Andy Mientus on TABOO

Andy Mientus calls himself “the Cathy Rigby of Spring Awakening”—and he’s not wrong. A die-hard fan of the musical, Mientus moderated Spring Awakening’s official Facebook fan page during college and eventually joined the first national tour in 2008, playing the manipulative Aryan sexpot Hänschen. After starring in “Smash,” “The Flash,” and Les Misérables, Mientus returned to Hänschen’s britches last fall for the acclaimed Deaf West revival. But Spring Awakening isn’t the only incendiary rock musical that has his heart. When we asked Mientus to talk about his dream Encores! show, he selected Taboo, Boy George’s autobiographical 2003 musical about friendship, drugs, and decadence in the New Romantic club scene of the 1980s.

CITY CENTER: How did you discover Taboo?
ANDY MIENTUS: I went to see it when I was in high school. I had a driver’s license, and Pittsburgh is notclose to New York, but not too far, so my parents somehow let me drive to New York City to see shows on the weekend. (laughs) Usually I would see Rent and something else. I would try the Rent lotto and see whatever else I could get into. I had read about Taboo on theater websites, and it sounded so fringy and poppy. Usually I would drive into New York City with friends—but for Taboo, I definitely went on a trip by myself when I was in high school and saw it. I think I rushed; I can’t quite remember.

What are your memories of that night?
The thing I remember most about the show is that it had everything. It was so funny and so moving, and I left humming the score before I even had the cast album. There were so many tunes in that score. And the cast was amazing; it was when I first saw Euan Morton and Sarah Uriarte Berry and all these great people who’ve had storied careers, but it was my introduction to them. I just left thinking, Oh, that’s a hit. (laughs) I was really surprised when it wasn’t.

You weren’t alone. Stephen Sondheim said that he “really liked” the show, and even though it only ran 100 performances on Broadway, there were superfans who saw it again and again—some of them more than fifty times. So why didn’t the show last?
I think it was just too fringy, to be honest. It was a really strange subject matter for a musical, and I think it may have been better suited to being done Off-Broadway. It was about club culture and AIDS—things that families don’t necessarily want to go see en masse. But at the same time, what I loved about Taboo was that it wasn’t just in-your-face edginess; it had so much heart. The songs are definitely not in the traditional musical style, but they’re really melodic and accessible, and they function well as theater songs. I think that’s probably why Sondheim responded to it—it was a great theater score. I wish Boy George would write another theater score. (pause) They really are such great songs. I sing two separate songs from Taboo in my audition book.

Which ones?
Should I give it away? Are kids gonna go out and sing them now? (laughs) No, I sing “Stranger In This World” and “Pretty Lies.” “Pretty Lies” is so gorgeous—especially that refrain (sings) “If you see all the hurt in my eyes…” It’s such a vulnerable sentiment. George is a male musical theater character who gets to be really vulnerable, and that’s hard to find. I think Taboo is like the prime show for Encores! to do, I’m gonna tell you right now. It’s the perfect candidate—a gem of a score that got lost in a really incredible season.

Right—that was the year of Wicked and Avenue Q.
And Caroline, right? Those other shows pulled apart the audience. All the serious theatergoers went toCaroline, all the downtown edge people went to Avenue Q, and all the families went to Wicked. And what was left? Taboo. Maybe that was why [it didn’t run]. I don’t know.

There was also a media circus surrounding the show. Raúl Esparza said that “we were savaged before we even opened,” and when they did open, the critics weren’t kind. A number of them said that the show lacked focus and seemed overstuffed with characters, but I think that’s what makes Taboo such a strange, generous show. It’s as if Boy George was asked to write a musical about himself, but then took pity on all the barnacles and groupies from his past and wrote amazing songs for them to sing.
Yeah, it could have really been a biopic-style jukebox show. And I’d like to see that show; I think that show could be really good. But it’s amazing that with Taboo, he chose to write about his friends. George is not even close to being the most interesting character in that show. I think there’s something really noble in that. Of course, if you’re writing a musical about club culture, it wouldn’t make sense to focus on one character. What’s appealing to people about going out to a club is the scene of it all, and all the characters you encounter. Taboo is sort of a wash and a wonderland of all these different characters.

You’ve called one of those characters, George, a dream role. Who else would be in your dream cast?
Oh my god, do you really want it? Cause I have it. (laughs) I would want Jay Armstrong Johnson to play Marilyn. I feel like no one else could do it. I would want Alysha Umphress to be Big Sue. I would want Taylor Mac, or maybe Justin Bond, to be Leigh Bowery. I feel like he needs to be played by a real, authentic downtown performance artist. And I would want every girl in New York to play the Sarah Uriarte Berry role.(laughs) I’d just want a rotating cast of all my favorite women: Nikki James, Krysta Rodriguez, Phillipa Soo. I’d want to hear every girl sing “Safe in the City.” Damon Daunno would play Marcus. Who else? I’ll think more on it. (laughs) I’ll send you a breakdown. [Ed. note: ten minutes after the interview ended, Mientus called back, saying, “I want Adam Lambert in the Raúl Esparza role. I just had to get that off my chest.”]

We’ve talked about the score, but I’m wondering if Taboo appealed to you on a more personal level. Sexuality is so fluid for all the characters—and in “Love is a Question Mark,” there’s that lovely lyric, “Who can explain the attraction?” Did that speak to you as a teen?
Definitely. Not on a conscious level, because I wouldn’t come to my queerness until a few years later, but it had to have some major impact, seeing these non-binary characters falling in love with each other—like the club girl falling in love with Leigh Bowery, and him falling in love with her, and the seemingly straight guy falling in love with George. And I’m sure that’s why I responded to Rent the way I did, even then.

When Euan Morton was preparing for the closing performance of Taboo, he said, “It’s just been my life. And it’s a hard life to put down.” Spring Awakening closes on January 24. Do you feel that way at all?
I’m definitely aware of the fact that I played this role entering my twenties and now I’m playing it exiting my twenties. Also, this is probably the last time I’m gonna be playing a teenager in a major production. (laughs)I’m leaving behind this part of my career that has really been my bread and butter; I’ve been playing schoolboys for a decade. So I do have this awareness of a chapter coming to an end. It’s a really nice, peaceful feeling. I feel grown-up. I can’t believe the way Spring Awakening has bookended my twenties. It’s amazing to look at where I was when I did it the first time, and how little I knew about myself. I had just gone through a major loss and was flung out into the business, away from home. I was a student in school and then was taken out of that. So I was dealing with all of that on stage. This time, I’m a fully-formed person: I’m getting married, and I have so much more confidence in what I do onstage—so it’s like the ultimate side-by-side photograph. It’s really easy for me, because I’m playing the same part, to look at myself and how I’ve changed.

Is it hard to keep Hänschen innocent?
Definitely. Not only because of my own experience, but just because of what he says. Those monologues he has are so twisted and wise, and his humor is so advanced. That’s what I love about him, but it is really hard to gauge how much of it is sincerely felt and how much of it is him just parroting what his parents have told him. It’s a tricky balance, and some nights I feel like I get seduced by the audience’s reaction to his cynicism and I lose it. (laughs) But it’s fun; it’s like walking a tightrope.

One of Hänschen’s great lines is, “When we look back, thirty years from now, tonight will seem unbelievably beautiful.” What is he thinking about when he says that?
Well, we know that he’s into the classics—he has that joke about Achilles and Patroclus. I think he goes into that vineyard knowing that he wants to have this conquest of this boy. But I don’t think he foresees them having a relationship together. At that time in history, he wouldn’t think was realistic. Instead, he thinks, We’re gonna have this one glorious, pure, secret roll in the hay, and we’ll look back on it as a beautiful little moment when you’re a country pastor and I’m the owner of a bank and married with several blond children. Also, in this staging, he turns to go with that line. Instead of luxuriating in it, I’m trying to get out of there. I’m saying, “That was great. When we look back, this will be beautiful. Goodbye!”

You recently got a tattoo of a ghost light. Why?
I’d been thinking about getting that tattoo for a long time. Ghost lights are such a cool, weird tradition. I love that it’s a distinctly theatrical tradition; it’s a place where the practical—making sure people don’t fall off the lip of the stage—meets the metaphysical—about the ghosts [that live in a theater]. That’s totally my world.(laughs) Also, I love the idea that if I get this on my skin, then it’s like the ghost light on the stage of my body. No matter what I end up doing, I started in the theater, and I can return to it. I’ll be a theater person for the rest of my life.

I Have A Sister… We’re NotClose, I Don’t Even Know How You’d Find Her…
—  You Know What I Love? This Line Was Originally Written “I Have A Brother” But David Asked For It To Be Changed To Sister. Since His Sister Is An Actress and He Wanted Her To Play Rodney’s Sister. Because He Loves Working With Her. The Producers Were All “Sure. Whatever You Want David”, Not Planning To Ever Actually Bring Rodney’s Sister On Canvas. But Then One Of Them Saw His Sister In A Play And Was Like “WE GOTTA GET HER!” And David Was Just “I Fucking Told You!”