Best of 2013 (Behind the Scenes): Neil Patrick Harris and producers talk Tonys opening number

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Image Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

The musical number is a tried-and-true awards show opener. But last June, it got taken to new heights when viewers were treated to one of the most elaborate, thrilling, and catchy performances of all when Neil Patrick Harris hosted the Tony Awards for the fourth time.

The “Bigger” number celebrated the best of Broadway and had audiences both at home and in the theater on their feet by the end of the seven-and-a-half-minute performance. (Just check out Debra Messing’s reaction shot to sum up most people’s feelings about the song). With all the songs, magic tricks and cameos the song would have been impressive regardless, but the fact that the number went live after only getting to run it fully through a few times makes it worthy of a standing ovation.

“That’s what makes the Tonys so invigorating,” Harris tells EW. “With almost no rehearsal you’re counting on people to execute well. But these are people who execute well every single night. So they’re used to that kind of pressure and they thrive on it.”

In separate conversations, Harris, as well as Tonys telecast executive producer Ricky Kirshner and Tonys telecast director/executive producer Glenn Weiss, walked EW through what happens when you sketch out a number via Facetime, put each part together separately, and only get a few precious moments to run it all together before curtain.

Click here for more of EW.com’s Best of 2013 coverage.

As told by: Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Kirshner, and Glenn Weiss

RICKY KIRSHNER: It’s about [November] that people ask us what the opening number will be, and we think we have an idea about what the big shows will be, and then the shows come out and we realize we have no idea what the nominated shows will be. But I think we started planning that number in February or March.

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: I knew we were going to Radio City from the Beacon [Theater] after having been there for two years. I was in my car driving, and I remember thinking, “Well, if it’s moving to Radio City, there’s your opening number.” You can embrace the largeness of it all. So I was driving and thought, “Why not do an Irish quick ditty, [sings] ‘It’s bigger, it’s bigger, This show is so much bigger!’”And then I do a lot of quick verbal acrobatics to instill faith that I know what I’m doing, because I can rattle off a prompter pretty fast. And then go back to the chorus: “It’s bigger! It’s bigger!” So that was sort of the impetus of it.

GLENN WEISS: Look, when you’re putting together a number for the Tonys, it can be host driven or it can not be host driven. When you have a guy like Neil, it’s great because he comes in with all this talent and ability and a magic act, and all that stuff, so he’s quite an asset. And you want to use that asset as much as you can. That said, we put together this team of people. Neil was shooting a movie in New Mexico for a lot of this time, so we were doing a lot of Facetime and all that stuff. As a group there was writer Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt who did the music and Rob Ashford who was putting together the choreography of all the Broadway stuff. There really was a terrific team collaboration going on with terrific back and forth.

HARRIS: Once we decided who we wanted to go with, and Lin and Tom were available and signed on, they wanted to know from me what I was thinking. For example, where did the sense of humor want to go and how did we want to structure it? So we just sat on phone conferences and just free associated things that I thought were fun to have. We kind of worked backwards, we thought about what the end picture would be like, how massive and big it would be and then we figured out how to get everyone involved. Rob Ashford thought of the idea of having the big, giant Tony that I spin. So that was worked into it, and from there you can kind of say, “Why don’t we have each of the nominated shows involved somehow?”

KIRSHNER: We were all chatting one day and someone made the joke, “You know, [Mike] Tyson was on Broadway this year. Do you think we can get him?” And I said, “Sure, if you can write to it.” I think he said, “Yes” before we even got the whole question out. He was completely game and when he got here was totally into it, camped it up and really played into it.

HARRIS: We started seeing who we could get involved given the shortened rehearsal schedule for everyone. At one point, we had the mayor on a trapeze swing, and there was a reference to that [that we had to get rid of]. We also had to get rid of Elphaba from it because the Wicked people declined to participate. So there were lots of interesting back-and-forths. For a while I wanted the naked guy guitar player [from Times Square]. I thought it would be funny if he was there by the end. And the weird not-Elmo Elmo. But they made me rein it in a little more. [Laughs]

WEISS: It was rehearsed piecemeal with all the different groups. It didn’t all come together until the morning of the show, which is incredible for what it became. Every section or segment was rehearsed onto itself. And then Sunday morning in front of an audience — because we had an audience for the dress rehearsal — it came together on stage.

HARRIS: I would back up a day, maybe two days, because I think one of the most intense times for that was one maybe three-hour block where we had all of the people who were in the end of the song,  and we taught them all individually the choreography they had to learn. There were like 200 people in one big rehearsal space. They split them into two groups, taught the first group the number, sent them away, and taught the second group the number. This is in like 20-minute segments. Then I showed up and literally had 30 minutes to teach the entire act with all of them. So we got like two passes at everything. My mind was mushy — I was shaking hands and meeting people and then doing handstands and jumping through hoops. As soon as they were done it was like, “Great! See you on Sunday.” So Annies and Matildas would come in and learn this part, and 15 minutes later they were gone. That was all the time we got.

KIRSHNER: The magic trick took a lot of rehearsal and [to get] it just right. In our multiple rehearsals, we never pulled it off 100% perfectly until live night. And then it went exactly right. That was really great and a terrific feeling. I think the magic trick would be up there as something that was a little nerve-wracking. And honestly, the most nerve-wracking thing was everybody being together, the aisles filled with cast, the audience full — because even in our rehearsal in the morning, we had an audience downstairs but not upstairs. So really, when everything got together and it was show night and you were live, it just was a terrific theatrical moment that just felt so good.

HARRIS: My best friend is an illusionist named Ed Alonzo and he’s worked on all the magic stuff I’ve ever done. It was his prop and he knew it would work —  there’s just a bit of a learning curve, and I didn’t really have all the time to learn it. With a prop that big, it was hard to practice it often because it had to be practiced on stage, but there was a lot of other parts on stage that had to be rehearsed as well. Thankfully the amazing dancer  knew how to pull the cord so it didn’t happen prematurely. That would have been the worst. If the walls didn’t drop, that would be fine with me, but if they dropped early that would have been embarrassing. That didn’t happen. Yahoo!

The hardest part for me was catching my breath before I had to speak after that Tom Hooper close-up joke. I had just completed all of the dancing, the magic trick, dancing down the aisle with the Newsies and had to speak all of that super-fast patter at the end, which was very effective, but I had to act like I wasn’t as winded as I was. So I had to really time my breaths as I was running up there. Thankfully, after the Tom Hooper joke, the audience laughed harder than I anticipated, which was the greatest thing in the world. I think you can see me half-smile because I’m like, “Great, I can breathe.”

WEISS: I have to say if there was one greatest feeling ever, it was the audience response that follows [the whole number]. The look on people’s faces, and the ovation and all that stuff was insanely gratifying. Honestly, it was just a lot of hard work from many, many people that went into this. And when you do something like that and it scores, and it works like it should, and then the audience is on their feet and just loving it, it’s just a really terrific feeling.

HARRIS:  It was nice to see Glenn laughing as he just keeps cutting to people [in footage of Weiss directing uploaded to YouTube]. We had people everywhere, so I’m glad he got the time to show how expansive the number was. I was overwhelmed with how much they were applauding. I just didn’t want to slip off the Tony and break my collarbone!

Check out the end result below:

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