Although he is probably best known to British audiences as the over-achieving under-age Doctor in Doogie Howser MD there’s much more to Neil Patrick Harris than his medical TV persona.
On stage on Broadway Harris has starred in the dual roles of The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald in the Sondheim/Weidman Tony Award-winning musical Assassins at Studio 54. He also starred opposite Anne Heche Proof and played the emcee in Cabaret. In Los Angeles he has starred in Rent and Romeo & Juliet. He also performed in the concert production of Reprise! Sweeney Todd at Lincoln Center in New York.
Harris’ film work includes Harold and Kumar got to White Castle, Undercover Brother, Starship Troopers, The Next Best Thing, The Proposition and Clara’s Heart. On the small screen his credits include Stark Raving Mad, Joan of Arc, The Man in the Attic and The Wedding Dress amongst others.
Harris is currently starring in the European premiere of Tick Tick Boom, the posthumously produced autobiographical musical by Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent creator Jonathan Larson. The new production is directed by Scott Schwartz in his London debut, who directed the original Off-Broadway production. Tick Tick Boom opens on 9 June 2005 (previews from 31 May) at south London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, where its limited season will continue until 3 September.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 15, 1973, at St Joseph’s Hospital, downtown. My family still lives there. I grew up there and in a smaller ski resort town called Ruidoso, where we lived for about 12 years, and then moved back to Albuquerque. Then I got a television show in Los Angeles around six months after we moved back, so I spent half the year in LA and the second half of the year back home, from the time I was 16. Once I graduated from high school, I moved to LA full-time.
Lives now in...
I split my time between New York and Los Angeles. I have an apartment on the Upper West Side of New York and a house in LA, and I go between the two as necessary. In London, I’m a stone’s throw away from the theatre – they’re trying to keep me reigned in so I can’t travel around too much! It’s very handy! As we’re rehearsing, I’m realising the depth of the role, and beyond emotionally, there’s a lot to do. When I’m not singing, I’m monologuing; so I’m rarely off. It’s only my second time in London – I was here for a week visiting a friend who was in a show, six or seven years ago – it was actually to see Rent, after I’d done it myself. I stopped into Euro Disney in Paris and then went home. This is the first time I’ve been here for any length of time, and I’m just loving it – everyone is so nice, it’s a great town!
I’ve been singing since I was a little kid – I had very musical parents. They were both attorneys and now run a restaurant – but they were in a choir, and my mother played the flute, and we were always singing.
I’ve increased my formal training as I grew up and had to sing more and more. The sheer repetition that’s required forces some kind of study; and I’ve done more than a few shows that are not so technique-based, which requires an even greater technique. They want a rougher, growlier kind of sound; but if you were just rough and growly that would be bad. There’s a lady called Joan Lader who I work with a lot in New York – she’s the best of the best.
But I didn’t go to college at all – I’ve just kept working and I hope that’s the right decision!
First big break
I was a fairly precocious, extroverted little performing child, I was always in school plays, the school choir and I was the band director, too. The middle school band and choir teachers in Ruidaso thought it would be good for me to go to some sort of performing arts high school. My family didn’t think it was such a good idea to uproot myself so completely, so instead I went to a theatre camp for a week at one of the local colleges, at Las Cruces where the New Mexico State University is, and Mark Medoff, who is a playwright and wrote Children of a Lesser God, is a resident playwright there. He saw me, and he had written this movie called Clara’s Heart, and they needed a young boy of about my age, and he thought I’d be right to act in it. So he put me on tape, that was sent to LA, and I ended up getting an agent through that. I was about 12.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to do some very diverse theatre roles recently. I got to be in Assassins on Broadway, playing the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald which were great roles; I got to be the MC in Cabaret on Broadway for a big six or seven months chunk – that’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime parts; to get to wear the get-up, it was very Cirque du Soleil! Performing with the New York Philharmonic and Patti LuPone and George Hearn for a Sweeney Todd concert at Lincoln Center that was also filmed was pretty exceptional; I played Tobias. I was never a trained soloist, and I was surrounded by the most trained soloists you can imagine, like Audra McDonald! To have these people around you, and I was this kid who did a TV show!
I’ve been very fortunate – I did a movie called Undercover Brother that was a fun film; Starship Troopers, a big space-age movie, was great fun.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Definitely Cabaret; also Rent that I did in LA was my first big theatre break. It was the first production of a large-scale musical sort that I had ever done, and the Ahmanson in LA is a very large-scale theatre. I played Mark, and there was something so freeing having done mostly television and small movie stuff to be so full-bodied and edge and hip in a musical. I’ve been singing since I was a little kid – I had very musical parents. They were both attorneys, but now run a restaurant.
I’m keen on Patti LuPone – she’s such a spitfire and such a grand dame, and she knows it; and so it’s fun to be a minion of hers and hang in her shadow. She’s hilarious! And Denise Richards is a hoot – she got us a lot of attention. We were in Starship Troopers and Undercover Brothers together.
Joe Mantello’s directing of Assassins was unprecedented. He had the difficult challenge of working with extraordinarily gifted yet very bizarre actors, from Denis O’Hare to Michael Cerveris to Marc Kudish – all these very eccentric individuals, and he always helmed the ship, never blew his top too much – he blew it enough that you knew not to fuck with him – and he created a production that was entirely his own, and we all felt trust in him and trusted by him. That was an extraordinary experience. I love David Fincher – a film director who did The Game and Fight Club.
I like JB Priestley – though I’ve not done any. The production of An Inspector Calls that started from here really blew my mind. I’m a big fan of sets that move! Shakespeare is always lovely. I got to do Romeo and Juliet that Dan Sullivan directed in San Diego, at the Old Globe, and I played Romeo in a very stark production. It’s rare that you get to work in America with a playwright like him – where the more you invest in it, the more that comes back to you, tenfold, and you start the show and before you can breath you are 50 minutes into it, and the show really takes you on a journey as an actor. I love O’Neill and Albee, too, and I’m excited to do more of the classics – I’m proud to be an actor in the theatre, because if you keep at it, you will be allowed to do a lot of the greats.
Favourite musical writers
Sondheim is amazing – I think he’s not unlike Shakespeare, because Shakespeare thought about the actors’ thought-processes as he wrote, so pauses would be innate and intentional, and I think that Sondheim writes lyrics and music in the same way. He’ll repeat a pattern, and then on the third time change one note in the pattern, and that’s intentional. And as an actor, the more you investigate it, the more you work out that that’s a realisation – all of those little subtleties are thought out by him. So he creates a great map for you as an actor – you don’t have to do much guessing, but you have to do a lot of exploring. That’s rare, especially with musicals.
And I’m very impressed by Jonathan Larson’s songs. Rent was one of those rare albums that I liked when I heard it, but the more I listened to it, the more I realised how clever it was, too. I kept changing my favourite song. And Tick Tick Boom is not unlike that. The score is really great, and the more you rehearse it and work on it, I’ve found that the harmonies that are layered in are really impressive beyond what I thought, and the word play is really extraordinary. It’s a shame he only wrote the couple of things that he wrote. And I’m honoured to have been able to be in both of them.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I’m really dying to do magic onstage. I’m a magician who loves stage-craft – so I’d love to be in The Magic Show or Merlin or Barnum. I’m dying to do A Life in the Theatre, and some Shakespeare roles would be great, like Henry V and Hamlet.
You've starred extensively on stage and screen, why do you like to return to the theatre?
I think that theatre just requires you to work hard. It creates and provides an ethic that doesn’t exist in any other medium, because the time thing is so different. Television is factory work – you make good money and a lot of people see you do it, but you just work hard to put out as much product as you can, because you’re trying to make x number of episodes. As soon as you’ve done one, you’re onto the next. And film-making is its own little cocoon of status. You’re in your motor home most of the time, and then they rush you to set, you film, and then they rush you back. There’s a lot of waiting. So by the time you see the movie, it has been a year and a half since you made it, and you’re in a different place.
But in the theatre, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. The more you listen, the more you learn. And you’re always required to be giving a fresh show for people who have not seen it before. I’ve been most impressed when I’ve seen the likes of Alan Rickman who a year into his run of Private Lives had the audience in the palm of his hand. Even though he had done it eight times a week for all that time, and rehearsed it for months before that, to be able to keep it so fresh and so real for me who had never seen it, had incredible impact.
How much do you feel you live in the shadow of Doogie Howser ?
Not so much anymore! It just came out on DVD (which I did an interview on that they show at the end), but before then it had been years since it was even on TV. The name is a bit of an albatross, but it’s a positive one – I don’t think anyone degrades me because of it. I did it for four years – 89 to 92 – so it’s been a while. You don’t want to be so type-cast that you’re not able to work again, and I’ve been very fortunate to keep working. I’ve worked relatively steadily through the years. As long as I keep choosing good projects, it’ll go away eventually!
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of theatre – British or American?
I think America should take note of what the Brits do with the government supporting theatre as much as they do. And that’s tremendous. The arts are just appreciated in a way here that they are not there – it’s much more commercial in the States. West coast theatre is almost non-existent – so I appreciate the pride that the government takes here in allowing great theatre to be seen.
What’s the best thing you’ve seen on stage recently?
I just recently saw the Shunt production of Tropicana up the road from here below London Bridge station – story-wise, there’s a lot to explain and lot left unexplained, but I loved the visual element and I loved being in a space that was unfamiliar and frightening to me. Putting theatre around me in an environment I was totally unfamiliar was fabulous. My eyes were like saucers! And I’m very much looking forward to seeing Mary Poppins - as a magician, there’s a lot of magic in it, I’m told, so I can’t wait. In New York, I’m a big fan of Avenue Q. It’s very irreverent and hilarious.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day who would it be on why?
Probably Walt Disney, the day that Disneyland opened – I like the idea of creating a career whose goal is to make others happy. Jim Henson is my other big idol. To create Sesame Street or The Muppet Show or Disneyland, which millions of people have a great time experiencing, I would love to have switched places with Walt to watch the fruits of my labours coming to fruition.
I’m reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon that I’m loving, loving, loving and is probably my favourite book ever right now; I very much like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho; and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I’m also a big Harry Potter fan – I haven’t read the fifth yet. I want to read it while I’m here, but I couldn’t bring it, because it was far too heavy to put in my bag!
Favourite holiday destination
I’ve just come back from a trip from Costa Rica – it was fantastic, very Indiana Jones – jungle exploring and monkey observing! I love to visit my family in New Mexico when it’s cold and snowy. And I’m a big fan of Maui and Hawaii – I like tropical destinations. It’s a contrast with home – the cold of the snow and the cold of the Pina Colada!
Favourite after-show haunts
I’ve been to Joe Allen’s here and that was lovely, and it’s nice in New York as well; but I like to find small little pubs that no one really goes to. I’m not a big fan of going out to be seen. I like to go out to lie low – so I’m anxious to find places around here that no one knows about! I’m nervous that everything closes at 11 – that’s shocking! – so I may have to end up at some private clubs! But I suspect I’ll be having a double whisky and going straight to bed, because I don’t think I’ll be able to speak very much or smoke very much!
I go to the Drudge Report a lot for my news. And there’s a site called www.broadwaystars.com that links to all the other sites, so it’s very convenient. And Genii magazine has a website (www.geniimagazine.com) where you can talk to other magicians about magic. And I shop on eBay a lot – I look for old magic posters and memorabilia from theme parks.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Probably a magician or illusionist! I’m hypnotised by stage craft. Every time there’s a revolve or chairs move by themselves, I’m enamoured by that – I can forgo plot, but if there’s exciting lighting and strobe effects, I’m thrilled!
Why did you want to accept your part in Tick Tick Boom?
I was asked to do it originally in New York, but thought I was a little bit too young to be believable as someone about to turn 30. I was 28 at that time, and I looked a lot younger – I didn’t want to work really hard and still not be believed simply because of the way that I looked. So I passed on it, and then regretted it when I heard the album and saw the show, because I admired it and thought it was great. I respond to Jonathan Larson a lot – he’s from New Mexico as am I, and I just think highly of him. The chance to do a role like this, which is essentially a big one-man show is rare in the canon of theatre. So at 31 now, I’m thrilled to be able to do it.
Jonathan had written a show long before Rent called Superbia, a space-age show that he was workshopping; it was a large-scale production about the future of aliens. He decided to scrap it all and write a one-man cabaret show about himself and his troubles about turning 30 and whether he should stick with writing musicals and doing what he loves even though he works in a diner and lives in an illegal sublet; or should he sell out? After he died, they took this one-man show where he played every part, and they just broadened it and filled it out a little. There’s a lot of references to Rent - the thought of him saying I don’t want to die before I’m 35 and never have done anything, when you know that he died at 35 having done something incredible, is bitter-sweet. Yet you don’t have to have seen Rent or have any knowledge of it – it’s a generational piece, charting his voyage and how he grows up.
Why did you want to come and do the musical in London?
London has an incredible clout and class and respect in America for doing good work, but also to an educated audience. I think it’s the best audience in the world – they’re schooled in theatre, whether they’re actors or observers. To get the opportunity to showcase myself in a show like this in a place like this is another once-in-a-lifetime experience. David Babani (who runs the Menier Chocolate Factory) went to this Stephen Sondheim Wall-to-Wall concert in New York in March, that was put on to celebrate Sondheim’s 75th birthday, and I performed two songs in it, and he called afterwards. Had I not done that and had he not seen it probably would never have happened.
What's your favourite line/song/lyric from the show?
“I was wrong to say you were wrong to say I was wrong about you being wrong when I rang to say that the ring was the wrong thing to bring, if I meant what I said when you said rings bore me.”
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened in rehearsals of Tick Tick Boom?
I was under the weather for the last four or five days with a head cold – singing while under the weather is not cute. It’s probably very funny for the rest for the rest of the cast, but not for me!
What are your plans for the future? Anything else you'd like to add?
I did a television pilot in the States this last season, and we find out at the end of today if it’s going to go to series. And if it does, I will probably end up leaving the show early, in July sometime, to go back to film that. But that was understood by David. If not, I’m here till September, and we’ll see what happens with the success of this show, then I’ll go back and try to get a job! Maybe I’ll travel around a bit – being here has made me want to do some trips. I hear that Amsterdam’s hilarious! Or maybe go to Italy or Germany – Europe is so close! So hopefully I’ll be able to stay a little extra on the end.
(In fact, the TV series has been picked up by CBS. How I Met Your Mother, told in flashbacks from the future, stars Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan – also seen on the London stage when she appeared in the original West End cast of the stage version of When Harry Met Sally.)
- Neil Patrick Harris was speaking to Mark Shenton
Tick Tick Boom plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory from 31 May – 3 September 2005.