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Andrew Rannells: Gay And Serious In 'New Normal'

The actor stars in the comedy TV series The New Normal, about a gay couple who want a child so badly that they hire a surrogate. Rannells tells Fresh Air that he didn't want to "dumb down" the series role with "stereotypical over-the-top gay flash and sass."


Other segments from the episode on September 10, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 10, 2012: Interview with Andrew Rannells; Review of the album " Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios."


September 10, 2012

Guest: Andrew Rannells

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tonight, NBC will preview the first episode of its new comedy series "The New Normal." My guest is one of the stars, Andrew Rannells, who was also the star of the original Broadway production of "The Book of Mormon."


ANDREW RANNELLS: (as Elder Price) Hello, my name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book...

GROSS: Rannells left "The Book of Mormon" when he got the part in "The New Normal." At about the same time, he was cast in the HBO series "Girls" as Lena Dunham's college boyfriend who learns he's gay. In "The New Normal," Rannells stars with Justin Bartha as a gay couple. They decide they're ready to have a child, so they hire a surrogate.

Rannells' character, Brian Collins, is a TV producer loosely based on Ryan Murphy, the co-creator of "The New Normal." Murphy also co-created "Glee" and created "Nip/Tuck." Here's a scene from the first episode of "The New Normal." Rannells and Bartha are sitting on a bench in the park watching parents with their children. Bartha speaks first.


JUSTIN BARTHA: (as David Murray) You really think it's such a good idea to bring a kid into the world with such a non-traditional family?

RANNELLS: (as Brian Collins) I know somebody else from a non-traditional family, a Halfrican-American who was raised by a grandma. And that person seems to be doing just fine.

BARTHA: (as David) Oh yeah, Barack Obama.

RANNELLS: (as Brian) No, Mariah Carey, but your example works too.

GROSS: Andrew Rannells, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the new series. So if your character is based on the creator of the show, Ryan Murphy, who also created "Glee," do you, like, study him? Does he want you to play him?

RANNELLS: Well, luckily no, because if I had to do an impersonation of Ryan, I think I would be terrified on a daily basis. But lucky for me, when I first met with Ryan, you know, before "The New Normal" sort of came about, we realized very quickly that I think we had a lot in common, and I realized that, like, our senses of humor was very similar.

He's from Indiana; I'm from Nebraska. We were both raised Catholic. We both moved to, you know, big cities sort of as soon as we could. And we just had a lot in common, and I think that there was a dryness to both of our senses of humor that we just had in common.

So the writing, it feels like it's - you know, as much as it's being written sort of, you know, as Ryan Murphy, it feels really well-written for me. So it feels pretty natural to say some of the things that I say and do a lot of the things that I do.

GROSS: So your partner on the show is played by Justin Bartha. And you are more theatrical than he is and more into, like, clothing and shopping and, you know, joking and everything. So how did you figure out how to play your role so that it wouldn't kind of cross the line into stereotype?

RANNELLS: Yeah, yeah, it's tricky because you don't - I certainly didn't want to be gay clown on this, you know, because the subject matter is actually a really sweet one and I think a really lovely one about these people who are so in love and so committed to each other that they realize that what's missing in their life is to share that love with a child.

So it's a rather serious and loving subject matter. So I didn't want to, you know, dumb it down with sort of stereotypical, over-the-top gay flash and sass. So luckily, the writing, coming from Ryan Murphy and from Allie Adler and all of our wonderful writers really allows me to sort of like play a little bit of that, but I think the more sort of straightforward you play all those jokes, particularly the flamboyant ones, the more it just sort of becomes a character trait and not a joke, if that makes any sense.

Like it doesn't become - it just becomes, you know, something sort of ingrained in this guy and not a put-on idea to get a laugh. And I've been really luckily, particularly in moving forward with these scripts, that there's just more and more of that, and I feel like the characters just sort of get richer and more sort of human as we go along.

GROSS: So I don't know much about Justin Bartha, but I read someplace that he's straight. Does that matter?

RANNELLS: He is straight. You know, at first I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure if it was going to matter. I'm gay, so I felt like, you know, there's a - you know, I enjoyed the fact that I, you know, being a homosexual got to play a homosexual, and so often you see, you know, straight actors playing gay actors, and people talk about how brave they are to play, you know, homosexuals. And it's, like, ah, Jesus, really? That it's such, like, you know, they're doing something so, you know, revelatory.

But not with Justin. I don't know. Justin just, just did it. There was not much of a conversation about it. There remains not to be much of a conversation about it. He just sort of does it, which is really great. And it's not - he's not looking for, like, a pat on the back or isn't this great that I'm, you know, taking a risk as an actor and playing, you know, a homosexual. He just is doing it because it's a great part. So that's been fantastic.

GROSS: Are you hoping that this show will help convince mainstream audiences who aren't already convinced that gay people can make, do make great parents?

RANNELLS: I - yeah, I hope so. I mean, I hope that - and certainly, you know, I think that, you know, "Modern Family" has done a really fantastic job. Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet's characters have really done a great job, I think, of opening a lot of eyes to how "normal," quote-unquote, like, you know, gay couples are and, like, well, they're just like us.

And if this is the next part of that, to show sort of, you know, the beginnings of that relationship and also the beginning of the family and what exactly, you know, gay couples have to go through to start a family because it's not an easy process. It's an expensive process, and it's a lengthy process, and it doesn't always work.

So if that - I think it's exciting to get to sort of show that for, you know, one of the first times on television, I think is exciting. My sister Becky in Omaha recently said that - she coined the phrase swing straights, that she thought that, like, after watching this pilot, she was like: I think this will, you know, potentially sway some folks who don't think they have anything in common with gay people, or they don't know any gay people, or - this could potentially change some minds. So Becky Britt(ph) in Omaha, Nebraska, you know, swing straights, which I think is a great - I think that's a great term.

GROSS: Very good, very good. Network standards, are network standards any different for gay characters than they are for straight characters when it comes to embraces and the bedroom?

RANNELLS: Well, you know, it's funny that you say that because I, I didn't think so. And we have - we have not, to my knowledge, come up against any - there haven't been any questions. You know, Justin and I, there's a scene in our pilot that - where Justin and I are, you know, we are in bed, and we kiss, and it's actually a really loving moment about when we decide who is going to be the biological father of this child that we're creating.

And nobody even said anything about it, you know, as far as I know, at the network or standards and practices or anything. But then yesterday, I was recording the show on my DVR, just sort of, you know, scrolling through because it airs, you know, on the next week. And so I was recording it. And I noticed that in the description, it said intense sexual situations, which I thought was very odd.

I mean, it said, like, you know, strong, adult humor or something, which, you know, there - it does skew, you know, I suppose in that direction. But intense sexual situations, I thought that was odd, and I wanted to ask Ryan and Allie about that, about if they had - and I'm not sure if that's for everything, if that's, you know, if that's included on, you know, "Desperate Housewives."

Is that on, you know, the description of "Gray's Anatomy," or is that - was that because it's two gay men kissing? I don't know. I mean, we're not on a cable network. We're on NBC. So there's not - and we're not setting out to do an intense sexual show. That's just not the story we're telling.

But it'll be interesting to see sort of what the reception is of just, you know, simple physical contact or, you know, little intimacies.

GROSS: So Ellen Barkin plays the grandmother of the woman who becomes your surrogate. And Ellen Barkin, at least in the first episode of "The New Normal," is - she's, like, racist and homophobic. She's got a bad word for everybody.

RANNELLS: Yeah, yeah, she's an equal-opportunity offender.

GROSS: Yeah, and there's on - I mean, I thought it was, like, a funny joke. She sees what she thinks are two men walking down the street with a baby, and she thinks, like, that's disgusting, like, two men with a baby, like, they shouldn't be parents like that. And then her daughter says to her: Mom, they're lesbians.



GROSS: And so I wonder if there's, like a homophobic joke that strikes you as the funniest of the homophobic jokes in the pilot.

RANNELLS: In the pilot...

GROSS: Or further in.

RANNELLS: Well, she at one point calls us, calls Justin and I, salami smokers, which is, you know, so ridiculous but kind of hilarious. And what's better, I think, is that Ryan let me react rather honestly to that, which I said - I was, like, oh, that's a good one.


RANNELLS: Which - it was a last-minute change in the script, and that's what came out of my mouth when she said it. So he let me say that in the pilot: Oh, that's new. That's a good one. Because I think that particularly, like, as a - you know, as a gay man, I've heard, like, all - I feel like I've heard them all at this point. So you have to have a certain sense of humor about it, I suppose.

But our writers do come up with really creative ways to offend lots of people. So as the scripts keep coming in, it's - I think we're all still regularly surprised, even Ellen, that, you know, that she gets to say some of the things that she's going to say.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Rannells, and he stars in the new NBC series "The New Normal," about a gay couple who hires a surrogate so that they can have a child. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more, including talking about "The Book of Mormon."

RANNELLS: Sounds good.



GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Rannells. He stars in the new NBC comedy series "The New Normal." And he starred in "The Book of Mormon." He just left the show in June in order to do "The New Normal." Andrew Rannells, that show was so good, and you were so terrific in it. I was lucky enough to see you in the show.

RANNELLS: Thank you.

GROSS: And so before we go any further, I want to play something from the cast recording with you singing. And I think we'd hear "I Believe." "I Believe" is a parody of songs that are anthems of affirmation. Tell us what you think of this song and what songs you were thinking of when you sang it, or what songs you think Trey Parker and Matt Stone were thinking of when they co-wrote it.

RANNELLS: Sure. The song that, you know, I think that, you know, Trey sort of explained what the particularly the opening of "I Believe" is sort of a tribute to "I Have Confidence" from "The Sound of Music," where Julie Andrews is leaving the convent to go, you know, be this - be the nanny to the Von Trapps. So that was sort of always in my head.

But as I sort of worked on it more, it's - it is - there's sort of Disneyesque quality to it. It's usually like the Disney heroine has a moment of singing a song that she's sort of affirming her own belief for her own - belief in herself normally is what the song is. So I absolutely loved singing it every night. It was my favorite part of doing the show, was getting out there and belting that song out.

GROSS: And talk a little bit about the lyric.

RANNELLS: The lyric is all Trey and Bob, Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Bobby Lopez like to remind everyone that the chorus of the song lists facts from the Book of Mormon, sort of the fundamental beliefs of the Mormon Church are listed, but in sort of a one-two-three, you know, punch joke format. But they are all true. There's no joke in "I Believe," Trey liked to tell people.

GROSS: OK, so this is my guest, Andrew Rannells, from the original cast recording of "The Book of Mormon"


RANNELLS: (as Elder Price) (Singing) You cannot just believe part way. You have to believe in it all. My problem was doubting the Lord's will instead of standing tall. I can't allow myself to have any doubt. It's time to set my worries free. Time to show the world what Elder Price is about and share the power inside of me...

(as Price) (Singing) I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet. And I believe that the current president of the church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God. I am a Mormon, and, dang it, a Mormon just believes.

(as Price) (Singing) I know that I must go and do the things my God commands. I realize now why He sent me here. If you ask the Lord in faith, he will always answer you. Just believe in Him and have no fear.

(as Price) General, we have an intruder. He just walked right into camp.

(as Price) (Singing) I believe that Satan has a hold of you. I believe that the Lord God, has sent me here. And I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people. You can be a Mormon, a Mormon who just believes.

GROSS: That's Andrew Rannells from the cast recording of "The Book of Mormon." So what reaction would you get to that song every night?

RANNELLS: I mean, it was always - I mean, as a performer it was always a really thrilling thing to do because it was - I think the audience sort of - yeah, they enjoyed it. They - I think, you know, it was a great moment I think in the story and also sort of an unexpected moment for my character to sort of, you know, rebound with that much belief in his faith.

So yeah, the response was always very exciting, and then - so I think it was - you know, I got to perform that song at the Tony Awards, which was, you know, a huge, huge thrill for me. And it's such an honor to get to represent our show like that. And after that, it became sort of like the song from the Tonys.

So, you know, for a few months after that, I would start to sing it, and I would hear, you know, people in the audience, like, this is the one from - this is what he sang on the Tonys.


RANNELLS: So it was exciting. It took on sort of a different meaning for people. My mother has really been getting a kick out of - with Mitt Romney running for president on a lot of news programs, they show clips of me singing particularly that verse about in 1978 God changed his mind about black people. People like to play that on, like, news magazine shows. So she really likes to see that.

Oh, they talked about Mitt Romney, and they showed that clip of you singing. It's nice to be so closely linked.


GROSS: Along similar lines, Newsweek had a cover where it was you on the poster for "The Book of Mormon."

RANNELLS: Yeah, it was my body and Mitt's head.

GROSS: And Mitt Romney's head, yeah, which was odd. Did they ask you for permission? Did they tell you in advance even that that was going to happen?

RANNELLS: They must have asked someone. They didn't ask me. They didn't need to ask me. But they must have...

GROSS: So how'd you find out?

RANNELLS: It appeared in my dressing room. One of our publicity department for "The Book of Mormon" gave me a copy of it, and they said you're on the - you are sort of on the cover of Newsweek.


RANNELLS: No one knows it's you except for you, but yeah, there you are on the cover of Newsweek.

GROSS: So were you a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "South Park?"

RANNELLS: Huge, huge fan of that. I believe it started like my senior year of high school or something, or maybe my junior year of high school. And I just, you know, I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, so needless to say it was like, you know, nuts. Like everybody knew what that was; everybody was watching that.

And the movies were so funny, and "Team America" was so great, and they were such the crazy personalities, you know, going to the Oscars dressed as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez, like it's so bizarre. And, like, they just seemed so larger-than-life, and I never would have expected to get the chance to work with them. But it was so, so thrilling to do so.

GROSS: So you left the show in June, and I imagine that was in order to start "The New Normal." Were you ready to leave the show, and had you gotten tired of it? I always wonder no matter how wonderful a show is if you get tired of doing it every night.

RANNELLS: Yeah, I mean, there's a level of - I think we did close to - I personally did close to, like, 500 performances by the time that I left, which is - it's a lot. That's a lot eight times a week, and it really takes over your whole life, and it affects everything. It affects how you sleep and when you eat and when you go to the gym. And it takes over everything.

But at the same time, there was such a sense of ownership of the role and of the show that I felt so responsible for presenting it every night that I can't ever say that I got sick of it. And I've never really - I've never felt that doing a live show. I felt like it was somehow important and that I - you know, I needed to present this to the audience every night. So it was always, you know, truly, it was always truly a joy to do it every night.

But there does come a time where I - you don't want to overstay your welcome, and it started to become something larger, with a tour and then a company in Chicago, and they're talking about, you know, a company in London, and it started to get bigger. And I - I think that Josh and I - Josh Gad and I both sort of felt like that was kind of the natural time to maybe move on to our next project as the show sort of graduated into something larger.

And, you know, luckily we were both presented with opportunities to do so. I wouldn't have left had I not had this opportunity. I would have, you know, happily stayed doing "The Book of Mormon," but the timing just worked out as such that this - another amazing opportunity presented itself, and it all just felt like, you know, good timing to sort of leave.

GROSS: Yeah, you said you felt this sense of ownership. This was the first role that you had originated because your roles in "Hairspray" and "Jersey Boys," you know, other people had done it first.

RANNELLS: Yeah, yeah, it's a different - and that's a whole different skill, you know, to walk into a show that exists and try to make it your own as much as possible. That's hard, and it never really feels like it's yours. So to start something from scratch and to do something first that no one else has ever seen and to be so tied to a role as - it's exciting, but it's a little daunting sometimes.

You know, are people going to believe me as, you know, something else? Are people going to, you know, accept me as somebody else?

GROSS: Andrew Rannells will be back in the second half of the show. NBC will show a preview of his new series "The New Normal" tonight. The show premieres tomorrow night. Here's Rannells in another song from the cast recording of "The Book of Mormon." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


RANNELLS: (as Elder Price) (Singing) You all know the Bible is made of testaments old and new. You've been told it's just those two parts, or only one if you're a Jew. But what if I were to tell you there's a fresh third part out there, which was found by a hip new prophet, who had a little Donny Osmond flair.

(as Elder Price) (Singing) Have you heard of the All-American prophet? The blonde-haired, blue-eyed voice of God? He didn't come from the Middle East like those other holy men. No, God's favorite prophet was All-American.

(as Elder Price) (Singing) I'm gonna take you back to Biblical times, 1823. An American man names Joe, living on a farm in the holy land of Rochester, New York. You mean the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith? That's right, that young man spoke to God. He spoke to God? And God said, Joe, people really need to know that the Bible isn't two parts. There's a part three to the Bible, Joe. And I, God, have anointed you to dig up this part three that is buried by a tree on the hill in your backyard. Wow, God says go to your backyard and start digging. That makes perfect sense. Joseph...


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Andrew Rannells. He stars in the new NBC comedy series "The New Normal," about a gay couple that decides they're ready to have a child, so they hire a surrogate. NBC will preview the entire first episode tonight. Rannells got rave reviews and a Tony nomination for his starring role in the original cast of "The Book of Mormon." And he was really funny in his small part in "Girls."

So you had a great part in the first season of "Girls," the HBO series created by and starring Lena Dunham. And I want to play a clip from one of the scenes that you're in.


GROSS: So this is an episode in which she's found out that she has an STD and she's been told to like get in touch with people she's slept with. So you play her former college boyfriend.

She hasn't been in touch with you for a while, so you know, she calls you up, dinner reservations, nice restaurant, she kind of dresses up, she obviously wants to look really attractive, either she's carrying the torch a little bit for you or she's hoping that you're going to be a little jealous that she has a boyfriend. But in that scene you reveal to her that you're actually gay.


GROSS: And she is totally unprepared to hear that. So here's her response.


LENA DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) So I'm processing this. Does this mean that the whole time we were together, you were...

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) I mean are you - you're asking did I always want to have sex with men? Yes. Are you asking, did I - did I think about it when we were together? Yes.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) So then how were you able to have sex with me?

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Well, there's, there's a handsomeness to you. Just, all right, that's - maybe that wasn't the right...

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) Well, I'm very, very happy for you.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Thank you.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) I'm very...

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) It means a lot to me.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) But I do wish that you could have maybe figured this out a little bit sooner, like maybe when we were at liberal arts college, because there were a lot of gay men there.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) OK. OK. Now, I just feel like there's a lot of aggression coming off of you.

GROSS: And we're just going to fast forward a little deeper into this scene.


GROSS: So here's the rest of the scene.


DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) This is not the time for you to throw stones, because, you know what, I'm the one who was lied to.

RANNELLS: (Elijah Grant) By who?

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) By you, for two years.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Well, I think it was Maya Angelou who said we are only as blind as we want to be.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) So you're saying that I was supposed to know that you were gay? Because let me tell you something, this fruity little voice that you've put on...

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Excuse me?

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) a new thing.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Fruity little voice? Fruity little voice?

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) Keep you're (unintelligible) down.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) It is about the scarf?

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) It's not about the scarf. The scarf is not helping the situation. But it's about your tone of voice. It's about your mannerisms, and in my head..

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) I'm my authentic self. I am my authentic self.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) If you had been this gay in college, I would've known because I have to eyeballs, two ears...

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Really? You might want to take some step back to your other boyfriends. And not for nothing, maybe take a look at your dad.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) You didn't just...

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) I did.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) In what way does my father read gay to you?

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Well, he has a stud in his ear.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) He got it on a trip he took with a bunch of his male friends. I heard what that sounded like...

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Are we hearing -are we hearing ourselves?

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) I heard what that sounded like.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) I don't think we are.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) You know what I'm going to do from now on?

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) What are you going to do?

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) Ask people if they're gay before I have sex with them.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Good luck with that. Good luck with that. And don't be surprised if people ask you if you keep dressing like that.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) I'm going to have the last word in this situation.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) It was nice to see you.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) No.

RANNELLS: (as Elijah Grant) Your dad is gay.

DUNHAM: (as Hanna Horvath) No.

GROSS: I have heard that scene so many times. It is so funny. That's Andrew Rannells, my guest, along with Lena Dunham, in a scene from her series, "Girls." Did you improvise any of that?

RANNELLS: We did. We did improvise a lot of that. She was very generous in that sense. I mean the script was hilarious and then we did it, you know, several times as written. And Judd Apatow, who is the executive producer of the show, was also on the set that day and he sort of was feeding us some suggestions about where the conversation might be able to go, including, you know, me telling her that I think her dad is gay and things like that. He would just sort of come over and like whisper little things to each of us. And she's so, I just, I can't say enough good about that lady. She's just, I love Lena a lot and I think that she's so talented and so generous to work with, and so we just had a lot of fun, and she's really fun to play with.

GROSS: Who came up with that line of like, well, there's a certain handsomeness?


RANNELLS: I was sad - I'm sad to say that that was my own creation. She recently, they're going to release the DVD of the first season and she and another producer, executive producer, Jenni Konner, asked if they could include my audition on the DVD. I think everybody's audition, but my audition was also going to be in there, which included a lot of improvising. And you kind of black out you audition. You know, I don't remember half the things that I said that day. So it was really terrifying to actually have to like sit and watch it because you never see those audition tapes. But I had to sit and watch my audition and I said that line to her that she was, there's a handsomeness to her that allowed me to have sex with her. So horrifying. So...


RANNELLS: So mean. But yes, that was - sadly, that was my creation.

GROSS: So you've done three Broadway musicals. "The Book of Mormon," "Hairspray," and "Jersey Boys."


GROSS: Did you grow up wanting to sing on Broadway?

RANNELLS: Yeah, that's kind of all I ever wanted to do. At a very early age I knew I wanted to be an actor and then more specifically that I wanted to be on Broadway and be in musicals. So I moved to New York right after high school to go to college in Manhattan and that was always my goal. I just wanted, I wanted to be on Broadway and I wanted to be a leading man on Broadway, and that was the dream. Yeah.

GROSS: So growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, how did you know you wanted to be on Broadway?

RANNELLS: Well, I was very fortunate that there was a children's theater right by my house that my grade school took field trips to, so we were at a very young age exposed to live theater, and they had a really great program of acting classes and you could audition to be in these shows. And so very quickly I knew that I wanted to be a part of that community. And my parents were, you know, none of my other siblings had done that but my parents were very supportive of that. I think maybe because of its proximity to our home - it was very close, so the, you know, the extracurricular was easy to get to. But they were always really supportive of it, my family, and so they just encouraged me to kind of keep going and then that turned into, you know community theater as I got older and that turned into like local TV commercials, and it was just always the thing that I wanted to do and I just, yeah, I was fortunate that I actually got to do it.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Rannells. He stars in the new comedy series "The New Normal." NBC will preview the entire first episode tonight.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Rannells and he stars in the new NBC comedy series "The New Normal." He also starred in "The Book of Mormon."

Your new series, "The New Normal," is about how untraditional families are becoming the new normal.


GROSS: And you and your partner are one of those nontraditional families and you're using a surrogate to try to have a child. So how normal or, quote, "abnormal" was your family when you were growing up? Normal...

RANNELLS: I mean...

GROSS: ...or nontraditional, whatever, whatever.

RANNELLS: I mean we were very traditional. It was - it's, you know, two parents, two heterosexual parents. I have two older sisters, an older brother and a younger sister, so you know, the five of us kids and my parents. So we were sometimes, I remember as a kid, you know, going to restaurants, you know, occasionally when we would go out to eat and like seven people was always like a big deal. I was always aware of the fact that I came from a big family. There's a lot of kids and oh, how do you do that? How do you, you know. But mostly it was very traditional. You know, we all went to the same grade school. Now, I think that my family, the thing that sort of separated us was our sense of humor, I think particularly for my father, ran a little dark. So I think we all - we were raised with a severe sense of sarcasm, which often got us into trouble. But yeah, I think that that maybe is the thing that set us apart, that our family was, well, maybe a little, more boisterous and a little more irreverent than the other Catholic families in Omaha.

GROSS: When did you figure out that you were gay?

RANNELLS: Kind of immediately. I mean the earliest memory I have of that honestly is watching maybe "Clash of the Titans" or "Grease 2" - watching that and really having like strange feelings about Harry Hamlin and Maxwell Caulfield. And I was, you know, four or five at the time, and just like having a crush and like, you know, sort of understanding what that was and verbalizing that crush, which I've never really spoken to my family about specifically, but like they were aware of the fact that like at four I had a crush on Maxwell Caulfield - like that was a thing, and not like I wanted to be him, like I wanted to date him. Like I wanted, you know. So I think that they - and, you know, so when I came out when I was like, you know, 18, and I, you know, graduated from high school and I felt like that was the time to like officially say it, I surprised zero people in my family.


RANNELLS: There's not a surprise to be had. No, everybody was well aware of that.

GROSS: So what did they say since they already figured that out?

RANNELLS: They were all very polite.


RANNELLS: They were very supportive and said exactly what, you know - and I realize how incredibly lucky I am that I come from a family that it was a nonissue. And particularly because you might think that, OK, so Nebraska, Catholic, like that probably didn't go so well for you, but it really, they were so great, and continue to be so great. And it never really - I mean I remember my dad saying that he believed that it was a choice, but that he also loved me, and that he was, you know, he would support me no matter what I chose to do. And then about six months later he said I've been thinking about this a lot, and it clearly is not a choice. This is clearly the way you were born, because as I, you know, replay your childhood in my head, I know that you've been telling us this since you were born. So no, this is not a choice and I, you know, I love you and I will always love you. So it...

GROSS: That must have been great to hear that your father thought it through and changed his mind based on the evidence that he'd seen.

RANNELLS: Yeah. He - and it was after I went away to college and I came home for Christmas and he told me very, you know, very plainly that he had been thinking about it a lot since I left and that was his response to it after that.

GROSS: So after high school I think he went briefly to college but then left for New York, hoping to make it, hoping to, you know, will fill your dream of getting in a Broadway show, which, of course, you did. But when you got to New York, where did you start?

RANNELLS: Well, I went to college. I went to Marymount Manhattan, which is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and that was a great introduction to the city and it was a great safety net to sort of be there. And I went there for two years. And at a certain point I just sort of realized, I guess, that I was, you know, I was going into great debt to get a BFA in acting. And I was like, what is that? What is that even going to be when I'm finished? And what is that going to - so I started, I just started auditioning and I got a couple jobs and got a, you know, I got an equity card and joined the union and I dropped out of school. And I thought, well, let's just do it. Like if, you know, if I had been really passionate about studying anything else, I completely would have stayed in college and I would have gotten that degree. But the fact that my passion was going to be acting, you know, I was paying for college myself, and I was like, I just don't, I can't justify going this deep into debt for something that might not mean anything. So I want to just try it. I want to try and see if I'm good enough to do this before I invest anymore financially in this. And, you know, luckily I was given the, you know, the proper encouragement via jobs that I just sort of - I kept going. But my career definitely, the early years were a little scattershot in terms of - it was a little regional theater, it was a lot of voiceovers, it was a lot of, you know, random day jobs. I mean, it was hard. It was hard to kind of scrap around, and then once "Hairspray" sort of happened, then it all kind of clicked into place.

GROSS: Were you ever in a Broadway chorus before getting the lead?

RANNELLS: I was. I was in - in "Hairspray" I played - I played the pivotal role of Fender, who is a boy on the show with glasses. That was the kid with glasses. So I was, you know, I was in the ensemble and I understudied four different characters. And, so that was a great. It was a great training, I suppose, in terms of - and also humility. It was a good lesson in humility of how to, you know, be the star one night and then go back to the ensemble the next night and how to do that without any hard feelings.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask for your honest opinion about the state of the new Broadway musical.

RANNELLS: All right. I feel like "The Book of Mormon" was a really great sort of kick in the pants for Broadway, and I hope that it encourages other writers to come in and experiment with new stories and new scores. You know, having been a part of an original musical based on film with "Hairspray," it was a huge hit and very creative and really successful, and then also being a part of a huge hit with "Jersey Boys," it was a jukebox musical using an existing score - also, you know, a lot of fun. But I think the really cool part about "The Book of Mormon" was that it was a brand new story and a brand new score that nobody heard, and I feel like that's fallen out of fashion a little bit, I think, because producers are afraid to take chances on new stories and new scores, but I hope that that changes.

I hope that there, you know, are more new shows. And I know there are a few this fall that are brand new. I know "Chaplin" is, you know, it's an original story and an original score, and I wish them luck and I applaud those producers for taking a chance on something that's brand new.

GROSS: Well, Andrew Rannells, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

RANNELLS: Such an honor to talk with you. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Andrew Rannells stars in the new NBC comedy series "The New Normal." A preview of the entire first episode will be shown tonight. The program will have its official premier tomorrow night.

So there's good news for Sondheim fans like Andrew Rannells and me. A new recording of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Merrily We Roll Along" was recently released. It's from a production that was presented by Encores at New York City Center last February for a limited run.

When "Merrily" opened on Broadway back in 1981, it lasted only 16 performances. Nevertheless, some Sondheim fans consider "Merrily" one of his best musicals. So here's a song from the new recording of the Encore's production of "Merrily We Roll Along." This is "Not a Day Goes By" performed by Betsy Wolf, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Colin Donnell.


BETSY WOLFE, COLIN DONNELL, CELIA KEENAN-BOLGER: (Singing) Not a day goes by. Not a single day. But you're somewhere a part of my life and it looks like you'll stay. As the days go by. I keep thinking when does it end. That it can't get much better much longer but it only gets better and stronger and deeper and nearer and simpler and freer and richer and clearer and now not a day goes by. Not a blessed day. But you somewhere come into my life and you don't go away. And I have to say if you do I'll die. I want day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day till the days go by. Till the days go by. Till the days go by.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Memphis has been a music town ever since anyone can remember, and it's had places to record that music ever since there have been records. Some of its recording studios - Sun, Stax and Hi - are well-known, but American Studios, which produced its share of hits, remains obscure. Rock historian Ed Ward has its story.


KING CURTIS: Today's special is Memphis soul stew. We sell so much of this people wonder what we put in it. We're going to tell you right now. Give me about a half a teacup of bass. Now I need a pound of fat back drums. Now give me four tablespoons of boiling Memphis guitar. This is going to taste all right.

Now just a little pinch of organ. Now give me a half a pint of horn.

ED WARD: King Curtis had it right on his hit "Memphis Soul Stew." Each one of the musicians he calls in to play had appeared on plenty of iconic Memphis-based hits recorded where this one was - at American Studios, 827 Thomas Street, a slouchy, windowless one-story building you'd probably walk right past.

It had been opened in 1964 by Chips Moman, a musician from Georgia who'd learned engineering and gone to work at Stax Records in its early days, only to lose his job before it really got going. Unlike Stax, Moman's studio wasn't connected to a record label; anyone was free to use it, which explains why the first hit to come out of American was by a local rock band.


THE GENTRYS: (Singing) I keep on dancing. Keep on. Keep on doing the jerk right now. Shake it, shake it baby. Come on and show me how you work. Now you're in motion. Keep on and do the locomotion, yeah. Don't wait. Shake it, shake it, baby. Yeah. Keep on. Keep on dancing and prancing. Keep on. Keep on dancing and prancing. Keep on. Keep on dancing and prancing. Keep on.

WARD: The Gentrys' "Keep on Dancing" managed to hit Number Four on the national pop charts in 1965, even though - or maybe because - the lyrics were incomprehensible and the sound was awful. The next year, Moman and his guitarist friend Tommy Cogbill were tapped for a session in Muscle Shoals, and met Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who were not only studio musicians but songwriters looking for people to record their songs.

Word was getting out that American had some top-notch players, all of whom were white, oddly enough, and this was attracting artists, so Penn and Oldham started hanging around. They must have been paying attention when Goldwax Records' Quinton Claunch brought his latest discovery in.


JAMES CARR: (Singing) I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody but I just can't keep it, Lord, to myself now. For as long as I've been running around, I finally met a little girl that really got me down now. Baby, you got my mind messed up now. Little girl, little girl, you sure got my mind messed up now. I go to bed, Lord, and I can't sleep.

(Singing) Sit down at the table, oh Lord, I can't eat there. Somebody please, please help me now. Oh, oh, oh, oh.

WARD: James Carr's "You've Got My Mind Messed Up" established him, although today he's best remembered for "Dark End of the Street," which Penn and Oldham not only wrote, but Penn sang harmony on. Up in New York, Atlantic Records took notice. They had an uneasy relationship with Stax and were always looking for other Southern studios to record in.

In 1967 and '68, most of their top soul stars were at American, and so was another of their artists who was trying to change direction.


DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: Billy Ray was a preacher's son and when his daddy would visit he'd come along. When they gathered around and started talking, that's when Billy would take me walking. Out through the back yard we'd go walking. Then he'd look into my eyes. Lord knows to my surprise.

(Singing) The only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man. The only boy who could ever teach me was the son of a preacher man. Yes, he was. He was. Hmm, yes, he was. Being good isn't always easy, no matter how hard I try. When he started sweet talking to me, he'd come and tell me everything is all right. He'd kiss and tell me everything is all right.

(Singing) Can I get away again tonight? The only one who could ever reach me...

WARD: "Son of a Preacher Man" was Dusty Springfield's debut on Atlantic, and it - and the entire album it was on, "Dusty in Memphis" - was recorded at American.

The list of hits cut at American during this period is astonishing. "The Letter" by the Box Tops, "Angel of the Morning" by Merilee Rush, "Hooked on a Feeling" by BJ Thomas, "Skinny Legs and All" by Joe Tex, and "I'm in Love" by Wilson Pickett are just a few.

But the local seal of approval came in January and February of 1969, when Memphis' biggest hitmaker, in serious need of continuing the career revival he'd had with his 1968 television special, rented the studio and the Memphis Boys, and had Chips Moman produce an album for him.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) That big eight-wheeler rolling down the track means your true loving daddy, he ain't coming back. He's moving on. He's a rolling on. You were flying too high for my little ol' sky so I'm moving on. But some day, baby, when you've had your play you're going to want your daddy but your daddy will say keep moving on. Keep rolling on. You were flying too high for my little ol' sky so I'm moving on. Come on, baby.

WARD: Chips Moman always insisted he wasn't a businessman, and by 1972 he'd proven it to everyone's satisfaction. The final blow came when Atlantic didn't renew its contract with American, and Moman sold the place. He and a lot of the amazing crew of musicians he'd worked with wound up in Nashville, where they all became indispensable to stars like Waylon Jennings. But American Studios was history.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. The music he played is from the Ace CD "Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios."

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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