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.”
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.”
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 Hamilton read 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.”
While the moment evoked outrage from President-Elect Donald Trump, 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.