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Not My Job: We Quiz 'Book Of Mormon' Star Andrew Rannells On Ethel Merman

BILL KURTIS: Believe it or not, we weren't always locked inside. It's true - there was a time when we were allowed to go to theaters and talk to people in front of other people. I was there.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

Don't believe him? Here's proof. In March of 2019, we gathered in our theater in Chicago and talked to Andrew Rannells, who became famous first on Broadway in "The Book Of Mormon" and then on TV in "Girls" and "Black Monday." But I wanted to ask him about all the jobs he lost before he hit it big.

KURTIS: The sounds we hear as we speak to him are what we called an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANDREW RANNELLS: OK. Well, it was by my choice, just to be clear.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right.

RANNELLS: I was very good at an interview.

SAGAL: Yeah.

RANNELLS: I would give a very solid job interview, and then I would get the job, show up, work for one day, decide I hated it and then leave.

SAGAL: Really? So can you give me an example of the kind of job you did for a day then left?

RANNELLS: Well, I did work at a restaurant near Columbia University called Nacho Mama's.

SAGAL: Yeah.

RANNELLS: And I worked there as a host for one day, and then I just never returned.

SAGAL: Right.

PAULA POUNDSTONE: Andrew, this is Paula Poundstone. Can I ask you a question? When you applied for work at Nacho Mama's, had you been there before? Had you seen it? Did you know what you were in for?

RANNELLS: Yes, Paula. I am sad to say I knew exactly what I was getting into...

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: ...But I had only been drunk at that bar. I had never thought about what it would actually be like to work for drunk people at the bar.

POUNDSTONE: So you didn't - did you ask any questions during your interview? Did you ever say, like, so what will I do?

RANNELLS: Oh, God no, Paula. I...

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: That was also like - I had a job. I was a temp at Ernst & Young, and they asked me all these questions about, like, do you know how to answer phones. And I was like, sure.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: And then when - once I was there...

SAGAL: Wait a minute. Do you not know how to answer phones?

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: Well, I think, like - I think there were - multiple lines...

SAGAL: Right. That gets complicated.

POUNDSTONE: Yeah, that is hard, yeah.

RANNELLS: So all - my only experience that was watching Lily Tomlin in "9 To 5" do it.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Now, you grew up in Omaha. We were just talking about theater kids in high school, so I assume you were one.

RANNELLS: Well, yes, but I went to an all-boys Catholic school that did not have a drama program. So I did, like, community theater shows, which means I would often be, like - I remember when I was like - I don't know - 17 and I did a production of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum."

SAGAL: Right.

RANNELLS: But the woman I was playing opposite was, like, 45.

SAGAL: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: I did a lot of shows like that.

SAGAL: You did a lot of shows like that.

RANNELLS: Yeah.

POUNDSTONE: That's called acting, Andrew.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: It's acting. It was acting.

SAGAL: I have to ask. How did the whole Catholic school thing work out for you?

RANNELLS: So great.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So you move off to New York to be a performer. And how quickly did it take you to get actually performing jobs?

RANNELLS: You know, I started performing - I did some, like, summer stock jobs, like, right after, like, while I was still in college. And then I did some dinner theater in West Chester. And then I did a really unfortunate tour of a show called "Pokemon Live!"

SAGAL: Wait.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So you were in a live "Pokemon" show?

RANNELLS: Yes.

BRIAN BABYLON: Was this performance on ice or just...

RANNELLS: How dare you?

BABYLON: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: I'm a trained actor.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Can you give us a sample? I have no idea what this was like. Can you give us, like, a sample of what your lines were from "Pokemon" the stage spectacular?

RANNELLS: No, I will not.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So we read that you used to audition all the time with just one song.

RANNELLS: I - that is correct. I decided for myself that I sounded very good singing "Born To Run..."

SAGAL: Right.

POUNDSTONE: Wow.

RANNELLS: ...By Bruce Springsteen. So I would just sing that for every audition, whether it was correct or not.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: Like, I sang it for my audition for the Lincoln Center revival of "South Pacific."

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And...

RANNELLS: I sang it for the revival of "Fiddler On The Roof."

(LAUGHTER)

BABYLON: Do you channel like that, like, white man emotion in that song?

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: Yeah.

BABYLON: Do you channel that into the performance?

RANNELLS: Well, lucky for me, I'm an emotional white man.

SAGAL: Yeah, I know.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Andrew Rannells, it is an absolute pleasure to talk to you, but now it is time to play a game with you. And we are calling it...

KURTIS: The Book of Merman.

SAGAL: You starred "The Book Of Mormon," but what do you know about The Book of Merman, namely Ethel Merman?

RANNELLS: Wait a second. Is this because I'm gay?

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: I mean, I'm fine either way.

SAGAL: OK, I - we're going to ask you three questions about Ethel Merman. You get two right - that's all you need to do - you win our prize for one of our listeners.

Bill, who is Andrew Rannells playing for?

KURTIS: Andrew Johnston of New York, N.Y.

SAGAL: All right.

RANNELLS: All right.

SAGAL: Here we go. First question, there are a lot of stories of Ethel Merman's, quote, "colorful language." Once, she was backstage at "Gypsy" - of course, her big signature role - and overheard the stage manager swearing in front of the children in the cast. What did she say? Was it, A, nobody corrupts those little angels but me, so bleep off; B, nothing. She just sang a high C until everybody fled...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: ...Or, C, quote, she said, "Don't say [expletive] in front of the K-I-D-S?"

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: I'm going with C.

SAGAL: You're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: A lot of stories about Ethel Merman's colorful language. There's a story that when a religious Hollywood actress asked her to put a dollar in a swear jar for saying hell, she said, well, how much do I have to put in to make you [expletive]?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right, next question - Ethel Merman's fourth and final marriage was to actor Ernest Borgnine.

RANNELLS: Yeah.

SAGAL: It lasted only 32 days.

POUNDSTONE: Wow.

SAGAL: What did she say about the marriage in her autobiography? Was it, A, my marriage to Borgnine was the only thing shorter than he was; B, at work, he did "McHale's Navy" - at home he was McHale's lazy; or, C, nothing. The chapter entitled My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine consisted of a single blank page?

RANNELLS: A.

SAGAL: No, it was not A. It was C.

RANNELLS: Damn it.

SAGAL: It was only a blank page.

RANNELLS: Oh, right.

SAGAL: Yeah, It was not good. There are various stories about why their marriage broke up. One of them, believe it or not, is that Borgnine used to like to fart in bed and then pull up the covers, giving her a so-called Dutch oven.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And I wish I was kidding. All right. If you get this last one right, Andrew, you win for your listener. Ms. Merman continued performing almost up to her death in 1984. Which of these was her last role? A, the voice of the shrieking poltergeist in "E.T" - B, playing a crazy person who thinks he is Ethel Merman; or, C, Grand Moff Berfinian (ph) in "The Empire Strikes Back"?

RANNELLS: B.

SAGAL: You are right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

POUNDSTONE: Wow.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: It's in the movie "Airplane." Robert Hays is telling a war story about the old corporal whatever who went crazy and thought he was Ethel Merman, and they cut to it. And it's Ethel Merman.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: That was her last role.

RANNELLS: That's some good casting.

SAGAL: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Bill, how did Andrew Rannells do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Two out of 3. That's a big win for us, Andrew.

RANNELLS: Yay.

SAGAL: Congratulations.

(APPLAUSE)

RANNELLS: I did it.

SAGAL: You did do it. I think it's awesome. This will be part of your volume two, I hope.

RANNELLS: I hope so, too.

SAGAL: Andrew Rannells' new memoir "Too Much Is Not Enough" is out now. Andrew Rannells, what a pleasure to talk to you. And thank you so much for joining us.

(APPLAUSE)

RANNELLS: Thank you so much for having me.

SAGAL: Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters singing) This book will change your life. The Book of Mormon. Mormon. Hello.

SAGAL: When we come back, an interview with the best Drew Barrymore impersonator alive and the best basketball player ever named after a Steely Dan album. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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