blast - a real dream come true for me.
PC: How wonderful to hear.
AR: Yeah, it's one of those things where, this time last year when I was getting to know her I really wanted to do something with her, but I just didn't know when we would have the opportunity to do that. Then, Ryan stepped in.
PC: And fate came with him.
AR: You know, I guess that I was the first one attached to the pilot and then she was the second. He gave me a call and said, "What do you think about Ellen Barkin?" and I just about lost my mind! I was like, "Absolutely!"
PC: An instant yes. She's done some tremendous film work recently.
AR: Yes, she has - just amazing.
PC: Is the title THE NEW NORMAL a nod to THE NORMAL HEART at all, as far as you know?
AR: No, I think it's more about how people perceive the normal path of things like family and kids and marriage and what Ryan is trying to show is that a family is a family and love is love, and, straight or gay, families are made up of all sorts of combinations of people who end up, you know, getting involved with raising these kids - whether it's a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle; the family structure has all sorts of different elements involved in it.
PC: It's very layered.
AR: I think that this has been explored a little bit before - obviously, on MODERN FAMILY there is a gay couple with a kid, but, you know, that's not the focus of that show; that's a piece of that show. So, it will be interesting and really exciting for people to get the chance to see, I think - if the show ends up happening - what kind of steps gay couples have to go through in the surrogacy process and how badly you have to want a child to go through all of that and the stress of it and the expense of it; it's the details that I think a lot of heterosexual couples sort of can take for granted when having kids. We'll get to show all of that process and how much love it takes to create a family. I am very excited about it and I am super-hopeful that it will get picked up and people will get to see it, too.
PC: This is the moment for this series to be on TV given the gay marriage issue and its debate in this country right now.
AR: Oh, absolutely.
PC: Ryan Murphy is always right ahead of the curve. Hopefully we will be seeing legalization of gay marriage on a national level.
AR: I sure hope so.
PC: What's the plan for THE NEW NORMAL premiere if it is picked up to series?
AR: I guess that if it is picked up, we will premiere in the Fall. We will find out in the next couple weeks what is happening with it.
PC: It will be on NBC, correct?
AR: Yes - May 14 are the upfronts, so, it's sort of like doing a show out of town; right now we're waiting to see if we come in or not.
PC: Since you will be on NBC, do you think a SMASH crossover could happen or are they probably a bit incompatible?
AR: [Laughs.] Yeah, I don't know - I think it would be difficult.
PC: So, will you ever do "I Believe" on GLEE? You must!
AR: Well, we'll see - we'll see! Who knows?! [Laughs.]
PC: Broadway has been popularized in a big way for this generation due to GLEE. BOOK OF MORMON seems to embody the new Broadway generation reflected onstage in a way, as well - the new school.
AR: I agree. I think that Trey and Matt sort of gave Broadway a really important update - I think, even at its best, a lot of the time Broadway can feel a little dated. You know, even hip, cool shows can feel sort of dated almost immediately. I don't know if that is because it takes so long to get them up or what, but it is hard for shows - especially musicals - to really reflect super-current culture. I think Trey and Matt didn't reinvent the musical, but they definitely gave it the update that it needed. It has really been exciting to see new fans being made at Broadway shows - that's a really big deal for us over here at THE BOOK OF MORMON.
PC: Is it a thrill to create and then portray such an iconic role in a modern-day classic? Do you feel particularly privileged in that respect?
AR: Oh, it's awfully exciting - you know, this is all I ever wanted to do, to be on Broadway; from a very, very young age.
PC: A lifelong dream realized.
AR: Yeah - it seems like it's the silly things that happen that mean the most to me. You know, something like being in the souvenir program - like, that was a really big deal to me! [Laughs.]
PC: It is a big deal.
AR: And being in the liner notes of a CD - that was a big deal to me! Those are all monumental things to me - I mean, I am a kid from Nebraska whose only contact with this world was the Tonys. I am 33, so there was no YouTube when I was growing up.
PC: It's a whole new world now - and BOOK OF MORMON reflects that.
AR: It is - the Tonys were my only glimpse of what Broadway was from Nebraska. So, to get to sing on the Tonys last year and represent the show there was just unbelievable to me to be able to do. [Pause.] So, I am super-honored if I am, indeed, the face of the show sometimes - I am deeply honored to have that position. But, also, everyone in the cast recognizes how special the show is and I think that's why no one has left the show yet; I think people might have expected that Nikki and Rory and Josh and I would jump ship as soon as our contracts were up, but this is a very, very special show to us and, if you are really lucky, they come along once, so I think we are all honored to stick around.
PC: Do you plan to stay with BOOK OF MORMON indefinitely or do you have a set end date?
AR: Well, quite frankly, it depends on if THE NEW NORMAL gets picked up. I have been very fortunate to get to work on GIRLS on HBO while I have been here in New York, but that show shoots here - you know, last year we shot that and I was able to continue to do THE BOOK OF MORMON at the same time.
PC: How fortuitous for you.
AR: Yeah, I get to keep my day job, as it were - so, now that we look into the second season of GIRLS, I can still keep my day job at BOOK OF MORMON and continue to do that, too. But, if THE NEW NORMAL gets picked, I'll have to move to Los Angeles and leave the show - but, hey, one thing at a time! [Laughs.]
PC: You are certainly about to explode - a career high.
AR: I am so happy and so excited about everything coming up.
PC: The very first big event coming up is JOURNEY ON at Carnegie Hall honoring Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
AR: Yes - won't that be great?
PC: Do you have fond memories of RAGTIME given its huge impact on millennial Broadway?
AR: Oh, yeah - absolutely. I remember that I was actually doing my first and only Summer stock production - I was doing THE FANTASTICKS with Steve Kazee and Jenn Gambetese...
PC: Steve being the star of ONCE, this season's critical hit.
AR: Yes - exactly. We all did Summer stock together. I remember that we came to New York to see RAGTIME on one of our nights off and it was just so incredible to get to see that original production.
PC: Are you looking forward to singing their material now at Carnegie Hall with them in attendance?
AR: Oh, to sing at Carnegie Hall with the NY Pops and both of them there - it's just totally overwhelming. I am so honored to be a part of it.
PC: How did you become involved with JOURNEY ON in the first place?
AR: Steven Reineke, who is the conductor of the Pops, asked Nikki and I to join him and do this. We were both just so floored when he asked!
PC: THE BOOK OF MORMON will be well-represented in the JOURNEY ON cast with you and Nikki.
AR: Oh, definitely. I mean, it's a lot of heavy hitters in that room, so Nikki and I feel like we are sort of the kids - we're the new ones. It's so exciting to be a part of this group - a part of that line-up. It's like, "I get to be up there and sing with all of those amazing people - I really get to sing with them!"
PC: So many theatrical superstars - and a lot of Ahrens & Flaherty originators, too.
AR: Marin Mazzie, Liz Callaway, Norm Lewis, LaChanze - you're right. Brian D'Arcy James - who I love. Jason Danieley. Everyone. It's such a fantastic, fantastic group and we are both so happy to be a part of it. I am really looking forward to it.
PC: Brian D'Arcy James just did this column, actually - your NBC network co-star given his role on SMASH! What a great guy.
AR: Oh, Brian is just awesome! We got to do LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE together for a couple of weeks a few years ago when we did a workshop of it here in the city.
PC: No way!
AR: Yeah - he's the best. I really like him a lot.
PC: LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE has a fantastic score, in my opinion.
AR: Yeah, it's really, really beautiful - I agree.
PC: Would you like to continue with the show should it come to New York sometime soon?
AR: Well, I'm a little out of the loop. BOOK OF MORMON sort of happened right when I was doing the second workshop of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, so I have been a little out of the loop since then and BOOK OF MORMON obviously took all of my attention since then.
PC: We can hope it comes in next season since it ended up not making it in this year, as was planned at one point.
AR: Yeah, I was very disappointed to see that it was not coming in - I think it is one of Bill Finn's best newer scores that he has written and I am such a huge, huge fan of his. Working with James Lapine on that was such a dream - oh, my God. So cool.
PC: You have to do FALSETTOS someday - you would be absolutely ideal for that show.
AR: Oh, I would love that! I'd love to.
PC: Are you a big fan of the score?
AR: Oh, I just adore it - and it's such an important score, I think. For me, discovering that score when I did, when I was in high school - I don't know; it's just an awesome, awesome score. I would absolutely love to do it. [Pause.] Can we make it happen? [Big Laugh.]
PC: There is a FALSETTOS screenplay that exists, actually - just get Ryan to direct it and get it made! If anyone could, it would be him.
AR: Perfect! Perfect. [Laughs.]
PC: What is on your iPod right now?
AR: What's on my iPod? Let me check. First, though, I know I just bought Gotye's album. [Pause. Checks.]
PC: MAKING MIRRORS.
AR: Yeah, I just got that and I also got the new album by this guy Miike Snow.
PC: An awesome hipster band.
AR: Yeah - I also really loved Junior Boys new album. They are really, really great.
PC: So, your GIRLS character starts this week, correct?
AR: Yes, this week will be the first episode I am in.
PC: Who do you play on GIRLS?
AR: I play Lena Dunham's college boyfriend who she tracks down - I can't say why she tracks him down, but she tracks him down. So, we have a great sort of re-connection scene, I suppose…
PC: How cryptic!
AR: Yeah, we sort of catch up a little bit. [Laughs.] They were really lovely to me and they had me back a few more times after that - I am in four episodes altogether, I think, of the ten episodes in the first season. Hopefully I'll be able to come back next season, too. I love working with all of them.
PC: How fabulous that you are managing to keep your fingers in multiple pies, as it were - running the gamut of mediums.
AR: [Laughs.] Hey, what can I say? I'm a very lucky guy.
PC: So, what will you be singing at JOURNEY ON on Monday?
AR: I am singing "Love Who You Love" from A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE. It is a really beautiful song that Roger Rees originally sang.
PC: A great choice for your voice.
AR: Yeah, we jacked up the key a little bit and I am going to take a crack at it on Monday - I am really excited.
PC: Has it been instructive to work with the composer and lyricist themselves in preparing your performance for JOURNEY ON?
AR: Oh, yes - they are both so lovely. They know exactly what they want - you know, I sang it once and Stephen immidiately knew what key he wanted it in and they were so helpful and complimentary. They are just so fantastic and it was such a treat to get to rehearse with them. Monday will be a lot of fun - you know, we have a big rehearsal during the day and then, it's like, you just do it that night. It's kind of nuts - it will all happen so quickly. But, I am really, really looking forward to it.
PC: Will this be your NY Pops and Carnegie Hall debut?
AR: Yes - this will be my first time with the Pops and definitely my first time singing at Carnegie Hall, too. It's a huge, huge honor.
PC: Monday: Carnegie Hall; Tuesday: La Scala!
AR: Right! Right. [Laughs.] That's what it feels like.
PC: Is there a role in an Ahrens & Flaherty show you would like to take on in the future - A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE perhaps?
AR: Oh, I think you might be onto something - I just love that show. I do think that that would be the one that would be at the top of my list. I know they are working on some really exciting new things, too, so who knows?
PC: Do you plan on exploring other great theatrical composers and lyricists in the future, too - Sondheim?
AR: Yes! Yes, of course. That would be such a thrill - especially to work with him. To work with Sondheim and James Lapine would be a real, real treat.
PC: Speaking of which, you would be superb as the Baker in INTO THE WOODS.
AR: Oh, I love it! I'd love it.
PC: Are movies something you would like to move into, as well - a movie musical, maybe?
AR: Oh, sure - actually, I just shot a movie in the Fall called BACHELORETTE that is based on a play by Leslie Headland that was done at Playwrights Horizons. It's a very funny dark comedy.
PC: A great cast - Kirsten Dunst, James Marsden, Isla Fisher.
AR: Yeah - it's an amazing cast. It was a lot of fun to work on - I have a very small part and I basically play around with Isla Fisher, but it was really fun to do.
PC: Was her husband Sacha Baron Cohen around?
AR: No, no - he was busy off shooting THE DICTATOR. I am so excited to see THE BACHLORETTE - you know, the whole completed thing, now that they are finishing editing it and everything. I think it will be really, really good.
PC: What was sharing the set with Liza Minnelli in SEX & THE CITY 2 like?
AR: Oh, we had three full days onset with her, so we all got to watch her lipsynch "Single Ladies". It was absolutely amazing to be with her. She's the best.
PC: You would know, Andrew - this was so fantastic today. We can't wait for all that's coming up! Thank you.
AR: Oh, thank you so very much, Pat. This was fantastic. Bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro