When Jonathan Groff took a leave of absence from the season's white-hot musical Hamilton to film the movie continuation of his HBO series "Looking," author Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail tapped another young, Tony-nominated actor to take over the role of King George III: Andrew Rannells, who earned his nod for The Book of Mormon and then took over the title role for Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
As he prepared to step into Hamilton, Rannells did what he calls "a fair amount" of research into the real man behind the musical's fictionalized character. "He was a fascinating man," Rannells said of the 18th-century monarch. "Not that everything was necessarily applicable to his role in Hamilton, but it was very interesting to learn about him."
— Hamilton (@HamiltonMusical) October 27, 2015
In conducting his research, Rannells found some elements of the real king's story that he could weave into his interpretation of the character's three songs. "King George was slowly going mad, so I wanted to show some of that emotional and mental instability. I like him to change gears quickly and without warning. It's a lot of fun to explore." Kail "made it clear from the beginning" that the role of the king offered some room for the actor's personality to come out, Rannells continued. "Tommy was very generous and very open to my interpretation, which is very exciting when you come in as a replacement like this. It's a fun role to play because you are allowed to do just that: play."
Still, he added, much of his performance is inspired by Miranda's imagination rather than history, and Rannells takes full advantage of the role's comic opportunities. "Lin has very wisely placed King George's appearances in the show," he explained. "He shows up when a little levity is needed. The bulk of this material is pretty heavy, and Lin created an outlet for the audience to laugh. It's really fun to get to be the clown in this story." After playing leading roles in his last two Broadway outings, Rannells is playing a supporting role for the first time. And, while he admits to feeling some relief "on a certain level" to not be responsible for the bulk of the storytelling, the smaller role does come with a different kind of stress. "You've got these three very isolated moments to make an impression on the audience and tell your piece of the story," he explained. "There's a different kind of pressure here. That said, I do have a lot of down time for reading, so that's fun! And this cast is fantastic, so it's great to have a chance to get to know them, too."
Most of the cast, of course, has been together since the musical's run at The Public Theater downtown, making Rannells the proverbial new kid. But since taking over the role, he has found moments both onstage and off to connect with the rest of the group. "I love being on stage for the final numbers of the show with the entire cast," he said. "It's an incredibly moving moment both in the show and on stage as an actor. There's palpable emotion all around you. Phillipa Soo makes me cry every night in that finale moment."
Rannells has also come to see a strong connection with the themes of Hamilton and the current political climate. "The amazing (and maybe depressing and surprising) facts about this story are that what's happening right now in our history mirrors what was happening then, in our country's infancy," he said. "The infighting, the struggle between parties, the struggle to find the right candidates to represent these parties, the scandals, the violence — it's the same story in many ways. Different clothes, though." he quipped. "Better clothes. And no duels. So I guess that's progress."
New Musicals for New Audiences
As a veteran of three innovative, game-changing musicals, Rannells is optimistic about the art form's future. "It's a medium that is always changing and striving to reinvent itself," he said. "A lot of folks have a very narrow idea of what Broadway is, and I am always thrilled — and will remain thrilled — to challenge those ideas and show people that theatre is a reflection of what is going on in the world around us. We will always have classics," he added, "but I think there are a lot of many exciting new storytellers out here now pushing the boundaries of theatre. It's an exciting time.
"I loved seeing the crowds at Book of Mormon discover that show," he continued, noting that some people in the audience might have been initially dismissive of musical theatre, but could then learn over the course of the performance how funny and moving a show can be. "Hedwig was that way, too. I think that show is remarkable because Hedwig is such an odd creature, she has so many walls up, she seems so inaccessible. But you spend some time with her and you realize you can relate to her on so many levels. I loved seeing people fall in love with Hedwig.
"And now with Hamilton, Lin has really reinvented the form. Truly. It's storytelling unlike anything else. It's so moving to witness new audiences find this material and allow themselves to let it move them. I think it's creating new fans of many ages."
Rannells also praises the popular "Ham4Ham" show — a free concert presented before certain performances that can include sing-alongs with cast members, actors from other shows performing songs from Hamilton or even lip-syncing to the cast album — for attracting new audiences to both the show and theatre in general. "What Lin has started with this Ham4Ham pre-show is just incredible," he said. "Lin is obviously exceptionally talented, but he is also exceptionally generous. Ham4Ham is such a great way for the cast to show its appreciation for our audience waiting for those rush tickets."
While he hopes to someday show off his skills in some classic plays and musicals, Rannells is pleased to have been part of productions on the cutting edge of the art form. "It's exciting to see how this form is evolving," he said. "I hope that the success of shows like Book of Mormon and Hamilton inspires more writers to explore new ways to tell stories. And not only that, but inspires more producers and theatres to support new works."
Andrew Rannells plays King George III in Hamilton through November 29.