NEW YORK — Neil Patrick Harris did a quick dance spin on the Radio City Music Hall stage, stopped to talk choreography with Diane Paulus, director of the nominated musical "Pippin," then bounded down the steps, where a Tony Awards writer was waiting for his feedback on a Mike Tyson joke.
After they bandied a few versions of it back and forth, some more R-rated than others, Harris seemed pleased. "I like that," he said to the writer, his deadpan half-smirk making an appearance. "Two 'Matilda' girls is much funnier than three."
Harris was rehearsing on Thursday for his Tonys hosting duties Sunday, the third consecutive and fourth overall time he has had the job. (The show airs on CBS at 8 p.m. EDT; a taped version of the show will also be shown at 8 p.m. PDT ).
It's a job that requires a mix of seriousness and irreverence, and the actor said he was trying once again to walk the tightrope.
"I try to be like the host of a fun dinner party, keeping things buoyant and glib so that when something ridiculous happens you can comment on it," he said. "But I also need to be able to swing right into the In Memoriam. I mean, there is a classy grandeur to the night. You can't be too jokey about it."
Many of the nominated shows are unfamiliar to a mainstream television audience this year, and Harris will provide a through-line, the TV star ("How I Met Yur Mother") connecting viewers to stage productions with names such as "Kinky Boots," "Pippin" and "Matilda: The Musical," as well as old-time classics like "Annie" and "Cinderella."
Since he first hosted in 2009, the Tonys has landed Harris unofficial status — to nearly everyone but Oscars producers — as the awards-show-host-in-chief. (He will also emcee the Emmys this September.) Wearing a black tank top and jeans — and, for the moment separated from his trademark Tony week Red Bull — he talked about how this year's show would be different.
The goal, particularly in the evening-defining opening number, was to capture a Broadway season that he called big, bold and perhaps slightly more sentimental than the last two years. Another factor will be gigantic Radio City, to which the Tonys are returning after a two-year detour to the more intimate Beacon Theatre.
"Two years ago we defined a season that was about 'Book of Mormon' and 'South Park'-style comedy, and last year was more handmade with 'Once,'" he said. "And this year we want to go bigger, and also honor Radio City."
That more-is-more approach will be felt right away Sunday night with the opening number. The bits rehearsed Thursday included hommages to "Pippin" and "Motown: The Musical," among others. In a reference to "Motown" but possibly also the Tony festivities themselves, a lyric is "We're going bigger/so much bigger./The other shows all ended a half hour ago/You never saw so many divas in a row."
Harris, who is taking a break from shooting the Seth MacFarlane film comedy "A Million Ways to Die in the West" for this frenzied week of preparing, will also perform a physical trick in the opening number that he asked, politely, to be kept quiet until the day of the show.
The performer said the Tonys offered an opportunity that other hosting gigs didn't; as a returning veteran with knowledge of the theater he had a chance to contribute to the show instead of "sitting in a corner and waiting for my lines." (Though he acknowledged that the Oscars would be "a great bucket list check-off.")
Asked if he and MacFarlane compared notes about awards hosting on the New Mexico set of their film, Harris said the subject had come up, in particular the scrutiny accorded hosts, and especially of MacFarlane at February's Oscars.
"It really puts you through the wringer, that show," Harris said. "Seth worked so hard to make everything work in his wheel house and it was a very, very funny show. And yet people were very unhappy. I think he opted to just not give in to it and [not] read all the responses and just enjoy that chapter, which is what I'd probably do as well."
Tonys ratings dipped to a two-decade low with 6 million viewers last year, but Harris said it wasn't something that preyed on him.
"Theater is a very niche market," he said, "and I'm not at all concerned about garnering strong ratings. CBS picked up the Tonys through 2018, so it doesn't feel like if we don't get enough eyes on the show it's going to go away any time soon."
He added, "I think that the people who watch the Tonys watch the Tonys every year. To try to convince people who don't is a fruitless endeavor. They don't go to the theater, so what are they going to do, sit and watch Patina Miller give an acceptance speech? They don't know who she is and they don't know [her show] 'Pippin.'"
The cast of "Kinky Boots" materialized behind him. "But for me it's just exciting," he said, adding, in a bit of sentimentality perhaps in keeping with this year's theme. "I mean, I just saw 'Kinky Boots' and there's the cast. And I get to be on the same stage with them in front of millions of people."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun