Tony-nominated actor Andrew Rannells projects the confidence of a man who can do it all — but this Sunday, we found out that he can’t jump.
That is, if he’s auditioning for a role in “White Men Can’t Jump: The Musical,” a fictional Broadway musical within the world of “Girls.” It’s an opportunity that represents a real chance for Elijah (Rannells) to ascend to a new level of success, just as everyone else on the show finds themselves growing up.
When it comes to Season 6, Episode 7 of “Girls,” titled “The Bounce,” Rannells was quick to give credit for the hilarious audition sequence to director Richard Shepard and choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall (the latter of whom has been working with the series for years, stretching back to the Season 3 episode “Beach House”). But Rannells also revealed that the inspiration for the sequence came directly from his own personal experience as a working musical theater actor — one who shines brightest as a singer, not a dancer.
Rannells wrapped on “Girls” last September. But he was still able to recall how he found himself reliving one of his most painful audition memories, as well as how he managed to get the show’s tribute to tragically cancelled NBC series “Smash” into the mix and what his personal audition songs were, back in the day. And while he doesn’t reveal exactly what might happen at the end of the series, he does tease that “Girls” wraps up “in a really smart way.”
When you first heard about the concept of “White Men Can’t Jump: The Musical,” what was your reaction?
We discussed this idea of Elijah auditioning for a musical, and I’ve managed at this point to keep my musical theater life and my television life pretty separate — but about a year ago this time, I went into the “Girls” writers room here in LA and we talked about different audition experiences. And I told them the story about auditioning for a musical called “Lysistrata Jones,” that I ended up doing out of town. It came to Broadway later.
It was a dance call where, in the middle of the day, they introduced basketball, and I was like, “Wait, what the fuck’s happening?” Everybody could do it. Everybody had these secret basketball skills, except for me. And it was the most terrifying audition of my life. So I told Lena this story, and then lo and behold, it showed up in the episode. It was a special kind of hell to get to relive that, because I still don’t have any basketball skills and I’m still not a great dancer. To be forced to do it all on television, it’s even better. But I was happy to be exploited in that way.
When you told the writers’ room that story, did you have any idea that it would lead to that?
At this point in my relationship with Lena Dunham I’ve realized that everything is fair game. Any time that you’re speaking to her, you really run a risk of it showing up in a script at some point. [laughs] So I had an inkling that maybe this would show up. And look, it’s a funny story. I was happy to do it.
In terms of the “White Men Can’t Jump” aspect, were you surprised that they decided to somewhat include a commentary how Broadway is just nothing but movie musicals?”
I thought that it was spot on because it’s a type of thing that sounds so ridiculous, but in reality, I’m sure someone is trying to make that into a musical, like already [laughing] I think Laurie Miller and Tammy Thager, who wrote that episode — I’m not sure which one of them came up with that particular title, but I was like, “Oh, that’s correct.” Because that actually seems like it might be a thing.
Well, given that the idea of doing basketball in a musical theater concept has already apparently come up…
Yeah, we did a whole show that involved two basketball sequences. It was a very strange combination, musical theater and basketball, but it’s happened.
When you were actually in the musical, were you asked to learn basketball moves?
Oh yeah, I was terrible at it. There was a moment in the show that I was supposed to make multiple baskets and only half of the shots that we did, did I make the correct points. But it was terrible because I would miss the shot and then the scoreboard would have to change, because that was a plot point. My friend Patty Murin, who played the lead of that show, also had to play basketball and she never missed a shot — and then there’s this 6’2” asshole who couldn’t do anything, so yeah. It brings back a lot of painful memories.
I’m sorry I’m laughing at them.
[laughing] That’s alright.
You do get this really beautiful shining moment when you audition with “Let Me Be Your Star” — whose idea was it for you to sample “from the hit show ‘Bombshell’ from the hit TV show ‘Smash’?”
I’m very proud to say that was my idea. We had talked about what the song should be and they asked me, what would you sing? What audition song did I sing when I first started out? And then it just sort of hit me because Jenni Konner and I both had a real healthy obsession with the TV show “Smash” — I was like ‘What, am I an idiot? I should just sing ‘Let Me Be Your Star.’” We very quickly found out who had the rights to it and if we could do it — like a couple days later, I found a good 16-bar cut of it and it was all done.
Marc Shaiman, who wrote that song, actually came to the set that morning. He gave me my first job on Broadway, in “Hairspray,” so it was very nice of him to come and support me that morning.
Jenni commented on Twitter that she is decidedly team Ivy. I’m guessing you’re the same?
Yes, we are both very much Team Ivy. Megan Hilty, who plays Ivy, is a good friend of mine.
Based on your experience, on a technical level is “Let Me Be Your Star” a good audition song?
Yeah. I think it is a good audition song, particularly in that context when you have 16 bars — you get a very short amount of time to sort of do all of your tricks. So generally, when you’re picking an audition song like that, you find something that shows off the biggest part of your voice. Certainly, that’s a good song to do it with.
What were your audition songs before?
Oh god, when I first started? I sang a mean 16-bar cut of “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. I was always very proud of myself that it was so unexpected and not musical theater-y and I would sing it even if it was inappropriate. And I would sing [Billy Vera and the Beaters’] “At This Moment.” I refer to it as the love theme from “Family Ties.” I would always pick pop songs and would sing them even if they were not correct for the audition — which didn’t always get me a lot of jobs, but sometimes they did.
Looking back over the course of the series, it feels like the show’s been a real home for you.
Oh yeah. Very much so. I mean it was very unexpected. I was meant to do one episode and then kept coming back and in Season 4 became a series regular after a little stint in LA. It’s just been the gift that keeps on giving, working with those women. I feel extremely fortunate that I fell into it the way that I did. It was my first job on television and I couldn’t have asked for a better one.
In terms of Elijah’s arc, how do you feel it came together?
I’m really happy with the way it came together cause I feel like, he was the last person to realize that he has to get his shit together and he does so rather quickly, which was nice. It was nice to see him get his reward after flailing around for years in New York.
I think that Lena winds up the series in a really smart way. Nothing is tied up too tightly. It definitely feels like it’s still a living breathing idea, which was nice because I feel like series finales are tricky. People are always going to have opinions and be disappointed or some people like it and some people won’t. But I think she did a really beautiful job wrapping it up.
What’s the one thing you’re going to remember most about doing the show?
I’m so grateful to have developed a friendship with Lena. Again, this was meant to be one day of working on this show and I look back and I’ve had six years with this amazing woman who’s become a very close friend of mine. I’m really grateful for that.
“Girls” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.