Josh Groban had a popular song with “Old Devil Moon.” So will his lead role in a musical about a comet send his star streaking across the Great White Way? Anthony Mason has saved us a seat ... on Broadway:
In a studio on New York’s 42nd Street, the cast of the new musical “The Great Comet of 1812” rehearses for opening night. Twenty-four members of this production will soon be making their Broadway debuts, including the leading man, Josh Groban.
“This is something you’ve wanted for a long time,” Mason said.
“Yeah, it was my childhood dream,” Groban replied.
For weeks now, the 35-year-old singer has been putting in grueling 12-hour days to get ready. Is it harder work than he thought it would be? “I’m a professional worrier, so it is as hard as I thought it would be,” he laughed.
“Yeah, but I know you’re not afraid to work hard.”
“I have an excellent work ethic -- and I also worry. So I think maybe the two are related.”
Directing Groban and the cast is Rachel Chavkin, who admits there is a lot of anticipation about the show. “I feel it! I’ve been dreaming about it every night!” she laughed.
Chavkin will also be making her Broadway debut -- high stakes for everyone, said Groban, “but exciting. It just reminds me of when I was in high school.”
That was the last time Groban was in a musical -- at age 17, playing a skinny Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” while a senior at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
Groban went on to the elite musical theatre program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where his small class included Josh Gad (who’d play Olaf in “Frozen”), Katy Mixon, who’d play Melissa McCarthy’s sister in “Mike & Molly”), and Leslie Odom Jr. (who’d win a Tony Award starring in “Hamilton”).
“So many of my favorite, now on Broadway actors and TV actors were in my class of 13,” Groban said.
But at the end of his first semester, Groban dropped out when Warner Brothers offered him a record deal. His debut album, released in 2001, would sell nearly seven million copies. His second album sold nearly eight million.
The baby-faced baritone, whom The New York Times called “our national choirboy,” was a sensation who defied genre or trend.
Mason noted, “You’ve said yourself, you don’t really fit in musically.”
“Yeah, I felt that pretty early in my music career,” Groban replied.
“Has there been a price for that in some way?”
“My awards shelf is barren, you know? I feel like sometimes, especially early in my career, the way I was written about seemed very dismissive.”
“How did you feel about that?”
“It was discouraging. When you already feel like that kind of kid growing up, in elementary school and junior high, I was not ever in the clique. You know, I was never the kid invited to the parties. The psychology of it, of course, is just that you get into the big professional world, and you’re the kid not invited to the party again.
“But the thing that pushed me through that was that my fans were there for me from moment one.”
And they appear to be following him to Broadway. Even before its official opening, “The Great Comet” has been selling out in previews, earning more than a million dollars in its first week.
Groban said he has had Broadway offers before, and has turned them down, “for a number of reasons. Timing is everything. And the other thing is, there may be a brilliant show that’s been around for a really long time, and they’re looking for the 34th whoever in it. And the child-me says, ‘I grew up wanting to do that.’ But I think the adult-me says, ‘I want to bring something new.’”
Groban plays Pierre in “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (the musical’s full title), which is adapted from a love story within Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
Director Rachel Chavkin has transformed the Imperial Theatre into Imperial Russia, taking out 200 seats to extend the stage and create an intimate supper club for 1,200 guests.
“So the cast literally ends up on the stage, in the audience, up on the balcony, everywhere?” Mason asked.
“Yeah. I mean it would probably be as proper to say there is no stage,” said Chavkin.
“The Great Comet” has come a long way from the tiny Ars Nova theatre, where the show was conceived four years ago, playing to an audience of 87 people.
Groban saw an early production, and reached out when he heard it was headed to Broadway. Last year, he began working with Chavkin and the musical’s composer and creator, Dave Malloy.
Mason asked Malloy what brought him to “War and Peace.” “I read it! And it turns out it’s pretty good!”
Casting Groban meant he had to learn the accordion. So he bought one. “I came into the store, like I had sucker written all over my face!” he laughed. “I’m just like, ‘Hi, listen. I know this is gonna be a real pain in the butt. But I have a lot of money and I’ve never played before. And I need and instrument ‘cause I’m in this Broadway show.’”
He named the accordion “Olga,” and took her on tour with him this summer to train.
“The accordion that I walk out with at the top of the show, that I play throughout the show, that accordion has been to New Zealand, it has been to South Africa, it has been to Australia. That accordion has been on my back for the last year learning these songs.”
Of his foray into Broadway, Groban told Mason, “I didn’t wanna be thrown. Because I knew there’d be some head scratching. I knew there’d be a little bit of skepticism.”
Skepticism about? “Broadway is no stranger to stunt casting. And I’m coming from another world. And I wanted to make sure that it was known, right off the bat, that I was coming to this world with the maximum amount of respect for it.”
On the first night of previews this month, after a lifetime of dreaming, Josh Groban finally was ready for his Broadway entrance.
“It was more emotional for me than I thought it would be,” he said. “I was trying to be really calm and collected and professional, thinking, ‘This is the first preview, I’ve got a job to do, so go do this.’
“You think about the moments you didn’t know if you could do it. You think about all the people that discouraged you, you know, all the people that encouraged you, the teachers ... and then you have to just do it, yeah.
“One of our dressers on the show, I had her take my iPhone, and I said, ‘Please, just videotape my first steps onto the stage.” (See left.)
“I’ll never forget it: If I’m ever having a bad day, I’ll just play that. I’ll play that, yeah.”
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