It was a star-studded night at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel as over 150 artists – including stars Tim Gunn, Stephen Colbert, and Audra McDonald (and yes, even some Muppets) – came out to celebrate stage and screen star Neil Patrick Harris at the Drama League’s 30th annual all-star gala.
It’s no secret that Harris – who will soon be back on stage starring in a new version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which opens April 14 – has garnered quite an admiration from the communities he’s been involved in. But there was no question Monday night that Harris is admired for more than just his talent. Every tribute was genuine and heartfelt; every performance was completed with gusto and pride. There wasn’t anyone in attendance who wasn’t giving their all, and it showed.
“Who wouldn’t turn out for Neil?” Tim Gunn asked, clearly happy and excited to be able to honor his friend. “Anyone would, and anyone should. I love the man, I’m a huge fan, I’ve had the incredible honor of working with him…so of course I’m here!”
In his speech later on in the night, Gunn went on to talk candidly about the nature of Harris’ character, as well as his contributions and importance to the LGBT community.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Harris told EW prior to receiving his honor. “I don’t quite know in these situations how I’m supposed to behave. I’m very appreciative and grateful and excited at what’s about to happen. … I’m humbled by all of this, given that I’m literally on day one of a new chapter that involves theater and Broadway, and to have a lot of people in the community give me a pat on the back this early in the chapter does make me feel like I didn’t make a terrible mistake.”
Those “pats on the back” started with a few words from Harris’ Assassins co-stars Marc Kudisch and Becky Ann Baker, before the unveiling of a congratulations video montage that featured personal and heartfelt well-wishes from friends who couldn’t make it to the event in person (among them: Harris’ How I Met Your Mother co-star Cobie Smulders, David Hyde Pierce, Jimmy Kimmel, Fergie, Sarah Silverman, JJ Abrams, Victor Garber, Christina Hendricks, Amanda Seyfried, and Kelly Ripa.) That montage was followed up by another, this one spotlighting a compilation of Harris’ many hosting gigs from the Tonys, Emmys, and Oscars. Chuck star Zachary Levi then officially opened a night of stellar performances with a parody number of “Be Our Guest” that, of course, centered on making Harris the celebrated guest of the evening. Broadway performers Norm Lewis, Dan Finnerty, and Kate Jennings Grant all came out to share speeches and their own tributes before the audience was treated to a third montage, one that celebrated Harris’ career on screen and highlighted his versatility as a performer, with clips ranging from Doogie Howser to Carol & Co. to Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.
Kal Penn took to the stage to give a humorous but genuine speech about his friend, detailing their experiences together while filming the Harold and Kumar trilogy, noting that Harris was “the love child of Bill Clinton and Gordon Ramsay” (much to the amusement of the audience.) But it was the second half of the night where the party really seemed to get started – Stephen Colbert shared memories from his time in Company, five-time Tony Award winner (and last year’s honoree) Audra McDonald brought the house down, and in one of the more emotional moments of the evening, Harris’ partner David Burtka offered up a toast and then a performance of Company’s “Marry Me a Little,” which he dedicated to his other half. A unanimous standing ovation followed, and rightfully so.
Appropriately, the night ended with a slew of RENT cast members from the past and the present (including original cast member Anthony Rapp) singing a rousing rendition of “Seasons of Love” that had the entire audience clapping and cheering. At the end of it all, a humbled and emotional Harris was finally brought on stage to accept his award, where he noted that the finale was significant because RENT was his first Broadway role back in 1997.
But that’s not the only significant role of his lifetime – Harris dates his most formative theater experience back to before the lights of Broadway were ever present. “I grew up in a tiny ski resort town in New Mexico called Ruidso, and there was no real theater to speak of,” he explains. “It was all football, and yet I wasn’t a real football player. And so I found out there was a Ruidso Little Theater that performed in a small country club. They would take a corner of the banquet room and build sets and put on shows, and I was drawn to that. They asked me to be in a show called Amahl and the Night Visitors, which is an operetta, and they wanted me to be Amahl. And I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9, and it was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed the entire process.”
With last night’s honor, Harris joins the ranks of Liza Minnelli, Angela Lansbury, Kristin Chenoweth and Andrew Lloyd Webber, all who have been feted over the past 30 years. He credits that first theater experience to helping him appreciate what it means to be a successful actor not just on Broadway, but in other mediums as well.
“For me, the theatre is all about process,” says Harris. “When you’re making a TV show, you’re purging so much content that you don’t have real time to rehearse a lot. And when you’re making a movie, you rehearse a bit, but it’s much more about – it’s like a painting by an artist. David Fincher is making a beautiful piece of art, and you’re a color within that palette. But theatre…the process of rehearsal is massive, and then the process of previews is totally different and massive, and then the process of doing the same thing over and over - you’re in it all the time and I really respond to that.”
Speaking of responding to that – lest the night not go out with a bang, McDonald - referencing the popular rap she did with Harris at last year’s Tony Awards – performed one in honor of the star, summing up highlights from the evening in a moment that brought down the house and left attendees leaping to their feet.
A night worthy of a standing ovation, indeed.