EXCLUSIVE: 'Girls' Star Andrew Rannells Follows His Instinct Back to Broadway

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Not wanting to jump into another TV series right away, the
stage felt like the perfect reset for Andrew Rannells.

“My instinct was to go back to Broadway. That’s where my
career started,” Rannells tells ET over the phone in November, shortly before
Thanksgiving. The actor, who is earning rave reviews for his performance in
Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Falsettos,
wrapped the sixth and final season of Girls
over the summer and turned his attention back to the stage, where he first
broke out and earned a Tony nomination for The
Book of Mormon
. “It’s where I feel most comfortable and most at home.” 

“I’m so grateful to Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham for giving
me the opportunity,” Rannells says, mentioning the two women behind Girls who let him play Elijah.
Originally a guest star, he was promoted to series regular in the third season
after Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal
was canceled, allowing him to develop Elijah beyond a sassy gay best friend.
“They were so generous, giving me more to do every year. It was really
satisfying to see him develop like that.” 

MORE: The Cast of 'Girls' Looks Ahead to Final Season and a Long Goodbye

Unable to commit to a Broadway production full-time while
shooting Girls, the actor has only been
able to do shorter, replacement runs in Hedwig
and the Angry Inch
, following Neil Patrick Harris, and Hamilton, filling in as King George III for Jonathan Groff while he
returned to San Francisco to film Looking:
The Movie

But both presented an interesting challenge of acting alone
onstage, despite being massive Broadway productions. “It was really scary,”
Rannells says of Hedwig in
particular. “You are very much alone in telling that story and driving that
ship.” As for his solo numbers in Hamilton,
he says “there was nobody to hang onto,” adding to the pressure. But with Falsettos, Rannells and his co-stars are
on stage together almost the entire time. “I feel like I have the greatest
safety net,” he says. 

(Hedwig, it also
should be mentioned, prepared Rannells for the short racquetball shorts he
sports on stage now as Falsettos’ Whizzer.
“It’s funny, after Hedwig and being
on stage in almost nothing, I was completely unfazed by the length of those
shorts,” he says, adding: “I think my shorts are a hit.”)


The opportunity to do Falsettos
is a dream come true for the actor, who grew up in Nebraska singing songs from
the show after seeing a performance of “The Baseball Game” on TV during the
1992 Tony Awards. “And to do something that I feel extremely passionate about,”
Rannells says. 

The show, which is set in 1980s New York City, tells the
intertwined stories of a gay man, Marvin (Christian Borle), and his ex-wife
(Stephanie J. Block), son (Anthony Rosenthal), therapist (Brandon Uranowitz)
and boyfriend Whizzer. Falsettos’
weepy second act sees Marvin’s family grow to include a lesbian couple and
deals with an unnamed threat to Whizzer’s health. 

Rannells spends most of the second act in a hospital bed
while the rest of the cast continues to perform around him. “You feel very
vulnerable, which I wasn’t expecting,” he says, adding that he spent most of
his preparation thinking about the specifics of what it would be like for someone
who is ill. “What I wasn’t ready for was all of that attention, of the other
actors focused on you, making sure you’re OK, and how vulnerable and angry and
scared that makes one feel.” 

MORE: Bringing 'American Psycho' to Life on Broadway

The bed itself is one of the first major pieces of furniture
to appear onstage and it smacks the audience in the face with the reality that
one of the characters is in great peril. A beautiful moment, Rannells is sad he
never gets to see it, but has been told by friends it’s “so powerful when that
bed comes rolling out.” 

While the show never refers to HIV or AIDS directly (“Something
that kills/Something infectious/Something that spreads from one man to another,”
they sing), it’s a topic that very much hits close to home, especially as
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS organizes its annual curtain call speeches
and fundraising on Broadway. 

In November, those curtain calls became political when the
cast of Hamiltonread an open letter
to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience that evening. “We,
sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new
administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or
defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” Brandon Victor Dixon, who
plays Aaron Burr, said. “But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold
our American values and to work on behalf of all of us, all of us. … We truly
thank you for sharing this show -- this wonderful American story told by a
diverse group of men, women, of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

MORE: Megan Hilty Finds the Confidence to Play the Bombshell on Broadway

While the moment evoked outrage from President-Elect Donald
, Rannells says he thought it was perfect. “It would have been a missed
opportunity if they had not done it,” he says. “It would have been a missed
opportunity if they didn’t say something. We’re all doing these curtain
speeches, but they had to say something.”

While confident about his work on stage, Rannells is anxious
to see what fans will think of the final season of Girls, which airs in February. “Jenni really did a fantastic job,”
he says. “It’s a satisfying ending without it feeling too final.” 

And with Falsettos
set to close on January 8, it’s hard not to look ahead to what’s next. “Moving
forward, I’m excited to continue to get to tell relevant, funny, smart
stories,” Rannells says, hoping to continue to work with “amazing creators”
like Konner, Dunham and Murphy.