Tonys Q&A: Neil Patrick Harris on His Fourth Turn Hosting Broadway's Big Night

Tony Awards Neil Patrick Harris Host - H 2012
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Tony Awards Neil Patrick Harris Host - H 2012

The star of “How I Met Your Mother" talks with THR about working with kids, animals, drag and his return to Radio City as ringmaster of the 67th annual theater lovefest.

NEW YORK – Back at Radio City Music Hall after two editions in the more intimate Beacon Theatre, Neil Patrick Harris will return to emcee the Tony Awards for the fourth time Sunday night, airing live on CBS.

Unlike recent years in which shows like The Book of Mormon or Billy Elliot charged in as front-runners by a significant margin, the 67th annual kudos ceremony honoring the best of Broadway will be a nail-biter, with neck-and-neck contenders in several key categories.

PHOTOS: Broadway Musicals That Have Sung Their Way to the Big Screen

Will best musical go to the darkly comic fairy tale Matilda, a British import based on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, with songs by Australian comic and cabaret artist Tim Minchin? Or will it be Kinky Boots, the high-stepping crowd-pleaser with a score by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein, adapted from the 2005 Miramax movie about a struggling British shoe factory that diversifies into glamazon footwear?

The favorite to win best play is Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a bittersweet contemporary spin on Chekhovian themes by Christopher Durang, a theater veteran long overdue for Tony recognition. But Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy and Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties are both dark horses to watch.

In the acting stakes, most bets are on Tom Hanks for his punchy Broadway debut in Lucky Guy; and Cicely Tyson, back on Broadway after a three-decade absence and acing eight performances a week at the ripe age of 88 in The Trip to Bountiful.

Facing off for best actor in a musical are two cross-dressing turns: Bertie Carvel as child-hating headmistress Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, and Billy Porter as drag diva Lola, who teaches that “Sex is in the Heel” in Kinky Boots. Actress in a musical will likely be a smackdown between Laura Osnes as Cinderella and Patina Miller as the Leading Player in Pippin, a role traditionally performed by a male actor.

STORY: Tonys: Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson and Cuba Gooding Jr. to Present

Steppenwolf Theater Company’s scorching take on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems the one to beat for play revival, while Diane Paulus’ spectacular circus-themed staging of Pippin is out in front for musical revival. However, Harris confesses his affection for one of the underdogs in that category, the Victorian music hall pastiche The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

After sharing Emmy Awards in 2010 and 2012 for previous gigs with the Tony telecast executive producing team of Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, Harris is determined to keep delivering something new. He took a breather from rehearsals to chat with THR about that task.

The Hollywood Reporter: It’s your fourth time as Tony Awards host. Does that make it a walk in the park or a challenge to come up with something fresh?

Neil Patrick Harris: It’s far from a walk in the park, unless it’s Sunday and I’m George. I want to make sure that I’m honoring the theater season in its own unique way. And we’re lucky this year that we’re back at Radio City, which allows more people the chance to see the show live and gives more elbow room to the productions themselves. So I’m looking forward to a jumbo-sized version of the show. That makes my job a little bit easier.

THR: Radio City is a more cavernous space compared to the cozy Beacon, where the show has been for the last two years. Does that inevitably change the dynamic?

Harris: It changes the dynamic for the people who are there watching, but I don’t think it will for the people at home. And to be totally honest, that’s my most important viewer. The Tonys are the once-a-year shot for all of these shows and artists who work so diligently every single performance but only for a thousand or so people at a time. This gives them the opportunity to perform to millions of people. That’s a giant audience. As producers we’re very conscious and cognizant and conscientious – that’s a lot of C words – of making sure that those people who don’t get to the theater really get a good idea of what the Broadway season has to offer.

THR: Are the rehearsals grueling?

Harris: Well, they’re more mentally grueling for me because a lot of the things I’m doing this year I came up with myself. So I’m second-guessing my own creative integrity. I feel like a stand-up who’s about to go and do a new set. But that’s one of the things I appreciate about the Broadway community the most. When you call someone and ask them to do something they’ve never done before, in different mediums I think they would be inclined to pass because they’re afraid of the risk. But the creative people who populate the theater world love the challenge of new things.

STORY: Tonys: Sally Field, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Kendrick Added to Presenters Roster

THR: I guess that’s how you got Patti LuPone to push a lawnmower in last year’s opening number, or Jesse Tyler Ferguson to come on as your understudy?

Harris: That’s exactly right. We got Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt to write the opening number this year, which I think is going to be great. They don’t get paid a lot of money for it and there’s a lot of back and forth doing revisions, and re-records and orchestrations. I mean, just for one song, one time. They’re so gung ho and so excited by it, and I deeply value them for that. But I also know why. It’s because we all watched the Tonys growing up. That was our one night of the year to get to second-act these shows and see them performed live. I was from small-town New Mexico and did the exact same thing. You get a little bit of a pass when you ask people to participate in the Tonys. Even though it may be exhausting, there’s a glimmer in their eyes that makes it hard for them to say no.

THR: You’ve stacked up quite a resume as the go-to awards emcee now – kind of the 21st century Johnny Carson – and you’ve just signed on to host the Emmys for a second time. But you keep coming back to the Tonys more than any other awards show. What’s the attraction?

Harris: I think it’s twofold. It’s filled with more performances than any other show, and those performances are already hyper-polished. In other awards shows any creative content is usually put together quickly a few days before it runs live. But this is 14 numbers being performed at 100 percent, and that’s exciting to be a part of, in a P.T. Barnum ringmaster kind of way. I’m also a big proponent of live performances, and I always have been, whether it’s magic or Cirque du Soleil. I just think there’s something unique about seeing things live. So it’s not hard for me to crow about that.

Also, it’s a little bit niche-y, which gives us the creative freedom to do whatever the eff we want. You have to answer to certain people, but when you get up there into Emmys and Oscar land, it has to be vetted through so many people that you get a lot of 'no’s.' People are nervous. At the Tonys, we don’t have to deal with so many naysayers, so I get a little more creative control. That being said, there are things on my bucket list that I’m hoping to check off soon.

THR: So do you consider yourself an out-and-proud theater geek?

Harris: Oh, totally. I knew every word to Into the Woods before there were CDs.

THR: You’ve been catching a lot of shows around town. What are your impressions of this season’s Broadway crop?

Harris: It’s wildly diverse. You’ve got mainstream shows for every type of theatergoer. Even in the new musicals, you have Matilda, which is the nice highbrow British import with chewy lyrics and great source material. You have Kinky Boots, which is a very all-American, gender-bending, highly emotional, come-from-behind kind of show that people are really responding to. You have Motown, which is the quintessential jukebox musical filled with countless songs you remember. There are also stars like Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy, and David Hyde Pierce in Vanya and Sonia. The theater is reaching as many different demographics as it can now.

PHOTOS: David Rooney's Top New York Theater Picks for 2012

THR: Anyone you’re particularly rooting for, or is that undiplomatic?

Harris: I’m weirdly rooting for The Mystery of Edwin Drood because it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. But, unfortunately, it closed earlier in the season and the voters tend to reward longevity, so I don’t expect it to win a lot of awards. But I thought this production was stellar. That being said, I’m a circus nerd, so all of the Pippin excitement is infectious. I also love Tim Minchin. I’ve been a fan since I saw him in Edinburgh eight years ago. I’m spread around. I think I’m Laura Osnes’ biggest fan as she plays Cinderella. She’s nearly perfect. I’ve yet to find a fault in her – she’s funny, she’s beautiful, she dances, she sings, she’s a trouper. And she’s up against Patina Miller in a role made famous by an actor of a different sex, Ben Vereen. You’ve got some really great performances this year.

THR: There’s a lot of gender-bending this season – Bertie Carvel in Matilda, Billy Porter in Kinky Boots, Patina Miller, Stephanie J. Block as a British music hall star famous for trousers roles in Edwin Drood. Any chance we’ll see a drag moment from you?

Harris: Well, it seems to be the year of drag, but I’ve never been a fan of hosts wearing silly costumes, because that’s the photo that they always put in The Hollywood Reporter! I remember poor Sean Hayes when he hosted the Tonys. Every picture of him, he was dressed as Annie. I thought he worked so hard for those three hours and that’s the picture they’re going to keep showing.

THR: So you plan to dodge that bullet?

Harris: I doubt there’ll be a lot of drag for me, but there’ll be a fair amount of drag references, most certainly.

THR: There’s a bunch of shows featuring children this year – Matilda, Annie, Christmas Story, even Kinky Boots. Motown has a knockout number with a performer as the young Michael Jackson. Will that make for a kid-centric ceremony?

Harris: I’m very conscious of themes and there have been a lot of themes – lots of animals, lots of kids. So working with children and animals on a live telecast on CBS… there’s no chance of failure there! But I think the presence of all these kids on Broadway has a lot to do with TV, with America’s Got Talent and So You Think You Can Dance and all that. Those shows have created this acceptance of these super-talented younger hoofers, for lack of a better term, who are quite remarkable. You mentioned the kid from Motown – he tears the house down.

THR: What’s been your proudest moment hosting the Tonys up to now?

Harris: I think, two years ago, the Book of Mormon year. The opening song “Not Just For Gays Anymore” and the closing rap or spoken-word number that Lin-Manuel wrote were both really strong, and in a way, unifying. But I try not to one-up myself. That’s not my goal. I try to stay within a wheelhouse that I’m comfortable in and that people are comfortable with me in. So if you’re watching and having a Tony party, I’m not going to do something wildly different just because I can. Generally, I just want the people who’ve gone down a red carpet in a dress that’s two sizes too small for them and can’t exhale as they sit there with a piece of paper in their hand in case they win to be able to relax and know that they’re going to have a fun night.

THR: Anyone you’re especially looking forward to rubbing shoulders with among this year’s presenters or nominees?

Harris: I’m most anxious to say hello to Tom Hanks. I’m a fan of his from a long time ago, as both a performer and a person. He and his wife came when we did Rent at the Ahmanson in L.A., and stayed for the afterparty. They went around to everyone and had nothing but glowing and specific things to say to each of the cast members that really went a long way. I’m a big fan of the way he carries himself.

THR: A two-part final question: Was there any show or specific role you saw this season that made you say, “Damn, I wish I could have played that?” And are there any plans for you or your partner David Burtka to come back and do another Broadway show anytime soon?

Harris: Yeah, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is a show I literally know backwards and forwards. That’s the show I always wanted to direct if I was ever going to direct musicals. But somebody beat me to it, the bastards! The night I saw it Will Chase was out and his understudy was on as Jasper. He was doing a great job, but I was gnawing at my fingers, thinking, “Oh, to play that part.”

As for the future, David and I are relocating to New York when How I Met Your Mother wraps, for two reasons. One, is so that our kids can start their primary education in one spot, and I think that Manhattan and the East Coast is a good place for education and development. And secondarily, but oddly kind of primarily, it’s so that David can get back to doing what he does best, which is theater work. I transplanted him back to the West Coast for almost a decade, so I’m anxious for him to take the creative reins again and thrive. As for me, it would be fun to do a show soon, so fingers crossed. At this rate it will probably be in drag the way the season’s going.