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High-Wire Act


Shirt and vest by Brooks Brothers  

When the show was canceled in 1993, Harris went through a period of retreat. He made some lightweight but lucrative TV movies; then, at 25, he appeared in the L.A. company of Rent, an experience he found liberating. “This gypsy world of people who are just so appreciative of each other’s individuality!” Harris says, grinning at the memory, his arms held wide. “Where some people are super-gay and have girlfriends or boyfriends for twenty years, and others swing both ways—or are straight and have a wife but they’re okay with gay men giving them foot massages and don’t freak out. And you’re singing about that: no day but today, and there’s only us and there’s only this, and don’t regret.”

The audience became a mirror for his own struggles. “You can see young couples, old-guy couples, clutching each other, openly sobbing,” he tells me. “And you’re singing at them, to them, sobbing too. It’s very cathartic. And it certainly put to rest my weird personal concerns, because there’s a much bigger picture.”

Harris also went home to New Mexico for a few years, to live in an adobe house with some “rock-climbing friends.” He went through the self-help seminar the Forum (up two levels) and to a Tony Robbins seminar in Mexico. He slowly came out to friends and family, including his parents, lawyers who now own a restaurant in Albuquerque. There was some disappointment, but also a lot of “bear hugs” from people who said they already knew. “Everyone has their ‘rackets,’ ” he says—a Forum term for psychological blockages—“and for me it was the recognition from when I was younger: It was hard for me to not see everything through the veil of that. But, you know, when you’re interacting on a self-help level with a 68-year-old woman who was molested at 10 and it ruined her life, it puts a lot of things in perspective.”

Finally, Harris committed to the fact that “if I wanted to be in the business, I had to be in the business.” It’s a cliché that Hollywood actors go back to “their first love, the stage” when they can’t get parts, and Harris recognized that for producers, his teen-idol name was something to lure ticket buyers. But there was also his undeniable talent. In New York, he took over the Alan Cumming part as the ambisexual emcee in Cabaret, and in 2004 took a challenging dual role in Assassins, a politically charged production that was postponed initially after 9/11. “That forced me to be much more full-body and much more in tune with a savvy audience member—they’re much more discerning,” he says, recalling the trial-by-fire that was the audience at Assassins. “Some nights, standing ovations. And some nights, people would literally refuse to applaud and just scowl at us.”

“I wasn’t thought of in a sexual way, which is easy when you have big ears and are called Doogie all the time.”

His time in Cabaret lent Harris a different sort of freedom. “That was also extraordinarily liberating, but more in a Sam Mendes, weird, Cirque du Soleil kind of way. It wasn’t just ‘musical-theater world,’ it was real”—his voice drops an octave—“rrrough. It was dirty, and everyone could have been sued, or won, for sexual harassment. I’d be standing stage left, upstairs, with a cigarette in my hand, and two girls would come by and start fondling me and sucking on my neck and then leave. And I’d push ’em away and sit on someone’s lap and grab their junk. It was insane!” He laughs out loud. “It was an insane time.”

He emerged from these experiences as a very different performer from the child actor he’d been, with that puff of apricot hair and owlish watchfulness. He was physically adroit and sexually self-confident. And instead of cringing from his relationship with an audience—bridling at the mutual manipulation, the necessary seduction—he had begun to lean into it.

It was also while starring in Cabaret that he met actor David Burtka, who was playing Tulsa in Gypsy. Like Harris, Burtka was “a relationship guy,” and at first Harris assumed he was straight and dating a mutual female friend, Kate Reinders, who played Baby June. “I said, ‘Oh, Kate, nicely done.’ ” But Burtka was already involved, raising twins with his long-term male partner. “So I sort of gazed from afar until that had run its course. And thankfully I got to hear from Kate on the phone, every now and again, when she’d say, ‘They’re fighting! They’re fighting! You might have your chance!’ ”

After Burtka and his partner broke up, he and Harris went on a date, “and it was all very quick and fast and I’m still head over heels and we’re five-plus years in.”

Like many stage actors, Burtka had never been in the closet: In live theater, it’s accepted that a wide proportion of performers are gay. “We yin and yang very well,” says Harris. “We’re both Geminis, but I, you can probably tell, I process what the options are, and figure out what to say, and he tends to just say what he is feeling. I’m just bowled over by him. He’s made my life exponentially more livable. He’s just—great. I’m his forever protector, and I’m happiest when he’s happy.”

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