Neil Patrick Harris’ new ‘Rent’ role: director


At age 37, Neil Patrick Harris has worn more showbiz hats than most performers do in their entire careers. Starting his professional life as a child star, Harris has successfully graduated to film actor, sitcom leading man, Broadway actor, award-show staple, singer, magician and Web-series celebrity.

Harris is that rare actor who is not only able to thrive in almost every medium, but also appeals to divergent demographics — young and old, gay and straight, highbrow snobs and lowbrow comedy fans.

This week, Harris adds another facet to his complex professional persona — musical theater director. His staging of “Rent” at the Hollywood Bowl, beginning Friday for three performances, marks the first time Harris has directed a large-scale stage musical. (His other directing credits include a one-man stage play and an episode of his CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”)

“Rent,” penned by the late Jonathan Larson, is a musical with deep personal meaning for Harris. The actor played the role of Mark in a national tour of the Tony-winning show that ran at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1997.

“It’s a show that I listened to consistently for a solid year before I auditioned for it,” said Harris during a recent break in rehearsals. “Playing Mark, who narrates and observes the show, I watched people’s interpretations of the scenes at every performance. So I have an educated take on what it could be.”

Harris has had to hit the ground running with his cast and crew due to the compressed rehearsal time — about two weeks — that is typical for Bowl productions. He said the staging will pay homage to director Michael Greif’s original New York production, but “I don’t want it to feel like a stop on the national tour.”

The cast includes a mix of “Rent” veterans and screen celebrities looking to spread their acting wings. “I wanted to pair each newbie with someone with experience in the show,” said Harris. “It helps me time-wise — it’s all about time constraints here.”

Aaron Tveit, who was in the cast of a recent “Rent” national tour, plays the lead role of Roger, a songwriter and HIV-positive ex-junkie who lives in New York’s East Village.

Performing in the musical for the first time is Vanessa Hudgens as Mimi, an HIV-positive exotic dancer who falls in love with the soulful rocker.

“Neil is a real actor’s director,” said Hudgens, who is best known for her squeaky-clean character in the “High School Musical” movies. “He has a lot of experience with the show and so he’s clear in what he wants.”

Also joining the cast are TV celebrity Wayne Brady, in the role of Tom, and Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger, in the part of the sassy bisexual performance artist Maureen.

The ensemble for the Bowl version of “Rent” will include 25 performers, 10 more than the usual cast of 15, performing on a multilevel set designed for the production.

“We wanted more people because if you plopped 15 of them on the Bowl stage, they would just drown in the space,” said Harris. “And we’re working on levels because I felt that if everything played on a flat stage, we were going to lose a lot of real estate.”

Tim Weil, who worked on the original Broadway production, is arranging the score for the Bowl. He said a couple of numbers will be excised so that the running time will be close to 21/2 hours, allowing the Friday and Saturday shows to conclude at 11 p.m. and the Sunday show at 10:30 p.m., in accordance with county regulations.

Weil will conduct a 12-member orchestra that, in a nod to the show’s first production at New York Theatre Workshop, will share the stage with the performers in a manner suggesting a rock concert.

Harris said “Rent” is an ideal show for the Bowl. “It’s just one musical number after the next,” he said. “You don’t have any four-page book scenes that sap the energy from it.”

“Rent” is just one of the projects that Harris currently has on his radar. He recently wrapped shooting for the third “Harold & Kumar” movie (he played himself in the past two films) and will start work on the sixth season of “How I Met Your Mother” soon after the final “Rent” performance.

Harris said he’s working on expanding his interactive theater show “Accomplice” to London, having already launched versions of the site-specific production in L.A. and New York. He also is in talks for a project with Disney Imagineering, the design arm of the entertainment company, but he declined to provide more information.

“I’m pretty conscious of being ubiquitous,” he said. “The less one can be pigeonholed in a small box, the more opportunity you have. That comes from having done one role over and over again as a kid.” Harris became a household name when he starred in ABC’s “Doogie Howser, M.D.” from 1989-1993.

When asked which of his careers he likes best, Harris barely hesitated. “If I could get paid the same amount as my other work, I would do theater,” he said, adding that his dream project is to star in a revival of the musical “Barnum,” about the circus impresario P.T. Barnum.

“I must have been a vaudevillian in some previous incarnation,” Harris joked.

Harris currently divides his time between his homes in Studio City and New York, and is in a long-term relationship with actor (and chef) David Burtka, who is part of the “Rent” ensemble at the Bowl.

When not acting, producing or directing, Harris devotes himself to magic, which he considers his biggest hobby. He’s on the board of directors of Hollywood’s Academy of Magical Arts and has performed magic acts on various talk shows. (He once subjected Ellen DeGeneres to a bed of spikes.)

Harris sees a metaphoric connection between magic and his own career contortions.

“Magic is my hobby and part of magic is maintaining a sort of mystery about yourself,” he explained. “I’ve been lucky to dabble in a lot of different venues. My attention span is the type where I want to try it all.”