The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.

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Kristy Geslain: Broadway star Andrew Rannells—whom you may know from The Book of Mormon, Falsettos, and Jersey Boys, or HBO's Girls—still remembers his introduction to the world of musical theater, through a PBS broadcast of Into the Woods. Now the Tony-nominated, Grammy-winning star of stage and screen is one of four artists who has created his own PBS special, as part of Live from Lincoln Center's Stars in Concert series. I spoke to Andrew about putting this show together, good advice he's been given along the way, and other famous people from Nebraska.

This is Lincoln Center with Andrew Rannells.

KG: So here we are...

Andrew Rannells: Here we are...

KG: Backstage...

AR: It's the day of the show.

KG: The day of the show. So, your show—did you title it? Did you call it anything?

AR: I didn't. I didn't title it.

KG: Why not?

AR: Because it's my first time—I mean, Todd and I kicked around a lot of, like, silly titles. That's all I could think about, or like, useless titles.

KG: Yeah.

AR: Inappropriate things. So it just seemed better just to leave it sort of, "Andrew Rannells Live From Lincoln Center," because that just seemed a little more straightforward. And it's my first time doing one of these shows, which I'm very excited about.

KG: Yeah, so let's talk about that. What was your process? Take us back to when the idea kind of first happened, and what the process has been since then.

AR: I, over the years, have been approached by a couple different rooms here in New York, and then some outside of New York, about putting together a show. And I'd gotten close to doing it a couple times. But I got to say, my favorite—one of my favorite sort of cabaret-style shows that I've ever seen is Christine Ebersole's. She puts on a dang good show.

KG: Yeah.

AR: And we've sort of gotten to be friendly over the years, and I asked her, I was like, "What is your advice for putting something together like this?" And she was like, "Don't do it unless you really want to do it—like, you really feel like you have something to say, you really feel like it's a good time for you, that you have the time to devote to doing it, don't do it." She was like, because you can't kind of half-ass it.

So, it was good advice. And this time around, I felt like there was enough lead up. There was about, you know, almost nine months to sort of come up with this set list and I immediately knew I wanted to work with Todd Almond, and luckily, he was available and wanted to do this with me. So then it sort of came together. We had a nice amount of time, to kind of, you know, pass some songs back and forth, and there were a couple things that I knew I wanted to sing. So, I was like, these are the songs that I definitely want to do, and then we just sort of shaped it.

KG: What was that core list? What were the ones that immediately you knew, no matter what, those were making it in?

AR: "Lonely Boy..."

[Excerpt from "Lonely Boy"]

AR: "Sooner or Later"—I didn't know how, but knew I wanted that in there in some way...

[Excerpt from "Sooner or Later"]

AR: I knew I wanted to do "Born to Run"...

[Excerpt from "Born to Run"]

AR: And I knew I wanted to sing Todd's song, "Moon Over Nebraska"...

[Excerpt from "Moon Over Nebraska"]

AR: And that was it. So—and I, you know, went back and forth about sort of the musical theater side of it, and if it was worth... The songs from The Book of Mormon are so great but they, out of context, don't—I don't want to say they don't hold up, because that's not it, it's just that it's a little confusing out of context. So, I could have sung "I Believe" but without—you kind of have to explain the set-up of like where he is and what's the character doing, like—and then it feels a little clunky, so... And other shows that I've been in, like, I felt like I had just, you know, been seen on PBS singing all the songs from "Falsettos," so I was like I don't really feel like I need to do that. And other shows that I've been in, I haven't felt the same ownership of that music...

KG: Mm-hmm.

AR: Because I either had replaced, or it was a revival or, so I was like, it's not really mine to own. So that was sort of freeing in a lot of ways, because I didn't feel like I had to like, you know, like Idina has to drag out "Defying Gravity" every time she shows up in public. It's like, you know... Well, now, I guess she's got "Let It Go," so maybe that takes some pressure off of her. But, I don't have like, a signature tune, so that took a little pressure off.

KG: I think "Born to Run," though, might become your signature tune.

AR: Really? No, I think that's always going to belong to someone else.

KG: I mean, yeah, but…

AR: But let's... now that he's on Broadway…

KG: Yeah.

AR: It's kind of a show tune. Let's—let's be clear!

KG: So this idea of how much context you need to give to a song is interesting, because one of the things that all the producers were talking about, after watching your rehearsal the other day, is that—I mean, your patter is great, and I want to talk all about that, because that's a whole art form unto itself—but the set list has come together in such a way that it tells a story on its own, without much explanation, which is interesting because it's so eclectic.

AR: Yeah.

KG: So how did you figure out sort of where to place what? Is it kind of a chronological order of Andrew Rannells growing up and becoming who he is?

AR: It started outside in. So I made a playlist on my little—in my iTunes, and just kept swapping it. And then when I was like at the gym, I would just like listen to that playlist, and see how the flow felt, and did it feel like things were—did it make sense? Did it feel too sort of like herky-jerky when it didn't need to?

And a lot of it is just about, like, tempos. Like, you want to—you don't want to do too many ballads together; you don't want to do all your, you know, big belty stuff all packed together. So it was just about spacing it out. And then, oddly enough, I think just because Todd and I have very similar musical styles, the songs did sort of fit together. And then Todd did a really beautiful job sort of with the arrangements, of making them relate to one another without seeming like it's all, you know, just one long song.

Because there are some sort of unexpected turns. But I think that's where the, you know, banter kind of comes in handy, is that you can kind of tell the audience like, "We're going to take a little detour here for a second," or just have a moment to say like, "This is going to be a little different for a second," or "This is why this is happening." I also don't like over-talking. I hate those shows that you just feel like they're explaining—"And then this is when he says this, and this is the part of the show where this happened," or "I heard this song when I was 14 and I'd just skinned my knee and I"—it's just like too much explanation.

KG: Yeah.

AR: I think part of the fun of these shows, the ones that work well, and again, Christine Ebersole's worked so well—is because even if you don't know the music, or you don't know the set-up, it's very relatable. So basically, I'm just stealing everything from Christine Ebersole. Is that okay?

KG: Well, she's a good person to steal stuff from.

AR: I told her. I told her to her face. I was like—"I'm just ripping off your show, ma'am." She seemed okay.

KG: So how did you decide what stories to tell? Or, is it something that you're going to, sort of, do on the fly, too, tonight?

AR: Well, I didn't want to seem like, stumbly, or that I was like caught off-guard that I had to do this.

KG: Right.

AR: So, no, I definitely thought about sort of what would make sense and what needs to be addressed. But again, I didn't want to over talk. So, at the last minute—you know, Todd and I have been running this for a while, so before we ran it for all of the producers, we were short, so we had to add another song.

And Todd was like, "Well, maybe just figure out a story to tell, or something to…" But it felt like, we're in this beautiful space, we have this amazing band, I don't need to just be like, running my mouth. So we added "Praying for Time," that really beautiful George Michael song. Which was great, so it was a real surprise at the end there that we were a little short.

KG: And it sounds like it's always been there, again, when you look at the flow of the show, it comes at a beautiful moment.

AR: Yeah, I mean, it's a little confusing, because it's such a beautiful song about, you know, humility and charity and sort of the shape of the world, and hanging onto hope. And then I follow it up with Peter Gabriel's "Big Time," which is just a song about excess and greed. So, I don't know—maybe, you know...

KG: Balance.

AR: It's two sides of the coin! That's what I say.

KG: So, let's talk about your relationship with Todd.

AR: Yes.

KG: Because you two have been so close throughout this whole process. How do you know each other? How did you select him for this? What was your working relationship like?

AR: I was just a fan of his. I was doing Jersey Boys with this great guy named Matt Bogart, and Matt said, he was like, "Oh my friend has a band, The Todd Almond Band, and he wrote this song called 'Moon Over Nebraska.'" And he sent it to me because I'm from Nebraska, and I completely fell in love with it, and then I got Todd's album, and then I got his second album, his solo album that he did.

And he's just so talented. And then my friend Laura Benanti did a show at 54 Below with Todd, and it turned out real well. And Todd's just one of those people that I've always admired but never worked with. So when this opportunity came up, it just so happens, his husband is my agent, in a show business stroke of luck. So I asked my agent, I was like, "Do you think your husband would want to do this with me?" and he's like, "Well, ask him."

So I emailed Todd and he very sweetly said yes right away. So this has been fun to get to—I will miss our little singalongs that we've been having, but I hope this is the beginning of more of a collaboration with him and that we get to do either this show or versions of this show again, because it has been really fun to get to perform with him.

KG: So talk a little about the process. I don't know that anyone—everyone knows sort of what the musical director does for a show like this.

AR: And I didn't either, to be honest with you. He does everything. I feel like I'm not really carrying my weight here, because he assembled the back-up singers, the musicians—you know, rehearsed with them, also arranged all of these songs, which is no small feat. Some of them had beautiful arrangements sort of, you know, intact. "And They're Off" from A New Brain—like, that was one that we could sort of, kind of use as is, but then you also have to retrofit everything for the musicians that you have.

So we have a really amazing accordion player that's so fun, but a lot of this music did not account for an accordion player, so Todd had to figure out all of that, so he has done a ton of work on this. And it's all sort of the minute details that maybe sort of go unnoticed as you hear it, but it's what makes it so powerful and so full and otherwise it would just be me up there, warbling. And he makes it all sound very tight and clean and beautiful, yeah.

KG: What surprised you during this process?

AR: You know what? The biggest surprise I had, it was—because I love "Into the Woods" so much, and it is one of my favorite musicals still, probably my favorite musical—and, so I knew I wanted to do something from that. But we paired "Your Fault" with "No More," which, I got to be honest, "No More" is always one of those songs that I skipped over. Like, I would skip it, because I was like, "What's this about?"

And then—because it's so, you know, it's just not, it didn't seem that exciting to me, and then, I can't get through it without crying now. Because it's really, it's just so beautiful, and I think it just has to do with age, quite frankly. Like, when you're a kid and you hear that song you don't realize exactly what the old man is telling the baker, and it's really beautiful advice.

So that was the biggest surprise, is that we sort of did that because—I tried to sing "Last Midnight," and it didn't—just didn't feel right. That was one of those that was like, it just felt, honestly it felt a little draggy. It felt like drag queen, not like it slowed things down, but it was like just too campy, even for me, and that's really saying something! But something just felt wrong about it. We did, for a day... I tried to sing "Cool Rider" from Grease 2—if anybody knows that song! The tens of people that know that!

KG: I'm sure everybody knows that song!

AR: I tried to sing that, and it made Todd and I laugh. A lot. But I was like, this is a disaster. This is not going to go well. And I just had an image of like, tonight, and singing it in front of an audience and people being like, "What's going on right now? C-O-O-L R-I-D-E-R?"

KG: What's the mix of that? You know, like how much of it is just instinct, versus what you think the audience will like, versus what's just really fun for you, that you can just be—

AR: All of that.

KG: It's just a kind of mix of everything.

AR: All of it. It's what—I mean, I selfishly, you know, I'm singing a couple things tonight—well, "Your Fault" is like a good example of like, I don't really know how that's going to land. I know it makes me laugh. I know that my friend Jill Madeo will laugh. But other than Jill and I—

KG: We'll be laughing from the control room, for sure.

AR: But—and then other things. You know, we had to—I said to Todd, about that one in particular, I was like, "We need a safe word for this." Because, if we get too close, and it's not going well, you just need to be like, "Hey, banana. We need to cut that one out. This is not cool." He's never said "banana," so that's good.

And then other things are, you know, I hope that people like. I don't know, it's just sort of anyone's guess. That's the terrifying thing about this. It's not like we're doing previews.

KG: Yeah. Yeah. One night only.

AR: One night only, kid.

KG: How much do you rehearse? When do you get to the point where it's like well, that's it. We're not going to stress out about this. Or do you rehearse to the last minute?

AR: We rehearse… I mean, it's great that we have all day today to sort of go through this. Last Thursday—so, today is a Wednesday, on Thursday last week, we had our big run-through for all the producers, which was a very complete thing with the band, but since then we haven't had a rehearsal with the whole band. So Todd and I have talked through things. I've run everything on my own, every day. But, you know, you don't want to overdo it, because then you freak yourself out, I think. And I don't want to—I mean, it's already stressful. So sometimes I think, and I have cursed myself in the past, at Hamilton—just a little show called Hamilton that nobody ever goes to see...

KG: Yeah, really.

AR: When I was doing it, I stressed so hard about those lyrics to the king's song because, you know, you just get dropped into the middle of the show. You're onstage alone, there's no set-up, there's no—nobody knows who you are, you're just walking onstage. I was filling in for five weeks right after they opened. It was the biggest hit for—since The Book of Mormon, dare I say!

And I forgot the lyrics, which has never happened to me onstage ever, in my whole life. It was my fifth performance.

KG: Your first night? Oh, fifth performance.

AR: Yeah.

KG: Okay.

AR: And I was so stressed about like, running it, running it, running it, running it. And then all of a sudden you're like wait, is that right? Does that sound right? It's like when you say a word too many times in a row and you're like, is that still English? Am I saying that correctly? Or someone's name and you're like, that's not their name. But... and I just freaked myself out. So, I was like, I can't do that again.

KG: Well, that won't happen tonight.

AR: I mean, if it does, we'll deal with it.

KG: Well, I have to think, even in those moments, and I don't want to dwell on negative moments...

AR: No, no, no, no, of course.

KG: But the audience has got to be so with you.

AR: I think so, and I think, you know, what I'm telling myself, and it's really just to comfort myself, is that if something did go horribly awry, I could be like, "I'm sorry, you guys, we need to start over." And people will laugh and applaud, and, you know. You can sort of get away with it a little bit, but ideally, that's not what you want.

KG: So what happens tonight? The show ends…

AR: I fall down in my dressing room.

KG: You fall down in your dressing room, you have a drink, you have a sandwich, you take a nap.

AR: Correct.

KG: Then, you know, you've had this thing in your mind and—

AR: I know.

KG: Doing this for so long, so many months, what happens next? Do you want this to have a life of its own? Are you thinking about touring with it?

AR: All of those things. I mean, I've sort of prepared myself for a crash Thursday morning, because I think it will be sort of sad. Anytime there's this much build-up, then you're like, "Wait, what happened?" So that's, you know, that's doing any show. It's like the day after closing is like, "wah, wah."

But I would like to continue. And I think that—you know the big challenge to doing these shows is putting them together. So now that it's together, you know, Todd and I have talked about—unless something disastrous happens tonight and I totally fall on my face, I would like to do this again. I would like to take it elsewhere and there are so many beautiful venues all over the country that I think Todd and I could sort of retro-fit this as a smaller—you know, maybe not with this whole band, unfortunately, but there's many versions we could play around with. Because, yeah, I like doing it. I like—and now that it's put together, it doesn't feel quite as scary.

KG: You'd have to play Nebraska.

AR: I would love to play Nebraska.

KG: Have you?

AR: Omaha. No.

KG: Never?

AR: No, you know, there are so many more famous people from Omaha than me.

KG: Like who?

AR: Conor Oberst. Gabrielle Union. Brian Greenberg. Marlon Brando. The Fondas.

KG: So, let's talk about growing up—

AR: In Omaha.

KG: In Nebraska.

AR: Yeah?

KG: And your musical, your sort of journey as a performer is very much in this set list.

AR: Yeah.

KG: So, when you were coming up, what were you listening to? We didn't have iTunes then, but what was on your boombox, or your Walkman?

AR: Miami Sound Machine.

KG: Love it.

AR: A lot of Gloria Estefan. I loved Billy Joel. Yeah, I used to roller skate in my driveway to "Big Man on Mulberry Street." I thought I was very cool. I'm like, running on ice with my roller skates. Thought I was so cool. That. I also loved—I loved Peter Gabriel. I weirdly loved Kate Bush, which is kind of strange for like a little boy in the Midwest. But, you know, it's one of those—I don't know how to account for musical tastes. I had older siblings. My sister Becky had—you know, I'd listen to what she was listening to. So she had the, you know, Born in the U.S.A. cassette tape, so I listened to Bruce Springsteen. She had T'pau—"Heart and Soul"—"Give a little bit of heart and soul..."

KG: Oh, yeah!

AR: Remember that song? Yeah. So I listened to that. Trash.

KG: Who did that song?

AR: It's called T'Pau: T apostrophe P-A-U.

KG: I remember the song well, but I wouldn't have been able to tell you the band.

AR: That's one of those that I got on iTunes, and I was like, "This is going to hold up!" And it does, in a way, but not really.

KG: Okay.

AR: Yeah. So, they were sort of all over the map, my... what I was listening to. And then the musical theater thing happened. I saw Into the Woods. I started watching the Tony Awards.

KG: Was that the moment, seeing Into the Woods? Where did you see it?

AR: PBS.

KG: Ahh.

AR: PBS, my friend.

KG: Yeah.

AR: Yeah, that was a real big... big game-changer. And then I figured out that my library had VHS of a lot of—so Sweeney Todd was there and Pippin was there and Sunday in the Park with George was there.

KG: Yeah.

AR: So I started watching all of those things and then just teaching myself about musical theater. I mean, the Tonys were the big—that was a huge deal. So like, in one year, I remember, one year it was like Blood Brothers, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Who's Tommy. The next year was Falsettos, or maybe Falsettos was before that. But that was like, you know, that's how I discovered what that stuff was. And then I would go out and get the little cassette tape and wear it out, yeah.

KG: Televising this stuff is so important. And I'm not just saying that because I work on a show that does that, but you hear, time and again, from artists—

AR: Absolutely. I mean, that's the, you know, pre-internet, I mean, that was the only window we had. And Todd and I talked about that quite a bit, because that's how we discovered musical theater, and I don't know how I would have done it without that, you know. I mean, it's one thing to see local productions or—but to see what a Broadway production looks like on your TV is really informative and really so influential to so many of us who did not have access to Broadway. I was 18 by the time—was the first time I came to New York. So, I came, you know, it was sort of late in the game, to visit New York. But those PBS broadcasts, that's what really did it. So, it does make me very emotional to think about the fact that we filmed Falsettos, that, you know, this concert is going to be on television, and that there will be kids who get to see it. It's pretty special.

KG: Yeah. The Andy Rannells of tomorrow.

AR: Little Andy Rannells.

KG: Home in Nebraska watching you.

AR: That poor kid.

KG: Andrew Rannells, we'll let you get to rehearsal, you have a big day.

AR: It's the day of the show, y'all.

KG: Thank you so much.

AR: Thank you! This was fun. Very fun.

KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, and Ian Goldstein.

Our theme music is provided by freemusicarchive.org.

For full transcripts and episode extras, visit lincolncenter.org/podcast.

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