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Omaha Magazine

The Book, The King, The Tonys: Andrew Rannells Stays True to Himself

Jul 01, 2022 11:14AM ● By Leo Adam Biga
andrew rannells wears jacket with collar pulled up

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Andrew Rannells found Broadway fame originating the role of Elder Price in the smash musical The Book of Mormon, and the Omaha native has since leveraged his success to create buzzworthy lanes on stage and screen.

His passion for performing started as a child. His older sister, Becky, did theater. She and younger sister Natalie studied dance. Rannells said, “Becky really introduced me to the idea theater was something that could happen in Omaha from seeing her in high school and college shows ”

While his sister introduced him to the idea, his mother, Charlotte, exposed him to the bigger world of Broadway musical theater when she got him to watch the Tonys.

“I’d never been to New York, I’d never seen a Broadway show,” Rannells said. “I didn’t know the Tonys existed. She introduced it to me. I recorded it and re-watched it. At the library I checked out video tapes of Broadway shows broadcast on PBS.”

The ritual of watching the Tonys whet his appetite more. One year, Falsettos was nominated and a big number from the show performed. 

“It was one of the shows I saw that convinced me I really want to do this for a living,” Rannells said. He got the chance to work on that favorite show in 2016, when he performed the role of Whizzer Brown in a version that garnered him his second Tony nomination— for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Falsettos

His adolescent theater initiation evolved with classes at Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now The Rose). His mother enrolled him. 

“I didn’t really have an activity of my own before that,” Rannells said. “My sisters danced, my brother played sports, and I didn’t have a thing. She was just trying to figure out, ‘what do I do with this kid?’ She took me to my first audition, which I did not get. But I was encouraged to keep going back.”  

He credits both his parents with being “very supportive in letting me explore” his niche. 

He landed parts at the Firehouse and Dundee Dinner Theaters, the Circle Theater and the Chanticleer Theater. He booked commercials for Boys Town, Godfather’s, and other local companies and nonprofits.

His fixation on making it was reinforced by seeing Nebraska Theatre Caravan guest artists go on to regional and Broadway stardom, including Norbert Leo Butz, whom he got to know in New York. 

“I remember that being an important part of seeing what else is possible,” Rannells said. “That I didn’t have to stay in Omaha doing community theater. There was something more out there I could go for.”

Other hurdles have steeled him against the topsy-turvy world of professional acting. Growing up gay in Omaha, Rannells often felt alone. He alleges two adult men, including a priest at his high school, Creighton Pep, sexually abused him while a minor. Rannells later brought it to the attention of Prep officials. He feels going public with the incident in his book is why Prep’s “not really claimed me as one of their own.” 

Coming of age in the late ’80s-early ’90s, he struggled with media portrayals of queer culture as aberrant and HIV/AIDS as a death sentence. 

“As a kid watching it seemed like a pretty bleak future. It could be pretty scary.”

He came out to his family at 18, though he said his orientation was no surprise. The next year, in 1997, at age 19, he arrived in New York City to pursue a dream first sparked in front of the television set and local theaters in Omaha.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

He set down his suitcases in New York City without knowing a soul there but neither that nor the steep odds of making it curtailed Rannells from chasing his dream. He spent two years as a theater major at Marymount Manhattan College while learning how to navigate the acting world before stepping out to pursuing acting on his own.

“I did feel I just needed to throw myself into it,” Rannells said. “It is a sacrifice. I was very far away from home. I had to figure out a support group in New York among other young actors. Eventually it got easier.”

The bright lights of New York theater did not initially glow with 10,000-watts for Rannells.

“I was working and I had some cool opportunities but nothing felt big enough. I was not on Broadway essentially,” Rannells said. “But then, after two years of taking a break, I went back. I was about to turn 25 and I was like—you’ve got to get back in there, you’ve got to give it another shot.”

Rannells’ luck in New York turned around when he stopped trying to be something he wasn’t. “I realized I can only go in and do what I do. I have this specific skill set nobody else has, so I just need to show that. I started auditioning differently with that in mind.”

In 2005, a few months after his return to the grind of auditions and rejections, Rannells landed his inaugural Broadway gig, Hairspray. “That was my last-ditch at attempt,” Rannells said. Fortunately, it worked.

The new mindset of showing his specific skill set enabled Rannells to obtain roles such as Bob Gaudio in the touring production of Jersey Boys, which resulted in him playing the same role in the Broadway cast. The aforementioned The Book of Mormon, however, catapulted Rannells to stardom. He originated the role of Elder Price 

The lesson learned, he said, is “it’s best to trust your own instincts.” He took a turn as the lead in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. He replaced Jonathan Groff as King George in the original run of Hamilton. Coming in as a replacement offered an interesting take. 

“It was exciting to get to be a little part of it,” he said of the Hamilton phenomenon. “When Book of Mormon was a big hit on Broadway I was in the middle of it with Josh (co-star Josh Gad). We were so wrapped up in everything, With Hamilton, I could visit like a tourist. I didn’t have any long-term skin in that game, so I didn’t feel any of the stress of awards or nominations or reviews.”

Rannells went on to star in Broadway revivals of Falsettos and The Boys in the Band. 

He’s twice been nominated for a Tony Award—as Best Leading Actor in a Musical for Book of Mormon and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Falsettos. He won a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album for the original cast recording of Book of Mormon.

He’s performed at the Tonys, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

On the small screen he costarred in the series Girls and The New Normal. He’s shooting an untitled new Hulu series about the Chippendale murders. The highlight of his feature film career cast him with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and James Corden in the 2018 musical comedy The Prom.

In much of his work he plays three-dimensional, openly gay characters, including that of “Larry,” on Broadway, in the revival of “The Boys in the Band.” These are opportunities he appreciates, as it helping others discover their identities in positive ways.

“I’m so grateful I found that outlet to be with other like-minded people, to see adults, especially gay men, out and proud,” Rannells said. “To see that as a possibility for myself as a kid was a really big deal.” 

Not all his theater experiences were positive.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

“At an early age was I exposed to some things and a part of conversations I probably shouldn’t have been? Yes,” Rannells said. “It got more complicated as I got to be a teenager.”

His trust was betrayed when, he said, an adult male in local theater entered into a sexual relationship with him.

“I thought I knew what I was doing,” Rannells said. “I thought I could handle myself. It was only until later I realized that wasn’t cool.”

Despite losing his innocence, theater remained a refuge. “Ultimately the theater has provided a very safe place” and accepting community, he said.

He observed that today’s youth have more capacity and opportunity to communicate their feelings.

“I’m encouraged by their ability and desire to speak about things—sexuality, self-acceptance, depression, anxiety. They speak about things in a way I didn’t always feel comfortable talking about. So I feel like that is some progress there. I think there are larger conversations happening sooner at a younger age.

“Growing up is just hard. It’s complicated. It can feel lonely and stressful and scary for   everyone. The more kids are willing to open up hopefully the better and easier it can be for them.” 

That’s why he told his story for the It Gets Better campaign that lets young people know they’e not alone in dealing with identity issues.

“I do wish, especially in my teenage years. there was someone in this field that spoke a little more candidly about what I was going through. It Gets Better seemed a perfect platform for that. That’s why I did it. As long as there’s a platform, I’ll try to be a part of it. Hopefully that audience will find those videos. The internet’s created a lot more information that didn’t exist when I was a teenager. There was no where to go for that.”

His 2019 memoir fulfilled a long-held desire to write a book. “But it seemed very far away – I didn’t even know how I would begin that process. And then I met this really fantastic writer and literary agent, Bill Clegg. Just through spending time with him and corresponding by email, he said, ‘I think you might have a book in you.’ So I started writing for him, kind of as an experiment. I jokingly say he tricked me into writing a book because before I knew it I had written 15 essays. He was able to clean them up and guide me through the editing process. If I had thought about it in the larger sense I think I would have been too intimidated to tackle it. I’m very grateful to him.”

For the series Modern Love Rannells wrote-directed the episode “How Did He Remember Our Night Together?” based on one of his own essays.

“I really loved my television writing-directing debut,” Rannells said. “I would absolutely like to do more of that. “

Living his dream, he said, is “definitely humbling—I feel very grateful.” Though he’s made it, the insecurity of an actor’s life never really goes away.

“In a lot of ways it does feel much different than the beginning of my career,” Rannells said. “The pool might get a little smaller, but the competition is still there. There are jobs I do get and there are things I want somebody else gets. That just continues.”

The difference now is he knows what parts are right for him and doesn’t second guess himself.

He’s in a long, but small, line of Nebraskans who have performed on Broadway, including the late legends Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Julie Wilson, and Sandy Dennis. He knows most of the actors who have left Nebraska for the Great White Way and are performing now.

“There’s not that many of us,” he said, “so if you meet someone who’s from Nebraska it’s quite an event in New York.” 

One contemporary member of that exclusive club, John Lloyd Young took the time to look him up.

“I was doing Hairspray while he was doing Jersey Boys and the theaters were across the street from each other,” Rannells said. “He came to the stage door one day and said, ‘I just wanted to introduce myself, I’m also from Omaha,’ which I thought was kind of funny and very nice.”

He has a history with Omaha native Q. Smith, known for her role of Hannah in the Broadway show Come from Away. “Q. and I knew each other [as] high school [students],” Rannells said. “It was years after college in New York that we sort of met up again.”

Rannells occasionally returns to Omaha, mostly to visit family and friends, such as at Easter. He did an Old Market book signing-reading in 2019. In 2020, he did a free digital Q&A with Omaha Performing Arts. And though he hasn’t come back to perform in his hometown since making it as an actor, he still fondly remembers those days of acting in Omaha.

Visit imdb.com and look up Andrew Rannells for more information.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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