tonys 2012

Neil Patrick Harris on Hosting the Tonys and Guesting in Sleep No More

Photo: Stevan Keane

When one checks into the McKittrick Hotel, home of the full-immersion dance-theater phantasm Sleep No More, one expects the unexpected. Still, one does not expect to be pulled into a small room with Neil Patrick Harris, dressed as a hotel porter, tearfully exploring the “androgynous side of himself.” (Somehow, James Franco seems more likely.) The quintuple-threat How I Met Your Mother star and once-and-future Tony host was “so envious” when he heard Alan Cumming had done Sleep (as have Evan Rachel Wood and Dita Von Teese), he asked for a walk-on. And he’s going to do it again soon — though he won’t say exactly when. “If there’s ever any production of theirs they want me to be a part of, I am, by default, their lackey.”

How’d a celebrity quintuple-threat TV star and Tony host end up guest-starring in a highfalutin haunted house?
A friend had first told me about the show in Boston when it was there. I’m not only a wild fan of immersive theater by design, but I’m a producer of similar shows, like Accomplice. When I first saw Sleep No More in New York, I was euphoric, literally buzzing on a molecular level. I was immediately obsessed: I had to find out where other rooms were; it drove me crazy that I’d missed whole quadrants. So I went back. Then I saw Alan Cumming had done [a guest spot] for a Halloween show and I was so envious. So I asked.

To be a performer?
They let me be the Porter for the night, but not the Porter’s whole “track.” Just the Porter’s one-on-one with select audience members, which is a very emotional experience, for the performer and the audience member who gets pulled into it. Normally it’s done twice a night. I did it 21 times in one performance. But now I want to learn the whole track, all the dances involved, the Porter’s entire cycle. 

How did different people react to you?
In this specific one-on-one scene, it’s in the Porter’s quarters, and he’s revealing a very … androgynous side to himself, shall we say. So I think the gay men [in the audience] were maybe a little more willing to have their space interfered with. The women were more caring and wanted to play along, you know: “Oh, don’t be sad!” And generally speaking, the straight guys were more … conflicted.  Because I don’t think they were prepared for that intimacy. It certainly didn’t demand anything from them, and it didn’t put them in an uncomfortable position, but some had problems with being in close quarters with someone who’s crying. So I couldn’t do it the same way every time, and it felt very improvised and yet very dark and very interesting to watch people’s reactions … I feel like a douche bag saying all this pretentious stuff about something I literally rehearsed for an afternoon and was done.

Were these audience members reacting not just to a crying man in close quarters … but to the sudden appearance of Neil Patrick Harris crying in close quarters?
One guy was my favorite: I did the whole bit, clutching him and weeping and whispering in his ear, then I pushed him out the door, the way I’m supposed to, and the guy turned and left, the way he’s supposed to. And then he came back and whispered to me, “No one is gonna fuckin’ believe this happened to me.” He was a perfect audience member — he let the one-on-one happen as designed, he was very affected by it while not being overinvolved. And then he came back and said that. That was my favorite moment.  Then I went on and performed it for another dozen people.

So you’re going to do it again, we hear.
I would never give a fixed date for it, and would never even mention it if it happened, except to my friends. I would never want the reception to be that they’re stunt-casting the show to sell tickets. It would be frankly, just for me to get to experience it again, on my end.

How goes Tony prep?
We’re knee deep in it right now, trying to solidify creative content, which is exhausting.

Have you and the producers chosen a songwriter or team yet?
No, not yet. I tried to get Lin Manuel [Miranda] to do it again, but he’s got a show that’s moving to Broadway, Bring It On*, so he’s busy in rehearsal. 

You’ve definitely turned the Tonys into something we watch from the edge of the couch — especially the instant lyrics of the finale.
Yeah, onstage, you gotta work for a living, and it’s fun to represent that as best I can. I like to fill the Tonys with water cooler moments, so you can say, “Did you see that?” And I think ending an awards show with “That’s our show, g’nite!” is kinda lame. My big fear is just being compared to myself: “He wasn’t as good as he was last year!”

* The original post misstated the name of Miranda’s next musical.

This story appeared in the June 4, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Neil Patrick Harris on the Tonys, Sleep No More