Andrew Rannells on his early days in Austin
Tony nominee coming to town this month to speak, sign new memoir
Andrew Rannells is coming to Austin. He’ll probably wear a lot less makeup than the first time he was here.
This year, Zach Theatre took an iconic blonde wig out of the box for its latest production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Almost 20 years before that, now-Tony-nominated actor Rannells smeared the title character’s blue eyeshadow and red lipstick all over his face, playing a punk-rock bombshell in the Austin theater’s first mounting of the rock musical.
Rannells conjures back to life that career break — along with other professional milestones and more than a few dishy tales of the men he loved along the way — in a new memoir, “Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood,” out this month from Crown Archetype. Rannells’ book tour will swing through Austin on March 18; he’ll speak and sign copies at BookPeople.
When I recently spoke with Rannells by phone ahead of his visit, he called his stint as Hedwig an “amazing opportunity.” In the early 2000s, a big break eluded the actor, who started his search for fame handing out headshots at New York City stage doors. By then, Rannells certainly had paid his dues — a youth spent in Omaha’s children’s theater circuit, a tumultuous summer stock stint in a barn, a dinner theater staging of “Grease,” a tour of the country playing an offensively flamboyant villain in “Pokèmon Live!” Hardly the Broadway lights glowing in his dreams when he moved to NYC as a Marymount Manhattan College freshman. Hardly the Playbill credits he envisioned after he dropped out of school to chase those dream-lights without distraction.
During a stint of unemployment, Rannells searched casting call notices religiously. “Hedwig” and Austin called his name. He writes about snagging an audition for a show he loved in a town he loved after weeks of searching.
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Rannells found himself in an audition room full of men in various states of drag. When called up, he sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” for the director of “Hedwig,” Austin theater mainstay Dave Steakley. (Steakley, Zach’s producing artistic director, also directed the theater’s most recent “Hedwig” production.) Rannells writes that Steakley watched the actor singing with rapt attention.
He booked the gig.
“I will always be grateful to Dave for whatever he saw in me,” Rannells says. The actor’s time in Austin left him with more confidence in his performance abilities when he eventually returned to New York, he says.
But “Hedwig” was also a “very isolating show,” Rannells says. His father had just died when Rannells found himself alone in Texas, still unpacking his feelings about the loss. Eventually, Rannells’ mother and his sister, Natalie, came to Austin to see the production about a month into its run. Rannells writes about working day and night once he arrived in Austin, leaving little time to find "weird" Austin's spots worth showing off. The family ended up at a local IHOP, he writes in the book.
It’s still probably not a great idea to rely on Rannells for Austin breakfast recommendations. Though he’s returned to the city since, he never really got out and about while starring in “Hedwig.”
“My big regret of my time I spent there,” Rannells says.
He’s come a long way since the young and hungry days recounted in “Too Much Is Not Enough.” There are the Broadway credits, of course. Originating the role of Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon.” Replacing Jonathan Groff as King George in “Hamilton” for a spell. Roles in “Boys in the Band,” “Falsettos,” “Hairspray” and “Jersey Boys.”
Don’t forget Rannells’ screen credits, either. He’s brought snark and smiles to main roles in HBO’s “Girls” and Ryan Murphy’s short-lived sitcom, “The New Normal,” as well as a slew of guest spots. He’s currently a star and producer of Showtime’s “Black Monday” with Don Cheadle and Regina Hall, and he also voices a character on Netflix’s animated “Big Mouth.”
Though Rannells has experience as a Mormon missionary and a tyrannical king, “author” is a new job title. “Too Much Is Not Enough” is his first book. He wrote a well-received essay about learning of father’s death during a hook-up for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” series in 2017. That’s included in the memoir, as is another essay published in the Times this month titled “The Tallest Man I Ever Loved.”
Earlier than those stories in the book, Rannells writes about a harrowing sexual and emotional experience he had with a middle-aged actor in Omaha, which started when he was 16 years old and continued until he left for New York. The man took advantage of him, Rannells says, and the prolonged situation left the teenager feeling overwhelmed. Rannells includes in the book a message to both adults and young people who have found themselves in similar positions: You can always stop something that you don’t want to continue. It’s the kind of message common in memoirs of queer people, speaking back to their younger selves or writing the messages they wish they’d heard when they were younger.
“It was very difficult to write that, but therapeutic in many ways,” Rannells says. “I put a lot of blame on that kid. I need to forgive that person.”
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There’s only so much real estate available in a book, Rannells says, and he got caught up in details sometimes. It was a real lesson in self-editing, but there wasn’t anything left on the cutting room floor that the actor wishes had made it into the finished product. He feels like the book says what he needed it to, especially in the acknowledgments, where he gives his mother, Charlotte, due praise.
“I was not the easiest child,” Rannells says.
In his memoir, Rannells shares every story of his past with the same candor: a painful fight with his mother (in that Austin IHOP) following his father’s death, his grandmother’s struggle with dementia, trysts with boys that lasted a while and those that didn’t.
Bill Clegg, Rannells' agent, also wrote a memoir (“Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man”), and he advised Rannells to disclose to his family the shared experiences that made it into the book just before it was time to publish. Though he did wait a little bit (“for the last minute”) before having those conversations with his family, Rannells says he also showed some passages to his sister, Natalie, earlier in the process. Doing so was important to him, but he points out that the stories in the book are his version of events.
“It was hard,” Rannells says of reconstructing his life story. “To have to edit down your own life is a little tricky.”
The period of time Rannells covers in “Too Much Is Not Enough” stops short of one satisfying milestone, incidentally. Long after leaving Austin, he eventually brought Hedwig to life again — on Broadway in 2014.
IF YOU GO
Andrew Rannells at BookPeople
Where: 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
When: 7 p.m. March 18
Information: Rannells will speak and sign copies of his memoir, "Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood." The speaking portion of the event is free and open to the public. Tickets are required to join the signing line and are only available with the purchase of a copy of the book from BookPeople. For more information, go to bookpeople.com.