At 35, Josh Groban has accomplished more than most other Gen Xers. He has sold more than 30 million CDs and DVDs, had his own PBS special, starred on stage in London (in a concert version of “Chess” opposite Idina Menzel), dated famous actresses (including January Jones and Kat Dennings), sang a duet with Barbra Streisand, performed for President Barack Obama and was named one of People magazine’s “Most Beautiful People.”
But the Los Angeles native has now done something he has always wanted to: play Broadway. In the new musical, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” at the Imperial Theatre through July 2, Groban plays the unhappily married Russian aristocrat Pierre, who longs for the much-younger Natasha (played by Denée Benton). He talks about why he chose this show, what he loves about NYC and more.
Why did you choose to make your Broadway bow in this show?
There have been offers for other shows, and roles that I knew I would enjoy playing, but I was waiting for something truly special. I saw this show when it played at Kazino [a makeshift theater in a tent, at the time, in the Meatpacking District], and it really stuck with me, in part because I love the music Pierre sings. I knew it would be a challenge: Pierre is not someone people would expect me to play. I liked the idea of taking such a big risk.
The show is based on 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Have you read the whole book?
I’ve read up to page 900, which is well beyond the 70 pages the show covers. I wanted to get a sense how Tolstoy told the story of Natasha, Pierre and Anatole. Plus, it helps me to know what happened to Pierre beforehand and afterward in terms of the story we tell.
How important was the show’s cast and creative team in guiding you through this experience?
I am so glad that I had people like our director, Rachel Chavkin, and our composer-librettist, Dave Malloy, to work with me. They really give me more confidence in my abilities. And it’s such a special opportunity that Dave wrote the solo “Dust and Ashes” just for me. I have to admit, I was very nervous about joining this show on Broadway, because a lot of the cast has done the show together for so many years. I didn’t want to just waltz in as a new dad to this existing family. I wanted to make sure I could start from scratch like they did, so I did extra work with Rachel and Dave, and special rehearsals even when I was touring. And the cast has been so welcoming—maybe because so many of us are making our Broadway debuts. We’re all so excited to go on every night.
A lot has been made of the fact that your body is padded, you have a beard; in short, that you don’t look like “Josh Groban.”
I liked the idea that I wasn’t going to look like I would off stage. First, I didn’t want to feel like me being in the show was stunt casting; the costume makes it feel more organic. And I didn’t want people to be distracted by my presence. If they’re thinking, “Hey, I saw that guy on PBS,” then they’re not thinking about the story. I especially like the padding—as I call it “the junk in the trunk”—because it helps the way I move as Pierre. It accentuates the fact that the other characters think of him as a bull in a china shop. People respect him because of his money and power; they don’t view him as a threat. But once he gets angry, especially after he drinks too much, anything can happen.
The show is somewhat interactive. How does it feel to be two feet from a member of the audience at times?
As a concert performer, you basically look out into an abyss of people, but here, as soon as you look directly into the eyeballs of people in their seats, it’s a very different experience. One thing people who do Broadway talk about is how eight shows a week can feel repetitious. But here, there is no repetition because of this interaction with the audience. Every night, people respond differently: Some people are nervous; some people sing along; some people even try to grope me. Luckily, I have that padding to protect me.
You are nominated for your fourth Grammy Award, for “Stages Live.” How do you feel about that honor?
It was very surprising. First, I am so caught up in this show that, although I usually know when the nominations are coming out, this year, I forgot. So whenever it happens, I don’t take it for granted. As for winning, let’s just say so many factors go into whether it’s your year or not.
How do you compare L.A. and NYC?
I love both cities for different reasons. Los Angeles is where I was born and raised, with places I’ve gone to since I was a kid. New York is a city I’m constantly finding new things in. The energy of NYC beats to my rhythm. I also find because there is so much shared space in NYC and so many public places, that all walks of life are rubbing shoulders much more than in L.A., where there is much more of a separation via car or house or office. We’re all in this crazy jar all shook up together.
What do you love most about your current neighborhood?
When I first moved to NYC, I lived in the Time Warner Center. It was an amazing view and awesome to basically go to the mall in my pajamas. But as I started traveling Downtown more, I appreciated the neighborhood vibe and the older buildings, so I moved there.
What are your favorite spots in NYC?
I love the [American] Museum of Natural History. In Central Park, I get a coffee and people-watch. I can eat my way through this city way too easily. I love The Odeon in TriBeCa. My go-to place on show days is Cha Pa’s. They have amazing pho [a Vietnamese soup], which is great for the throat!
So does that mean there’s more Broadway in your future?
Absolutely. I am hooked. It’s not just that it’s my favorite of anything I’ve ever done, but I’ve fulfilled my childhood dream.