Every time his close friend and former co-star Andrew Rannells performed onstage, Josh Gad would make the pilgrimage to see him. And after the curtain went down, Gad would be there backstage to greet Rannells with the same refrain: “I miss this,” he’d say. “I just want to be up there with you. We have got to find something to do together.”
That goal proved elusive. There aren’t many shows out there that can fully spotlight and support the pair’s prodigious gift for singing, dancing and delivering punchlines with a zip and a zing. Plus, when the actors first appeared together as hapless missionaries preaching the gospel of Joseph Smith in Uganda in 2011’s “The Book of Mormon,” the result was the kind of Broadway sensation that’s lucky to come around once in a decade. It played to sold-out crowds, won the Tony for best musical and propelled Rannells and Gad to stardom. Every night, the actors would look out at an audience of luminaries like Bono and Oprah, who had scored the hottest ticket in town.
“You can’t anticipate what becomes a phenomenon,” Gad says. “But you have to realize that you’re not going to be able to follow something like ‘Book of Mormon’ with another ‘Book of Mormon’-type hit. That’s impossible.”
Ideas for a grand reunion, such as reviving “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” or “The Producers,” were proposed and then abandoned. Nothing appealed to the pair until Alex Timbers, the director of “Beetlejuice” and “Here Lies Love,” pitched them on “Gutenberg! The Musical!”
First conceived at the Upright Citizens Brigade and later produced Off Broadway, the play follows two writers trying to attract backers for a musical about Johannes Gutenberg, the creator of a movable-type printing press. The catch is that the central duo know shockingly little about Gutenberg beyond the most cursory of Google searches. And yet the characters’ “Let’s put on a show!” brio was irresistible to the actors.
“This is a joyful story,” says Rannells. “It’s about two guys who are blindly following a dream. There isn’t any cynicism in it, and I wanted to live in that space for two hours every night.”
But the journey back to Broadway took unexpected turns. It was March 2020, and a week after the pair read the script and felt good about the prospects of doing the show, COVID upended everything, shutting down the Great White Way for more than a year. Now that they’re finally mounting “Gutenberg!,” they’re doing so against a similarly chaotic backdrop — the actors and writers strikes that have ground Hollywood to a standstill.
“We said, ‘Let’s wait for the other half of our industry to shut down before we do this,’” Gad jokes before Rannells chimes in: “We’re not necessarily good planners when it comes to global timing.”
They can laugh at all of that now, and they do — a lot — frequently cracking each other up when we meet at a rehearsal space at Ailey Extension. That’s where the two are spending eight hours a day working out the production’s intricate routines and dances. As I wait for them to break for lunch, dancers from the troupe that gives the space its name walk by in flesh-colored unitards that leave little to the imagination. It feels about as comfortable as marking time in a communal shower. It’s late August, and the show opens in less than two months, a short window that Gad acknowledges has him feeling anxious, particularly because he and Rannells don’t leave the stage for the entirety of the production.
“Not only did I come back to Broadway, but I’m returning with potentially the most physically demanding role there is available to do onstage right now,” Gad says, shaking his head as if briefly reconsidering the whole enterprise. “This is like a two-man version of ‘A Chorus Line.’ We never get a break, and we are doing choreography that was not intended for my weight class or body type.”
“But you’re nailing it,” Rannells interjects with blithe confidence.
“I’m going to call out twice a week,” Gad jokes before asking, “Is there the equivalent of steroids for theater people?”
“Yes,” Rannells responds. “They’re called steroids.”
Gad, 42, and Rannells, 45, have great chemistry, but despite the scientific nature of that word, there’s no formula for predicting how two performers are going to click. In the case of “The Book of Mormon,” the show worked so well because Gad and Rannells’ contrasting comedic styles complemented each other. Gad, who describes himself as a “ping-pong ball of energy,” overflows with enthusiasm, chasing an audience’s laughter, willing to do anything to get it to erupt. He’s always on. His jokes keep building on each other, creating little arias of absurdity. Rannells holds back, letting Gad dominate the conversation until he comes in with a perfectly timed, precisely worded quip. His deadpan is to die for.
“Having Andrew in ‘Mormon’ allowed the show to find an equilibrium,” Gad says in between bites of chicken and rice. “I was kind of a bull in a china shop, but Andrew created barriers that kept my energy inside. That changed the dynamic in the best possible way.”
“He has something that he does, I have something that I do, and it blends very well together,” Rannells says as he slides a sandwich out of a Ziploc bag. “There’s no feeling of competition like we’re trying to one-up each other.”
Gad thinks that the pair’s different body types also help their jokes land. “There’s a familiar legacy of these physically distinctive odd couples, whether it’s Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello or Chris Farley and David Spade. When you find the right archetypes, it’s a tried-and-true recipe for humor,” he says. “Seeing the two of us together physically is fun.”
And though it has been more than a decade since they last duetted in “The Book of Mormon,” Gad says the pair quickly fell back into the same rhythm while rehearsing “Gutenberg!”
“In terms of our banter, we haven’t lost a step,” he says. “We know exactly what tickles the other one. A lot of times the goal for Andrew and me is to try to make each other laugh.”
“Which sometimes also works for the audience,” Rannells notes dryly.
And hearing the audience respond to what they’re doing in real time is what makes theater so enticing for the actors, both of whom have enjoyed success in television and film, with Gad voicing the bubbly snowman in “Frozen” and Rannells appearing on “Girls.” But in between, Rannells kept returning to Broadway, scoring a Tony nomination for “Falsettos” and co-starring in a revival of “The Boys in the Band.”
“There’s nothing quite like theater,” he says. “You experience glimpses of being in the zone when you’re shooting something, but you keep having to break for different shots so you can’t sustain it.”
But Gad, despite his long-standing ambition to return to the theater, hasn’t been on a stage since ending his run in “The Book of Mormon” in 2012.
“My soul needed this challenge again,” he says. “I’ve got to go back and exercise these muscles, because I’m not sure I can still do it. This is a trust fall for me, and I’m scared. But the one person who I know that will catch me if I fall” — Gad pauses for a beat, his eyebrow arching — “was not available, so I had to call Andrew.”
“See what he did there,” Rannells says, pointing across the table. “Do you get the joke?”
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