Hugh Jackman leaned back in a Radio City Musical Hall chair at a Tony Awards rehearsal session Thursday and contemplated the question that has been on everyone's mind — including his — since he was asked to step in for longtime host Neil Patrick Harris: How do you follow the master?
"It's sort of career suicide to follow him," Jackman mused, noting he sought Harris' blessing before accepting the gig. "I'm not going to try to match Neil — that's crazy talk. I do hope I have a few tricks up my sleeve."
When theater's biggest night kicks off from New York at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS (the network will time-delay the West Coast airing to that time), a diverse set of talents will be on display.
Yet Harris — the popular, versatile MC from four of the last five years — won't be in his familiar spot. He will perform a number from his hit "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and, barring a major upset, accept the award for lead actor in a musical. But he chose to concentrate on his Broadway role this year, leaving producers to turn to veteran Jackman, who last hosted the Tonys in the pre-Harris, pre-social-media year of 2005.
The challenge, then, is for the movie star to slip into Harris' (dancing) shoes, serve as ringleader for nominees and performers many viewers have never heard of and, oh, yes, maybe bring in a few "X-Men" fans besides.
"What we said from the beginning is that it's a whole different thing with Hugh than Neil," said Glenn Weiss, who with Ricky Kirshner is one of the show's two longtime producers. "Let's build something more Hugh-centric."
"So he's going to do a whole number with his shirt off," deadpanned Kirshner.
The Tonys have been a critical smash in recent years, thanks both to Harris and the show's mission. Producers' and performers' flair for staging live entertainment lends an energy often lacking in telecasts such as the Oscars and the Emmys.
But ratings have been trickier. The show hit a four-year high in 2013, though at 7.3 million viewers it is still a fraction of the total that watch the Grammys or Golden Globes, whose viewership routinely tops 20 million. The challenge is compounded this year, which is missing the kind of crossover hit — like "The Book of Mormon," "Jersey Boys" or even 2013's Cyndi Lauper-centric "Kinky Boots" — that can attract broader attention.
The most-nominated show — and one of two front-runners for the top prize of best musical — is "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," a sly sendup of the musical-mystery genre unlikely to be known far beyond the Broadway faithful. The challenge will be conveying the in-theater buzz of shows such as "Gentleman's Guide" via viewers' TV screens.
At rehearsal Thursday, performers were trying to do just that, as star and Tony nominee Jefferson Mays, the scheming protagonist who plays eight different characters, was introducing the show's Tonys musical number in one of his guises, an acid-tongued matriarch.
"I am proud to stand among the dull-witted of Broadway," he addressed the audience in the character's accent. "Just looking at your needy and desperate faces makes me want to spread my largess." As he continued speaking, costumes fell away and accents shifted, an attempt to give viewers, in miniature, a sense of Mays' protean appeal.
After he stepped off stage (and put on yet another costume), Mays said, "You can't give a whole sense of the show, but hopefully it's a taste."
For several years, the Tonys have had a kind of viral-friendly buzz that has made it one of the most acclaimed award shows on television; Weiss and Kirshner have won the Emmy for the category that covers award shows every year but one since 2005.
"We don't want to do jokes you can see on late-night television," said head writer Dave Boone. Added Weiss: "We've seen other shows that are pretty redundant year after year after year. And our key is not to be that way."
This year, producers will up the star factor by daringly having personalities tease shows not yet on Broadway, Jennifer Hudson will sing a number from next season's Harvey Weinstein-produced "Finding Neverland," and Sting will perform a song from "The Last Ship," the new musical about a struggling shipbuilding community that he will bring to Broadway in the fall.
An assortment of personalities with other connections to theater will appear. Bradley Cooper, Kate Mara and "Jersey Boys" director Clint Eastwood will present, while Carole King, whose bio-musical "Beautiful" is a leading nominee, will perform, likely opposite Jessie Mueller, the actress and Tony nominee who portrays her.
Lead actress in a musical nominee Idina Menzel (Jackman assures he will pronounce her name correctly) will appear and perform too; she will be at the show both on behalf of her new musical, "If/Then," and as part of a 10-year "Wicked" anniversary. T.I., Patti LaBelle and award show regular Pharrell are scheduled to sing too.
Producers will also rely on the fact that, unlike the pundit-heavy Oscars, in which winners can seem preordained, many of the categories are wide open.
Best musical is considered a toss-up between "Gentleman's Guide" and "Beautiful." Harvey Fierstein's period cross-dresser drama "Casa Valentina" has a shot to overtake front-runner Robert Schenkkan's Lyndon Baines Johnson piece, "All the Way," for best play. And best actress in a musical is a scrum, with Mueller ("Beautiful") and Kelli O'Hara ("The Bridges of Madison County") considered the front-runners. "To have people say they don't know who's going to win and that it's a real horse race is great for us," Kirshner said.
Still, it's hard to deny that Harris has been a big part of the Tonys' creative renaissance, often because of the performer's arched-eyebrow humor that goes right up to the line.
Jackman will try something different.
"I don't think it works for Hugh to be snarky," Kirshner said. "You have to play to a host's strength, and his strength is being charming and warm and accessible and working the room." (Jackman, Weiss hinted, also might rap and interact with Harris.)
Added Jackman, self-deprecatingly, "I might take a shot or two, but it's not really my style." He's been showcasing his down-to-earth quality by riding his bicycle from his New York home to rehearsal every day. "Even if I get a big laugh, I want to immediately run over and apologize to the person. Which is really bad TV."
Already the new style has been evident at rehearsals. Harris' bits were often verbal and comedic, causing him to be down at the main theater for large chunks of the days working with writers and producers. But from morning until late afternoon, Jackman stepped into the theater for only a few minutes, spending most of the day at a separate dance rehearsal space several floors up.
The star also brings another element: a potentially new fan base, given that his "X-Men: Days of Future Past" opened just a few weeks ago and is one of the hits of the summer movie season.
"Yes, there's a [NBA Final] game on," said Jack Sussman, the CBS executive vice president who oversees the Tonys. "But we've got the most talented people on the planet in the room. And we've got Wolverine."
Jackman said he's crossing his fingers that that works in his favor. "If I get a few more people who go to Comic-Con, then I'll be happy." He paused. "And I can always come out for five minutes, do the opening and then hand the show to Neil."