It was a theater lovefest for the ages on Feb. 3 at the Pierre Hotel in New York, where a bevy of stars pulled out all the stops to honor their friend and co-worker, modern Renaissance man Neil Patrick Harris. Harris was honored as part of the Drama League’s annual Musical Celebration of Broadway, that has in the past honored Audra McDonald, Liza Minnelli, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Harris, looking dapper in a couture suit and still holding a champagne glass from the VIP champagne toast that just ended, told Variety that despite his prolific career in television and film, he returns to Broadway because he is a “big fan and proponent of the theater community.”
“It blows my mind that people with such ravenous talent, like Audra McDonald, choose to not take the money job but take the creative job and work ridiculously hard every single night for the love of the game,” Harris said. “When I was younger, I would come and I would see ten shows in eight days, and I was just amazed at how I would be so entranced and enamored by performances, and when the curtain went down, they would walk up the street and get a sandwich at the deli. They’re like circus performers, they’re so talented, and yet committed to just what they do, and I just love it. Whenever I get to promote it, I do.
“It’s not the same when you’re on set with a crew, and you can fail a lot, and as long as they eventually get everything and they can edit it together later,” Harris said. “That’s a wider tightrope for me. The thin tightrope of theater, if someone’s paying $200 to see you that night, they’re judging harshly from the very moment you come out. You’re required to be working hard all the time. And I’m into that.”
Harris had just arrived in New York after filming an episode of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” and rushed into his first day of rehearsal for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which will be opening on Broadway in the spring. Harris told reporters that he spent the day feeling “wildly insecure and out of place, like the first day of school.” Despite this, he said the first day went great, but he has a crazy schedule coming up. “We’ve done a lot of work part and parcel, and now we’re finally in it for one week to stage the whole show, and then I have a month off to film the last episodes of ‘HIMYM,’ come back and start rehearsing.”
“This is just what I need, another night where people are telling me that I’m talented,” he joked, explaining that he often feels awkward simply with people singing “Happy Birthday” to him. “It’s a very uncomfortable situation! A cake is coming at you, and everyone is looking at you and smiling and singing a song, and it’s like, ‘how do I react? Do you take it in? Do you sing along?’ This is akin to that.”
Style and fashion guru Tim Gunn, who has cameoed several times on “HIMYM” as Barney’s personal stylist, said Harris is always dressed to the nines in real life. “He’s always well put together!” Gunn said. “He has a great physique and he’s a handsome guy. What could not look good? I’ve never seen him in sweats, but he’d probably look great in that, too!”
Gunn, like everyone else at the dinner, had nothing but praise for Harris as a person and a professional, and described him as “peerless” in the industry right now. “In some ways, he’s like an old fashion star,” Gunn gushed. “He’s prepared, he’s on time or early, he’s so respectful of everyone, he’s the new pro. That’s unusual these days… And how many people do you know how are masters of television, film, and Broadway? I can count them on one finger!”
In his tribute to Harris later in the night, Gunn lauded Harris for his status as a gay icon and said he has helped cast the LGBT community in a new light. “What Neil and David Burtka [Harris’s fiancé] have done for the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign is more profound than what anyone else has done,” Gunn said. “Their story is helping America understand that gay people deserve to raise a family as much as anyone else.”
Kal Penn, Harris’ former co-star on both “HIMYM” and in the Harold and Kumar movie trilogy, had similar words of praise for Harris. “He has the best attitude,” Penn said. “I’m the kind of actor where I overthink things. Neil’s the kind of guy who just has fun doing it. I would call him for advice on whether or not I should take a particular project, and that’s always his advice: ‘Are you having fun, do you like to do this? Then yes.’ And he brings that to every moment.”
Harris is one of the most recognizable names in all facets of show business right now, a fact that was made the butt of jokes about Harris’s prolific hosting skills. But more telling were the sincere video tributes from the likes of David Hyde Pierce, Amanda Seyfried, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J.J. Abrams and John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the libretto for “Hedwig,” and originated the role in the 2001 movie and the 1998 musical.
The concert portion of the evening was just as heartfelt, as Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis performed, and Sesame Street cast members Abby and Telly (along with their human support systems, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph and Martin P. Robinson) sang a re-written version of the classic “It’s Not Easy Being Green” called “It’s Not Easy Being Neil.”
Stephen Colbert began his short segment making jokes about the Super Bowl in a room full of consummate theater aficionados, a fact that even Colbert acknowledged was rather silly. Colbert lauded Harris for holding him together during a whirlwind rehearsal and performance of “Company” at Lincoln Center in 2011. “His eyes were the twin anchors that kept me onstage and got me through,” Colbert said.
Undoubtedly, the most emotional moment of the night was when Burtka stood up to sing “Marry Me A Little,” also from “Company,” to Harris, and declared at the end, “let’s put these rings,” pointing to his right hand, “here,” pointing to his left, and passionately embraced his partner to thunderous applause.
The evening ended with several current and past members of the cast of “Rent,” including Anthony Rapp, singing “Seasons of Love,” and McDonald, who declared herself the “whitest black person ever,” performed a “wrap-up rap” in the style that Harris often performs at the end of his numerous hosting gigs.
Other performers of the evening included Zachary Levi, Krysta Rodriguez, Judith Light, Rachael Harris, Cady Huffman, Beck Ann Baker, and “Hedwig” director Michael Mayer.