How Broadway Met Its Tony Host, Neil Patrick Harris

News   How Broadway Met Its Tony Host, Neil Patrick Harris
There are two things America needs to know about the Tony Awards broadcast's 2009 host, actor Neil Patrick Harris, in order to make sense of his latest assignment.
Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris

One, he has a history in the theatre. And two, he has plenty of hosting experience.

When the star of the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" was announced as the master of ceremonies of this year's program, there was a bit a head-scratching around the media world. Harris hardly seemed like an obvious choice. He isn't the face that immediately pops into your mind when you think "theatre person," or even "awards show person." And he wasn't in any Broadway show that played the 2008-09 season.

But the New York theatre community has known Harris as a capable and steady stage presence for years. "My first big chance was Proof," said the actor, talking about the time he entered the Broadway production of the David Auburn play in 2002. "That was my first big test."

The next year, he did a stint playing the Emcee in the long-running Roundabout Theatre Company production of Cabaret. In 2004, he originated a role, playing the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald in the Roundabout revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins.

Critics were impressed with Harris' performances. And Harris was impressed by the people around him. "What I found so wonderful is everyone was so supportive of one another. That's very different from how it is in Los Angeles. There is a bit more of a competitive edge there. Here, you have softball leagues, and after-show drinking at Angus McIndoe, and the Easter Bonnet Competition. It's just a lovely community." When Harris learned the Tony people were looking for a host, he made sure they knew he was interested. What got him the gig was when the Tony people watched him hosting the 2009 TV Land Awards, which were held April 26. "They invited me to a long lunch, which I took as a good sign."

While very busy as an actor, Harris has cultivated a healthy sideline as a witty, breezy, likable awards show host. He was host of the 2008 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards and the 2008 World Magic Awards. It was perhaps a measure of the industry's assessment of his emcee-ing abilities that "Saturday Night Live" asked him to be the host of one of its 2009 shows.

If the words "World Magic Awards" stopped you cold in the previous paragraph, they shouldn't have. Harris is an adept amateur magician and has etched out a reputation for himself on the talk show circuit as a man willing to perform a few tricks for the audience. However, Harris said he doesn't plan to pull any quarters out of any ears during the June 7 Tony broadcast (CBS-TV 8-11 PM, ET).

"I don't see the role of the host as being a performer," he said. "I might feel differently if the nature of the show wasn't so much about performance. But the Tonys are all about showcasing these shows on Broadway that are playing every night. For the host to be performing, too, seems to me a bit counterintuitive."

That's not to say that Harris won't do a little singing and dancing. He also has something up his sleeve that he chooses not to reveal. "I think I've come up with something clever that hasn't been tried yet,” he said, cryptically.

The man still best known to a large section of the public as kid doctor on TV's "Doogie Howser, M.D." was born in Albuquerque, NM, and grew up in Ruidoso, NM. His parents were lawyers. He broke into show business by tagging along with an older brother to an audition for a fourth grade play. He won a role: as Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Thus began a successful career as a child actor.

Harris has considerably stretched his professional profile since taking on the role of Barney Stinson in the hit CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother." A comically repellent womanizer, Barney is about as far from Doogie as you can get. In "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay," he played a character called Neil Patrick Harris, a drug-addled, perverse parody of his true persona. During the Hollywood writers strike, he took on the title role in Joss Whedon's cult musical web series, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." And he took on a role (as a Very Smart Fellow) in Prop 8—The Musical, a music video written by Hairspray's Marc Shaiman satirizing the California ballot proposition that amended the state Constitution to restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman. The on-line video became a web phenomenon.

The actor is plenty busy in the week leading up to the Tony ceremony. "One of the provisos of taking the job," he said, "is they said the host would have to get out there and promote to the show." Spots on "The Daily Show," "The View" and "David Letterman" were promptly booked, not to mention countless interviews with print, radio and internet journalists.

On "The View," he'll be interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg, a former Tonys emcee. "I'm going to ask her from some hosting tips," said Harris.

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