Neil Patrick Harris displayed a steady hand as host in 2011 and opened and… (Jeff Christensen / Associated…)
NEW YORK — Viewers who watched last year's Tony Awards probably remember the performance of host Neil Patrick Harris, particularly his envelope-pushing opening number about Broadway that featured the chorus "It's not just for gays anymore."
But for those tuning in to the 2012 show Sunday to see how Harris will top himself, the actor and soon-to-be-three-time Tonys host has a message: Don't expect a repeat performance.
"It's a tricky line to draw, because if I try not to do what I did the last two times then I'm not really honoring the night," Harris said. "But I also don't want to replicate what I've done in the past. I didn't want to do an acerbic, pushing-the-line opening dance number this year because, well, that went well last year and I don't want to seem redundant." (The show will instead open with a performance from last year's best musical Tony winner, "The Book of Mormon.")
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Harris was sitting in the balcony of the show's Beacon Theatre a few days before Broadway's biggest night, which CBS will broadcast at 8 p.m. Sunday on both the East Coast (live) and the West Coast (tape-delayed).
On the stage below, a man was rolling around on the floor. James Corden, the star of Broadway's physical-comedy hit "One Man, Two Guvnors," was rehearsing an elaborate bit in which he plays two personalities at war with each other. Corden slapped himself in the face, then tumbled a half-dozen times across the stage before crashing into a row of trash cans. Harris watched intently, then clapped loudly when Corden finished.
In a checked shirt and skater sneakers, the actor looked casual but a little anxious, sipping a Red Bull as he watched. Any pressure he feels is understandable. In addition to the attention-getting opening number last year, critics praised a Harris-Hugh Jackman duet as well as the closing number, a hip-hop synopsis of the show written on the fly by Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights") that Harris, who shows a flair for verbal comedy on the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," rapped with a beat boxer's skill.
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With such well-received moments, Harris' 2011 Tonys cemented his status as the most successful award show emcee right now, approaching Billy Crystal in his heyday with the Oscars. (Harris hosted both the Tonys and the Emmys in 2009.)
A few days earlier, the actress Judith Light, nominated for her performance as a droll alcoholic in Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," said she had big hopes for Harris.
"I can't wait for him to deliver the pot shots," she said. "I'm hoping he picks on me."
This year the Broadway season didn't produce a hit on the order of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "The Book of Mormon," which in 2011 gave the Tonys a populist nominee and allowed the show to reflect the"South Park" creators' irreverence.
The leading nominees in 2012, on the other hand, are less familiar shows such as the intimate Irish musical "Once" and new dramas like "Clybourne Park" and "Desert Cities."
"We're taking a different approach to the celebration," said Dave Boone, who returns this year as head writer, as he took a break from watching rehearsal. "Matt and Trey gave us a hook that we don't have this year."
Instead, Boone said, the show would look to numbers from "Newsies," the Disney family romp based on the 1992 movie, as well as the physical comedy of plays such as "Guvnors" and "Peter and the Starcatcher," the zany Peter Pan origin story starring the Tony-nominated Christian Borle (who plays a composer in NBC's Broadway soap opera,"Smash").
The Tonys also will lean on appearances from such Hollywood up-and-comers such as Jessica Chastain (who will appear in "The Heiress" on Broadway this fall) and Jim Parsons (currently onstage in a revival of "Harvey") as well as standbys like Matthew Broderick and Angela Lansbury.
Boone, who has worked on nearly 10 Tonys and collaborated with Billy Crystal on this year's Oscars and Ricky Gervais on the Golden Globes, said he feels the collective anticipation of what Harris will do Sunday night.
"We're definitely conscious that the expectations are so huge because last year we came out of the box so strong," he said. "But we don't want to try to re-create last year. We want to capture the spirit of something different. That's the beauty of the Tonys — it's different every year depending on the shows."
Boone said he and Harris had a closing number "in our back pocket" (Harris described it as "less edgy than last year and more splashy"). But they may have to cut it if the show runs long.
For that and other split-second decisions, producers will rely heavily on Harris, who has developed a reputation for quick reactions and dexterous ad-libs.
Asked to describe the host's main strength, Boone said, "Neil is president of the Magic Castle, and he loves magic tricks, whether it's verbal or vocal tricks, or a physical trick he does on stage. And that's the way we approach the show — as one big magic trick."
A few minutes later, Harris had returned to the stage to rehearse a bit in which he interrupts a number from "Peter and the Starcatcher." He gets into a choreographed battle with Borle that has the two quipping to each other simultaneously, "Cut that out — go back to your [TV] series."
Playing at once to theater geeks and a television audience unfamiliar with the shows isn't easy, Harris said.
"My job as emcee is to establish two very different tones. At home you want the tone to be 'Come see the shows,' and in the theater you want it to be 'Relax, you're in good hands.' You need to be inclusive of two very different groups."
He exhaled. "We did that last year. We'll see what happens this year."