Tonys 2012: Q&A with Neil Patrick Harris on Eve of His Hosting Three-peat

Neil Patrick Harris - 65th Annual Tony Awards: alone on stage - Show - 2011
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

The "How I Met Your Mother" star takes a break from rehearsals to talk with THR about the challenges and rewards of hosting Broadway's big night.

NEW YORK – As Neil Patrick Harris prepares for his third stint as host of the Tony Awards honoring Broadway’s best Sunday night, he took time out from rehearsals to talk with The Hollywood Reporter about “putting together the pieces of the Tony telecast puzzle.”

PHOTOS: 'Once' Leads the Pack With 11 Tony Nominations

The star of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother previously emceed the show in 2009, when Billy Elliot dominated the awards. He returned in 2011, when the Book of Mormon juggernaut ruled the night. As a producer, Harris shared an Outstanding Special Class Program Emmy in 2010 with executive producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment for their work on the '09 show.

Frontrunners for the 66th Annual Tony Awards, which will air live on CBS from New York’s Beacon Theatre Sunday at 8pm E.T., include the new musicals Once and Newsies; revivals Follies and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess; new plays Clybourne Park, Other Desert Cities and Peter and the Starcatcher; and play revivals Death of a Salesman and The Best Man.

The Hollywood Reporter: This being your third time hosting the Tonys, does that make it a breeze or even more of a challenge?

Neil Patrick Harris: I think in many ways it’s more challenging because I don’t want to just rest on what I’ve done before. So I’m trying to come up with new ways to do things. Thankfully, the meat of the Tony telecast is the performances from the shows, so the awards show kind of creates itself around the season, and then I fill in based on the vibe of the season in general. I’m happy that there’ll be so many legitimately good performances on the show. That was my big worry.

THR: But it still requires considerable skill to tame the beast, no – to tie it all together, give it a flow and a binding personality?

Harris: Without question, but the job of host in this context is less to entertain and more to pass the baton and introduce. That’s the duty of the Tonys – it’s not only about giving out awards but showing an exorbitant amount of actual performances. It becomes more about setting tone, and making people feel comfortable and welcome.

THR: Given your affection for the theater and how rarely you get to do it these days with your TV schedule and two young children, do you have some kind of special affection for the Tonys?

Harris: Yeah, that’s incredibly accurate. It allows me to still be in the theater world. It allows me to see a bunch of shows – sometimes complimentary, which is a perk. And it allows me to promote it and help keep theater in the cultural zeitgeist.

THR: Among the legendary awards show hosts is there anyone in particular that you admire and regard as your ideal model for the job?

Harris: I was a big fan of how Johnny Carson hosted awards shows. Dick Cavett, as well, I think did a really great job of providing a nice blend of comedy, wit and class. You know, everyone gets dressed up; you’re wearing a tux. So it’s a fancy night, but you still want to feel like it’s a party you want to go to, and it’s not stuffy. If you steer one way or the other you can get in trouble, and I think both of those guys handled that balance really well.

STORY: Tony Awards 2012: The Biggest Snubs and Surprises

THR: Do you find it tricky to nail the balance between irreverence and respect?

Harris: I find the irreverent balance trickier this year. Last year’s show was so awesomely irreverent because of the sweeping nature of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s show The Book of Mormon. That created a tone that we could play off of. This year there's nothing quite as acerbic, so it shifts the tone of my jokes. But frankly, I’m glad about that because I don’t think awards shows should feel like roasts. I think there should be clever jokes, but more inclusive jokes.

With the Tonys it’s a little tricky because a lot of the funnier jokes are more insider, so people watching at home may not get a Julie Taymor reference the way that New Yorkers would. So you have to figure out what comedy plays to a large audience and still respect the individuals who are there.

THR: So what will be some of your targets this year? Are you going after Spider-Man again, or is that tapped out?

Harris: We certainly whacked the spider on the web like a piñata last year, so I don’t know what candy is left to pour out. I’m not sure where I’m going to run with the season. There’s a lot of shows that are based on movies, which I think may be minable. And there’s really a lot of David vs. Goliath stories – Newsies vs. Once, Peter and the Starcatcher vs. Other Desert Cities or Clybourne Park. You’ve got a lot of opposite ends of the spectrum. Philip Seymour Hoffman is against James Corden, who both give tremendous performances but on wildly different levels, so I think that there might be some intrinsic comedy in that.

It makes it a relatively difficult season to predict. Other times I’ve hosted were relatively easy to predict. Everyone kind of figured The Book of Mormon would win; everyone pretty much figured that Billy Elliot would win. And if they didn’t, there would be a number two show that would sneak in. But in maybe six or seven of the big categories this year, it’s a real toss-up.

THR: Does having such a spread of nominations and so many wide-open races make it harder to pin down an angle on how you’re going to front the show?

Harris: I don’t know if it makes it harder. It makes it less specific. But in many ways that’s alright in that one of my larger goals is that people who aren’t familiar with Broadway get to appreciate how many different things they can see here. I think it’s great that in a three-hour stand we can blow your mind with all the different styles of shows you can choose to see when you come to New York.

THR: You did that so brilliantly last year in your opening number, “It’s Not Just For Gays Anymore,” which was an instant classic.

Harris: Oh, thanks. This year I think it’s going to be The Book of Mormon. The major sold-out show that no-one can get a ticket to is letting us do their number “Hello,” so I’m a little bit off the hook. We’ll make it Tony-specific, but it keeps me from having to do a big “Hi-I’m-Neil-watch-me-sing-and-dance” opening number.

STORY: Hugh Jackman, Bernadette Peters, Actors' Equity to Receive Honorary Tony Awards

THR: Well, that’s disappointing for most of us, but are you working with songwriters again to pull some kind of musical surprise during the evening?

Harris: The Tonys are made for water-cooler moments, so it wouldn’t surprise me if something crazy happened. David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, who wrote “Not Just For Gays Anymore,” are going to be involved in a little bit that we’re doing this year.

THR: Who else is on your writing team?

Harris: My go-to writer and friend Paul Greenberg, who has been my comedy-writer voice for the last 75 awards shows that I’ve hosted is on board, along with Dave Boone, who’s been the head writer of the Tonys for many years. They won an Emmy two years ago for their work on the show and it was well-deserved.

THR: Any chance of another Hugh Jackman face-off during the show this year?

Harris: I believe that Hugh’s in London still filming Les Miserables. He was certainly my first reach-out because we had such fun doing last year’s number together. But scheduling-wise I don’t think it’s going to work out, which is a shame because he’s receiving an honorary Tony. But I think even that is going to have to be done via satellite or pretaped.

THR: Any particular presenters or nominees that you’re looking forward to hanging out with?

Harris: My first response would be Nick Jonas, but that would probably sound dirty, so I’ll go with Paul Rudd. I’m a fan. He’s one of those guys who can do it all.

THR: Do you have a favorite moment of the previous two Tony gigs you’ve done?

Harris: I must say I like those closing numbers where we create the song during the show. That rap that I got to do about the winners was both terrifying and kind of exhilarating. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how to do something similar this year without wanting to repeat myself.

THR: In what must be a crazy-busy week you took time out to appear in the Barack on Broadway fundraiser with President Obama and Bill Clinton. How was that?

Harris: It was wonderful. I actually really appreciated the invite. Not only did I get to say hello to the President of the United States and a previous president, but I got to stand on a Broadway stage again for a second and be able to look out and remember what that felt like. It was a wonderful event. When someone calls and asks you to be part of an event like that it’s in your best interests to say yes.

THR: So did that taste of being on a New York stage again whet your appetite to come back and perform in another show any time soon?

Harris: I’m chomping at the bit, but I wouldn’t want to replace someone in an existing show. I’d want to do a new show, and the time involvement and commitment in that is at least half a year, if not more. Right now How I Met Your Mother runs longer than the other half of the year, so as soon as we know who the mother is, we’ll probably head East and both David (Harris’ partner David Burtka) and I can try and get back on stage.

THR: One final question on hosting the Tonys – what’s the single biggest reward and single biggest challenge of a job like this?

Harris: I think the biggest reward is providing an opportunity for performers who give 150% in show after show after show – but only to 1200 people a night – to do that once for a couple million. That’s the most rewarding and important thing for me, that we pull off a telecast that represents the shows well.

As far as challenges, there’s just so many. The craziest one is time management while the actual show is happening. We have to prepare extended bits that we most likely will cut because things inevitably run long. So it’s a lot of huddling – scrap this joke, or just do a quick intro here, or just have the V.O. guy do it to save seven seconds. You’re really trimming away literal seconds. At home you see the performer going on and on in their speech and commenting on the please-wrap-it-up sign. But there’s a myriad of reasons why it really would be good for them to wrap it up.