Originally published on The Guardian
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ast year might have been an annus horribilis for most, but for Josh Groban, 2016 couldn’t have gone much better. The multiplatinum-selling singer-songwriter, who shot to fame as a teenager, made the transition to Broadway star after making his debut in the musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
A musical adaptation of 70 pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, affectionately shortened to The Great Comet, caught Groban’s attention when it was in residency at a custom-built supper club in downtown Manhattan. He’d been looking for a new musical project and contacted the producers to express his interest in working on the show. Fast-forward many months and Groban is starring on Broadway, singing (happily) and dancing (reluctantly) in eight performances a week of a show with almost wall-to-wall rave reviews.
The Great Comet is his Broadway debut, but Groban is no stranger to the stage. When he was a child in Los Angeles, his parents took him to the theater, and he was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University’s musical theater program but dropped out of his freshman year after being offered a recording deal by Warner Brothers. Seven albums and more than 20m sales later, Broadway was still on his mind, which was apparent when he starred in two concert productions of the musical Chess and then released “Stages,” an album of musical theater favorites that includes “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables and “Old Devil Moon” from Finian’s Rainbow.
But none of the songs from “Stages” resemble melodies from The Great Comet, an electro-pop opera that features only one line of spoken dialogue in its two-and-a-half-hour production. Composed by Dave Malloy, the score – which follows the naive Natasha who, while her fiance, Andrey, is at war, is swept into the fast-paced life in Moscow and falls into an affair with the rascal Anatole – is a fusion of Russian folk, classical compositions, indie rock and punk music.
Despite all that, Groban says it was the restlessness and discomfort of Pierre that drew him to the character and the project.
“He simultaneously kind of shuns and criticizes the vapidness and narcissisms of society, and at the same time so badly wants to be a part of it,” he said. “I thought that was so much more interesting as a character than any of the step-out-in-the-spotlight ‘leading man’ kind of roles.”
Rather than a soaring love ballad, that big number for Groban is a song called “Dust and Ashes,” in which Pierre reflects on the wasted opportunities of his own life and articulates his desire for meaning.
“You do have your epiphany and do have the discovery of true love and joy and the comet and all the things that Pierre eventually discovers,” Groban continued. “I think it gives that so much more weight and meaning when you’re bumbling and shy and locked in your hole.”
While Groban’s acting and singing have been praised by critics, he is quickly and bluntly self-deprecating about his dancing. Another reason Pierre appealed to Groban was the character did not dance.
“The choreographer, one day at rehearsal, he said: ‘Uh, Josh Groban, can you come out in the hallway please?’ I thought, ‘Oh, God, am I in trouble?’” Groban recalled, laughing. “He pulled me out and said, ‘You’re going to hate me, but there’s a scene in ‘Gypsy Lovers’ where I think Pierre’s going to have to dance.’ So we came up with this five-second twirl that he does, and I can say that I have been a triple threat on Broadway – not well, but I have done it. And the nice thing about Pierre’s dancing ability is he’s supposed to be drunk and supposed to be a bull in a china shop.”
Accessing Pierre’s despair, Groban said, came from his own experiences, both personal and artistic, battling self-doubt and self-criticism and struggling with a lack of purpose or structure.
“I’ve never gone through anything to the extreme that Pierre has gone through. Luckily, I think most of us have not gone through that,” he said. “But at the same time, we all understand what hopelessness feels like. We all understand what a lack of purpose, what a lack of vitality feels like. I think we all know what it feels like to break through that and be stronger from it.”
Groban has weathered a few onstage mishaps, including one that actually landed him offstage. Caught up in a moment of conflict with another character, Groban stamped his foot so hard that he fell forward into the orchestra pit.
“Every time I said [the line] I kept stomping and stepping forward and I didn’t realize where my feet were,” he recalled. “Usually I’m a little farther back. I missed because the strobe lights are so disorienting. I said, ‘You bully! You scoundrel!’ It was like a vaudevillian slapstick routine. I fell smack-dab right on to the drum set.
“I had fat padding on so I didn’t feel a thing. But my ego was bruised,” he continued. “At least it was when Pierre is drunk and stumbling. At least it wasn’t, like, during the final song. Complete chaos. I crashed into the pit. It was almost a rim shot. The snare hit, the cymbal went flying. Everyone in the cast was like: ‘Well, you’ve done 50 shows now, but this was your official initiation.’”
Stunt-casting a show, with a glittery celebrity name taking on a very limited run, is nothing new to Broadway, and something Groban is aware of. But the star is quick to emphasize the community of the Comet cast and sing his colleagues’ praises. If anything, finally performing on Broadway, which was his dream since he was a teenager, makes the self-proclaimed dork who admits to difficulty relaxing and celebrating his accomplishments feel like one of the cool kids.
“When James Corden played my clip of Tevye at the Tonys, I was embarrassed,” he said, recalling a video of himself as a teenager singing “If I Were a Rich Man” in a school production of Fiddler on the Roof. “But mainly I was like, ‘Look at that kid who couldn’t get a date, who had to put on a fake beard, whose truly being onstage as Tevye was the most cathartic thing for me going through a difficult high school experience.’ To see that being aired on the Tonys … I so rarely do it, but sometimes I give myself a high five.”
Recently, he’s had a lot to celebrate.