Josh Groban Finally Treads the Boards on Broadway

The baritone wunderkind tackles 'War and Peace' (and an accordion!) in 'Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812'

There are two distinct Josh Grobans.

The first is evidenced through his conversational Twitter feed—refreshingly personal in contrast to some celebrities whose tweets read more like press releases from careful publicists. This is the Josh Groban who’s appeared in small roles in The Office and Crazy, Stupid, Love—always game to play an exaggerated, manic version of himself or to sing Donald Trump tweets for Jimmy Kimmel.

The first Josh Groban is always meeting your parents for the first time. And look! He brought your mom’s favorite flowers and a casserole he made himself. You didn’t need to do that, Josh! Steve, look—Josh brought a casserole. This Josh Groban helps to clear the dessert plates, and then he sings and plays the piano, not to show off but because he just wants everyone to have fun. At the end of the night, your dad shakes Josh’s hand and tells him to call him by his first name. 

That is the first Josh Groban.

The second Josh Groban possesses his body like a poltergeist the instant he takes a breath before he begins to sing. His jokey banter is replaced by his famous, classically trained vibrato, the voice of an angel, perfectly choral, in Italian, French or Spanish. He is a Serious singer with a capital S. 

And then, five minutes later, his eyes open, and the first Josh returns to banter again with the audience like a seasoned stand-up comedian.

“I’ve had to kind of balance both worlds because they’re both equally me,” Groban told me. “It’s just the sound of my singing voice is sometimes a different animal from the rest of me.”

Overlooking Broadway

Overlooking Broadway

Discovered in high school by megaproducer David Foster, Groban first received national attention when he stood in for Andrea Bocelli to sing “The Prayer” with Céline Dion at rehearsals for the Grammys.

From there, a small role on Ally McBeal made him famous. The contrast between the awkward, clumsy teenager Groban played and the adult voice when the character sang was so stark, many people assumed the voice had been dubbed.

“That was a great compliment actually!” Groban said. “It’s nice to have a beard now because I feel like I look like my voice for the first time, ever, but back in the Ally McBeal days especially, when I was so scrawny, and so young, I don’t think people believed that baritone voice was coming out of that pipsqueak.

“My voice is kind of grand and more traditional—[producer] Rick Rubin called it ‘chivalrous’—and I’m such a goofball outside of my singing. When I was working with Rick actually, he was like, ‘You can’t sing about going down the street for a burrito. Even though every day you might not feel like the poet, romantic guy, don’t be afraid, with your voice, to be on a pedestal a little bit, because that’s what your instrument does, even if that’s not what the rest of you is doing.’ ”

Groban has forged a unique career trajectory

Groban has forged a unique career trajectory

Groban and I met at the Knickerbocker Hotel, a few blocks from where he spent the day in his first rehearsal for Broadway’s upcoming Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Even after a full day of meeting and performing for strangers (and another few hours of work for our photo shoot), he was still remarkably energetic and engaged—happy, definitely, to be sitting down but without even a trace of impatience or resentment that would be completely understandable after an exhausting day. 

“It really was like the first day of camp,” Groban said. “It was just one of those days you could tell, mingling in the room, that the energy was just so great.”

I would say Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, based on a 70-page section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, seems an unusual subject for a Broadway musical, but that notion seems almost quaint in the era of  “hip-hop version of the life of Alexander Hamilton.”

(Great Comet does have a Hamilton connection—the original Off-Broadway production included Eliza Hamilton herself, Phillipa Soo, as Natasha, the role now filled by Denée Benton.)

If you only pretended to read War and Peace for your Russian Lit class freshman year, The Great Comet’s plot might seem a little convoluted at first. As the musical’s prologue announces, “Gonna have to study up a little bit / If you wanna keep with the plot / ‘cause it’s a complicated Russian novel / Everyone’s got nine different names / So look it up in your program.”

In short: Natasha is a young girl living with her cousin and godmother in Moscow. She’s engaged to Andrey, who’s off fighting a war, and while he’s away, she finds herself infatuated with a notorious rogue named Anatole (“Anatole’s hot / he spends his money on women and wine.”) Meanwhile, Pierre, Anatole’s brother-in-law and the illegitimate son of a wealthy family, is drunk, depressed and searching for meaning.

Although Groban once appeared in the concert version of the musical Chess, his upcoming role as Pierre is the first bona fide Broadway appearance for the lifelong theatre fan, a consequence of mainly timing.

“It’s not just an excuse,” Groban said. “I’ve been in a really busy cycle. Since I was signed, there’s been that pressure when I’m off the road to go back in the studio.”

“It was lonely. You’re a solo artist, you’re not singing music your friends listen to, and I was constantly on the road…The stage was my time to relax. I would go out and sing…and then the other 22 hours in the day were spent festering.”

Because Groban’s albums are slightly unconventional, requiring full orchestration and a long, dedicated process of actually figuring out what the album will look like, they take longer to produce than a typical pop record. “Once that’s done, then promo starts, and then you’ve got to tour, because you’ve got to make money. And then by the time you’re done with that, it’s been two years since the album was released and the record label is going, ‘Get back in the studio.’ So even if you don’t stop moving, it’s three years between albums for a fan.”

If he was going to stop the cycle, he said, it would need to be for something special. And with its immersive set, vaudeville rock-opera music and intimately relatable characters, Groban knew Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 was something special.

Rachel Chavkin first directed the show in 2012 at Ars Nova, an intimate production that received rave reviews for its humor, creativity and immersive staging. Now, four years later, she’s landing The Great Comet at the Imperial on Broadway.

“Pierre is a role that demands enormous vocal and emotional subtlety. At the start of the show, he is in a spiral of self-loathing and booze,” said Chavkin, over email, discussing the decision to cast Groban. “There’s a major self-deprecating humor to him, and also a philosophical quest for something more, which drives him through the play. Josh’s capacity for introspection, his easy humor and his profound vocal skill all made him a perfect match for the role. He’s got the comedic skills necessary to both sharpen and soften the edge of Pierre’s inner demons and also can move from rough to angelic in his singing. He just has enormous range. And he’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, and he loves the show, and so he’s has been an extremely good partner.”

Case in point: Groban spent a year teaching himself to play an accordion—which he nicknamed “Olga”—for his role.

“It’s great, because I’ve got a background in piano, so the keys part of it came pretty naturally, although it’s sideways and you’re basically playing blind—it’s got to be all muscle memory while you’re playing. But it’s great because it breathes. And it breathes with you. So having this instrument that’s this breathing thing against your body while you’re singing, and you’re playing, and it’s making its noise, and you’re making your noise—it’s really fun.”

Because many of the other members of the cast had been part of The Great Comet in its earlier incarnations, Groban felt particular pressure to show up ready to perform on day one.

“My job has been to memorize and learn piano and accordion parts and all of my lines before going into rehearsals because I’m one of the few people that hasn’t done the show already 500 times. So I wanted to be, I think, more ready because of that.”

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Josh Groban at The Knickerbocker Hotel.

Josh Groban at The Knickerbocker Hotel.

saw Josh Groban in concert (promoting his latest album, Stages) at Jones Beach in July, playing to a full stadium of—it appeared—mostly women in their mid-30s out on a girls’ night.

I brought along my boyfriend Matt, dutifully playing the role of “good sport”; he had only a passing knowledge of who Josh Groban was and was, no doubt, grinding his teeth a little at the way most of his fans—and I—involuntarily blushed when his name was mentioned.

Matt and I met Groban backstage with a few moments to spare before he needed to get ready to perform. He opened the door, barefoot and in jeans, with his dog Sweeney (named for classic Sondheim anti-hero Sweeney Todd) bounding and eager at his side.

Almost immediately after introductions, Groban looked at Matt. “You look thirsty,” Groban said. “Do you want a water?” He went to his fridge and threw Matt a bottle.

Hours after the concert had ended, on the train ride back to the city, Matt was still fixated on how kind, how observant, how generous Groban had been: “He was so perceptive! He knew that I was thirsty!”

I understood the surprise: For someone as talented as he is, someone who’s been famous since 16, Groban is surprisingly, infuriatingly normal.

Josh Groban

Josh Groban

In dealing with the burden of early success, it’s not uncommon for young stars to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope, or else drop out of the industry altogether. But Groban seems to have a genuine passion for singing, and perhaps it’s that love of the craft that allowed him to continue to move forward.

“It was lonely,” Groban admitted of his early years touring and trying to find his place as a professional singer. “You’re a solo artist. You’re not singing music your friends listen to, and I was constantly on the road, and I’m an over-thinker anyways. The stage was my time to relax. I would go out and sing, and it would feel so good. And then the other 22 hours in the day were spent festering.”

Josh Groban was always an enigma: a teen boy who was never a teen heartthrob; a best-selling vocalist who wasn’t a pop star; a child with an adult voice.

“I look back and think, thank God I didn’t really freak out and self-sabotage in other ways,” Groban said. “I had anxiety right and left. If I had to go back and tell my younger self anything, it’s please just enjoy this experience. Because I could not enjoy any minute of it, I really couldn’t. I was singing my ass off, and I was grateful as the day is long, but I was terrified, always. Because I still couldn’t believe it was happening. I thought it was a fluke. I thought it was a universe-is-cruel joke. I thought that at any minute it would go away. So I was constantly wary of the fact that I thought I was singing on borrowed time.”

Groban, contemplative

Groban, contemplative

Part of that insecurity came from how difficult Groban was to categorize. He was an incredible talent, undeniably, but how does an operatic voice sell records when it’s attached to a 16-year-old self-proclaimed goofball? There was no real model for his success, no blueprint for how one of his albums should look or sound.

“It’s interesting because when you’re signed at 16, what do you have to say? And along with that lack of life experience, you have a voice that’s appealing to a much older audience that has a lot of life experience. So it was a complicated thing with What do I want to say on that album? especially. And really the first album or two, we just decided to find songs that allowed the vocal side of my brain to do most of the talking. And I was kind of afraid for a long time to let the other side of my brain talk to my audience because it was so different from what my voice was giving to them.”

The Great Comet is finally a chance for the two sides of Josh Groban to unite into a cohesive whole. He’s playing a character, sure, but a character in a funny, fresh and entirely unique musical experience that calls for full use of his famous voice but also allows him to rough it up around the edges. He’s home from a summer tour, surrounded by people as passionate about a new project as he is, and he’s ready to put on an incredible show.

“I think, in the last five or six years, I have found that my career has been so much more enjoyable and so much more well rounded since I started really soaking in the offstage moments too,” Groban said. “And really appreciating—I always appreciated it—but really appreciating that it might not go away. That if I continue to work hard and continue to stay true to my gut, it actually might not flitter away. I think that’s just experience. Just after so many hours of fooling them, you start to realize maybe you’re not.”

Anyone who listens to Josh Groban sing knows immediately that he didn’t fool anyone into success. And now, if you’re lucky enough to see him on Broadway, you’ll see that he’s capable of performing with more than just his voice. It’s everything—both sides of Groban put together and distilled over anxiety and experience and a sense of humor—that has turned him into a star.