A decade or so before “Girls,” Andrew Rannells was doing “Grease” at Elmsford, NY’s Westchester Broadway Theatre. There, above the dinner theater’s clatter of silverware and the scraping of plates, he and the rest of the cast soldiered on till intermission, which often seemed endless. Blame the brownie sundaes.
“They would serve dessert at intermission, and the sundaes were very time-intensive,” Rannells explains. “If a lot of people ordered them, we’d get an announcement: ‘We’re holding for brownie sundaes!’
“But you know what?” he adds, with a wolfish grin, “It was fun! I was 21 and thrilled to be working. And that was the show that got me my Equity card.”
There’s no intermission, brownie-filled or otherwise, at his latest gig, “The Boys in the Band.” First performed 50 years ago — a year before NYC’s Stonewall Riots helped change the gay experience in America — Mart Crowley’s bitchy and biting drama is back. A starry revival opened May 31 on Broadway, its proudly out cast led by Rannells, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer.
“I knew that this was something I would like to be a part of,” he says. “This play is not only a great depiction of how far we’ve come, but it’s a great depiction of friends, and your chosen family … There actually is a lot of love in this show.”
Speaking after a matinee in the Booth Theater’s fusty-looking lounge, the 39-year-old is warm, witty and — unlike the characters in the play — comfortable in his own, well-toned skin.
Rannells had never performed with any of his “Band” mates before, though he bumped into two of them several years ago at the city’s Pride parade.
“There’s millions of people just milling about and who do I run into but Matt Bomer!” he says. Bomer happened to be with Quinto and all three, along with their respective friends, ended up hanging out together. They’re planning to hit the parade together again this Sunday.
There were no Pride marches back in 1980s Omaha, Neb., where Rannells grew up. He knew from an early age that he was gay, and was pretty sure everyone else knew it, too. After all, he says, “I was a little boy who watched ‘Solid Gold’ every week and wanted to be a ‘Solid Gold’ dancer. And I would do very in-depth reenactments of ‘Grease 2’ and ‘West Side Story’ with my sister Natalie in our garage. I was a very theatrical kid.”
Even so, he waited until after high school, just before leaving for New York’s Marymount Manhattan College, to come out to his family. “No one was surprised in the slightest,” he reports. Better still, everyone was supportive.
Once in the city, the theater major skipped classes to go on open calls and auditions. Along the way, he held a string of jobs — coat-check clerk, health-club receptionist, server — but never for long.
“Sometimes, I’d last one night,” he says. One of his longest gigs was a three-month stint at Chez Josephine, on off-Broadway’s Theatre Row. Rannells was a lousy waiter (“there was a lot of yelling” from restaurant owner Jean-Claude Baker), but he got to sing standards with a pianist at the end of the night.
By 2006, he was singing on Broadway, having stepped into “Hairspray” as Link, the heroine’s pompadoured object of affection. He then rode that hairstyle through a two-year run (on the road and on Broadway) as Bob Gaudio in “Jersey Boys.” In 2011’s “The Book of Mormon,” Rannells — minus the pompadour — originated the role of Kevin Price, a clean-cut, perky proselytizer.
Soon after came HBO’s “Girls” and his scene-stealing turn as Elijah, Hannah’s gay BFF: all big emotions and short pants. What started as a recurring role evolved into a main one (and fan favorite) for the show’s final three seasons.
Not surprisingly, Rannells misses Lena Dunham and Allison Williams, his frequent scene partners, the most. Luckily, he says, “the show wrapped in September and aired in January, so there was time to come to terms with the fact that we were moving on.” A few months after the series ended, “a huge, huge box” arrived at his Chelsea apartment. It was stuffed with Elijah’s clothes, including a few bold-patterned sweaters Rannells knew he’d never wear in public again.
“Elijah had some bad taste,” he jokes.
His own style he calls “sort of classic and clean,” which explains what he’s doing in head-to-toe J.Crew: socks, pants, shoes . . . even that alligator shirt? He shakes his head. “Lacoste. Lacoste, for J.Crew!”
Rannells’ hair is something else again. “It is a little pompadour-y, yeah,” he says. “And it sometimes has a mind of its own.” To keep it under control, he swears by Kevin Murphy’s line of hair products: “They have this texturizing dust that’s kind of amazing. My hair is actually pretty fine, so if you put [the product] in at the root and run your hands through it, it makes it a little thicker and stand up.”
Given his predilection for the clean and preppy, Rannells surprised himself by choosing a bottle-green Paul Smith tux to wear to the Tony Awards earlier this month. “Initially, when I saw it, I was like, ‘I can’t wear this,’ and then I put it on and was like, ‘This is cool!’”
He and his “Boys” co-stars presented the Tony for Best Play, but Rannells was a nominee himself last year, for his heart-breaking turn as the doomed lover of “Falsettos.” So wrenching was that musical, set in the time of AIDS, that the cast members took turns meeting fans at the stage door.
No such problem so far at “Boys,” he says, where people come with “Big Bang” memorabilia for Parsons to sign, “Star Trek” paraphernalia for Quinto and “Book of Mormon” Playbills for Rannells.
“Boys” finishes its run on Aug. 11, but Rannells is on the move. He just shot a pilot for cable’s Showtime and he has a memoir, “Too Much Is Not Enough,” coming out in February. If it’s anything like the excerpt published in the Times’ “Modern Love” column, it will be a wonderfully honest, poignant and funny account of a gay Nebraskan’s early years in New York. (The actor is currently single.)
And yes, Rannells points out, there are now Pride parades in Omaha, Neb. His widowed mother, Charlotte, even heads the local PFLAG chapter. But he’s quick to say that while America’s become more tolerant since the pre-Stonewall age, coming out is never easy — and should always be a personal choice.
“Do it in your own time, and don’t feel like you have to tell anyone anything until you’re ready to,” he says. “Surround yourself with people who are going to support you regardless of what your sexual orientation is, and you can have a beautiful life, filled with love.”
Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Groomer: Angella M. Valentine