“Attention, every breeder/You’re invited to the theater.”
Hearing that lyric on the Tony Awards broadcast in 2011, the year of “The Book of Mormon,” might not have been as jarring as it would be most other years. But the line didn’t come from that famously irreverent show.
Nor did “We’re asking every hetero/To get to know us better-o.” Or — and this one did cause some concern leading up to airtime — “Come in and be inspired/There’s no sodomy required.”
And they all came in the first six minutes of the broadcast, courtesy of an impish Neil Patrick Harris’s showstopping show opener, “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore” (“it” being Broadway).
Subsequent Tonys numbers have been more deep-cuttish (James Corden riffing off “Be More Chill” in a bathroom stall) or more spontaneous (Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail’s end-of-show recap) or just plain bigger (Harris again in, well, “Bigger”).
But “Not Just for Gays,” written by Adam Schlesinger (who died of the coronavirus in April) and David Javerbaum, set a new template for what the Broadway community would accept in terms of self-mockery.
“Mormon” was expected to run the table that night, and it did, winning nine of 13 possible awards. The real drama came over how exactly those first six minutes would go over.
“The Tonys back then were historically a posh and highbrow salute to theatrical excellence,” Harris said recently, lingering plummily over those last two words. “I laughed when I first heard the idea for the opening song but knew that nobody would let us do it.”
Or would they? Harris felt he had a few things working in his favor. For one thing, he said, “playing an alpha cad on ‘How I Met Your Mother’ gave me some leeway on CBS.” And the success of “Mormon,” co-written by the “South Park” provocateurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone, “allowed us to push the boundaries of what we could get away with.”
But only up to a point. And so a bit of lyrical legerdemain was called for.
“Because we wanted to keep it completely secret,” Javerbaum said, “I ended up writing a completely fake second lyric that was not great but was good enough to be believable.” Up until the day of the broadcast, everyone except Javerbaum, Schlesinger and Harris thought he would be singing a song called “Tonight at the Tony Awards.”
Each year the Tonys has an invited dress rehearsal a few hours before the actual show, at which point it was time to ditch the Potemkin lyric and sing the real one. Everything went over well — except for that sodomy couplet.
As Harris recalled, “CBS said you can’t say ‘sodomy.’ I said, ‘Why? It’s not a curse word, and we specifically say, “NO sodomy required.” It’s not pro-sodomy!’”
And so one of those alternate lyrics came into play: Javerbaum remembers the compromise choice as “man-man love,” while Harris thinks it was “same-sex love.” Whatever it was, that’s what the teleprompter said on Tony night. But it’s not what Harris sang.
“It would never have made it to the air if Neil hadn’t behaved heroically sneakily,” Javerbaum said.
Harris also kept a game face as a bit of mid-song audience participation dragged on over the allotted time, in part because of a botched verse from Brooke Shields.
“Brooke, bless her heart, came in at the last minute to replace someone else,” said Javerbaum, who also lamented the lack of a strong musical cue showing the singers when to enter. “That was our fault, not hers.” (Harris counted off a subsequent musical entrance for Bobby Cannavale.)
Schlesinger and Javerbaum had first collaborated a few years earlier on “Cry-Baby,” an ill-considered attempt to piggyback on the success of “Hairspray” with another retro John Waters adaptation. And while that show closed in less than two months, it did get them the Tonys job, their first such assignment. (At the time of his death, Schlesinger was also writing the music and co-writing the lyrics for “The Bedwetter,” which had been scheduled to begin previews in April at the Atlantic Theater Company before the shutdown.)
The two went on to write tailored material — Javerbaum calls them “bespoke” songs — for the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jane Lynch. When Schlesinger appeared on the comedian Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast in 2012, he credited this surge in work to the success of “Not Just for Gays,” which won an Emmy Award that year.
“That, in a way, opened more doors for me in the theater world than ‘Cry-Baby’ had,” he told Maron, “even though that was a show I had worked on for five years and this was a song we wrote in two weeks. But a lot more people saw it.”
And not just any people but people who know their way around a musical theater number.
“I have since done a lot of writing for awards shows,” Javerbaum said, “but writing a song for the Tony Awards is the most stressful. That audience knows a good lyric and a good song — or a bad one — when they hear it.”
Harris said this particular song went through iteration after iteration to get there. “Adam was so talented and at the same time so amenable to changes,” he said. “You serve a lot of masters when you work on something like the Tonys, and he was so effective at tailoring his work as he went while maintaining his integrity.”
Javerbaum, who said he is still in the disbelief stage over losing his collaborator of more than a decade, found Schlesinger to have an ideal sense of perspective when it came to foregrounding the words or the music.
“Honestly, Adam was capable of writing far more impressive melodies” than “Not Just for Gays,” Javerbaum said. “But he understood the psychology and the needs of writing a song that was funny. He understood that the lyric was the important thing in this case, and he wrote in service of that.”
Or, in this case, the multiple lyrics.