Mormon Boy Makes Good: Andrew Rannells Discusses His Journey from Hairspray to Hedwig

Andrew Rannells, who is best known to theatre audiences for his hilarious, Tony-nominated turn as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon, will step into the high heels of transgender glam rocker Hedwig — the role created on Broadway by Tony winner Neil Patrick Harris — beginning Aug. 20 in the Tony-winning revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco Theatre.

Andrew Rannells
Andrew Rannells

The Omaha, NE, native, in fact, has a history of being part of Tony-winning productions: The boyishly handsome singing actor made his debut on The Great White Way in 2005 when he joined the cast of the 2003 Tony-winning Best Musical Hairspray.

"For everyone else in the cast, it was just the start of a week, but for me it was a dream come true," Rannells recalled over coffee in a Chelsea café just a few days after his Hedwig casting was announced. "The amazing thing about Hairspray was that it was such a young cast that the enthusiasm about doing the show was very high, so it immediately felt very special.

"In the opening moment of Hairspray, 'Good Morning Baltimore,' you do this silhouette with the ensemble and then the scrim is supposed to fly up," Rannells continued, "and I remember standing in my place being in my little pose ready to go, and I closed my eyes to sort of center myself, and the scrim didn't go up! There was some sort of malfunction, so they had to stop the show and start over, which no one explained to me was ever a possibility on Broadway. I thought that I had had a stroke. I opened my eyes, and it was still black, and I was like, 'I think, maybe, I died. I think something bad has happened.' I was standing next to Becky Gulsvig, and she said, 'Everything's fine.' I didn't know that that was a possibility, that there were technical problems on Broadway."

At the end of the show, however, the multitalented artist said he was "absolutely thrilled. I mean, that's all I've ever wanted to do. It's still all I really want to do is be on Broadway. I love doing it; it was the only professional goal I had for a long time was to be in a Broadway show. When I get to do it, it makes me the happiest."

Following Hairspray, Rannells, who boasts a crystal-clear, rangy tenor, had the chance to open the Toronto engagement of the Tony-winning Best Musical Jersey Boys, later re-creating his work as Bob Gaudio, one of the Four Seasons, on Broadway in 2009. "I was part of a new company, so I got a full rehearsal period with Des McAnuff, which was very exciting," Rannells said. He also had nothing but praise for the Clint Eastwood-directed film version, which opened in cinemas around the country last month. "My boyfriend, Mike Doyle, plays Bob Crewe in the movie, so I've seen it a couple times. It's great. It's exciting to see it on screen because they really did a lovely job with the adaptation, and it's pretty much the Broadway show. They didn't really do anything drastic, and it's nice to see so many people from various productions involved in the movie."

Rannells in The Book of Mormon.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Following his stint in Boys, Rannells spent a year working on new projects — including a workshop of the musical version of Little Miss Sunshine and a pre-Broadway production of Lysistrata Jones — before landing a role in the workshop of the musical that would change his professional life, The Book of Mormon.

That international hit musical, which was penned by "South Park" co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and Avenue Q Tony winner Robert Lopez, opened in March 2011 and went on to win nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Rannells, who earned Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his work, said his year in Mormon was "kind of a blur."

"I was just talking to someone the other day about how a year goes by really quickly when you open a show like that or any show, really, because you have the previews, opening… and then because we were in the spring, it seemed almost immediate that we were into the Tonys. And doing press for the show, it was sort of non-stop that we were busy.… Everything happened so fast. [ Mormon] co-star Josh [Gad] and I both shot pilots that year and went to L.A. and had this whole L.A. adventure, but we were still doing this show. It was a dream come true."

In Los Angeles Rannells had the chance to meet with director-writer Ryan Murphy, creator of the hit TV series "Glee" and "American Horror Story." "He had seen The Book of Mormon," Rannells explained. "I had heard that he was developing a show about two gay men who were having a baby with a surrogate, and I sort of pitched myself for that part. … The meeting was very last minute, but I felt like that was my job, so I talked to him about it very confidently. Luckily, he agreed, and a few weeks later I had an offer to do ['The New Normal'], which was exciting. Then we went through the whole process of putting together the cast.… He really included me in a lot of the [casting process]. I'm very grateful to Ryan for that experience."

Rannells with Justin Bartha on "The New Normal."
NBC

Although "The New Normal" would last but one season, Rannells has found success on the small screen in the critically acclaimed HBO series "Girls," which casts the actor as Elijah, Lena Dunham's gay ex-boyfriend, who, like the "girls" of the series, is struggling to find love and his own place in the world. "'Girls' was the first TV job I ever had, and the first day on the 'Girls' set was really terrifying, but Lena was so great and [writer] Judd Apatow was so great. …We would do a scene, and Lena was directing the episodes, so she would watch the playback. She invited me to watch, which is not always a good thing for an actor to watch [himself], but it was good for me to see it, and I felt they were very patient with me in getting me to relax and play around."

Rannells, who is currently filming the third season of "Girls," was recently promoted to series regular, explaining, "I always felt a part of the group. I never felt like I was a guest. They're so welcoming there, but this year I really feel in the mix.

"To work on 'Girls' is the best job ever," he added. "It really is. Lena is incredible. That whole cast is amazing. I have the best time when I'm on set there." He said his very first scene in the show's premiere season remains a particular favorite. "When I tell Hannah that I'm gay, and she accuses me of giving her HPV, that will always be a good memory for me. I think of that very fondly. And then the episode in the second season where we were doing coke all over the city, that was just fun to film. We were just running all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, and it was just she and I basically for a lot of it."

Andrew Rannells in a 2002 production of Hedwig
Photo by Jason Amato

And, now, Rannells is preparing to return to Broadway in the demanding role of the transgender rock-and-roll goddess Hedwig, who recounts her outrageous life story in John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The singing actor has previous experience with the role, having starred in a production in 2002 at the Zachary Scott Theatre in Austin, TX.

"It was terrifying to get started," Rannells remembered, "and then the amazing thing about that show is that audiences, in the best case, really fall in love with that character. So I felt very welcomed in Austin by the audience because Hedwig is a mess, but she's really a loveable mess that you do sort of root for her in an odd way. You want her to be happy. And I very much felt that in Austin, so the response from the audience was pretty amazing."

Rannells said his invitation to succeed Emmy winner Harris came from the show's Tony-winning director, Michael Mayer. "He called me several weeks ago and said, 'We would like to continue the run, and we would like you to do it. Please come see it; think about it.' And I went to go see it with my boyfriend, and the second it started," Rannells said with a big grin, "I was like, 'Oh, yeah, I wanna do this!'"

When asked whether he feels pressure stepping into Harris' high heels, Rannells answered, "Yeah, absolutely. Neil has created such an amazing performance, and the show is so successful, there is some pressure to live up to that expectation.… [But] John and Stephen have written such a beautiful, beautiful character. I feel like the last time, when I did it in Austin, I was 23. I'm 35 now. I have many more life experiences, and it will be different this time."

And, how would Rannells — who is also filming a role opposite Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro in the feature film "The Intern" — describe Hedwig? "I think she wants what we all want," he said. "She wants to be loved and to find love. I think it's kind of as simple as that. She compromises a lot in the name of finding love… The journey that she goes on, at least in broad strokes, is pretty universal. Anybody who is searching for something better for themselves can relate to what she goes through. She wanted something better. She wanted to get out of East Berlin. She wanted something more, and the cost of that was very high for her."

"I remember physically it was very difficult," Rannells added. "[ Hedwig is] sort of a beast of a show, but it's also extremely rewarding. So I feel the rewards you get from doing it far exceed the costs of doing it. I'm very excited."