Magazine Feature

Josh Groban on His Broadway Debut, Wearing a Fat Suit & Moving Beyond 'Sad Songs'

Josh Groban
Justin Bettman

Josh Groban photographed on Oct. 21 at Diamond Horseshoe in New York.

Josh Groban's Broadway dressing room is a cozy space with an explorer-chic vibe: There’s a brass globe on a shelf, a framed map above the couch, a fake rhino’s head on the wall and a dog bed for his wheaten terrier, Sweeney, stuffed in a corner. And then there’s Groban, who’s holding up a fat suit in the doorway. “It’s just a little extra!” he says, grinning. “I need to add some largeness, especially when I have to look menacing. It looks like muscle, too — another thing I don’t have!”

At 35, Groban will make his Broadway debut in a role that should surprise anyone who assumed he would spend the rest of his life recording inspirational anthems. During the course of a 20-year career with nearly 25 million albums sold, according to Nielsen Music — producer David Foster discovered him as a teenager, just as he was enrolling at Carnegie Mellon University — Groban could have slipped into a cushy six-week gig as the Phantom or Jean Valjean. Instead, he’s playing a depressed, alcoholic, existential mess of a man in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, an unorthodox new musical based on a 70-page chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, opening Nov. 14 at the Imperial Theatre (Groban is the titular Pierre).

“I’m excited by educated risks, by things that challenge me,” says Groban. He first saw Comet in 2013, when it was playing within a huge tent transformed into a Russian supper club in downtown Manhattan. “It hit all the right spots for what I loved most about musical theater, after I’d seen a few things that left me cold.”

Jason Bell
Josh Groban & Denée Benton in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

With his arena-filling baritone and built-in fan base — his seven studio albums have all reached the Billboard 200’s top 10, and his most recent, the Broadway album Stages, debuted at No. 2 — Groban has had his pick of Broadway roles. But he was hesitant to debut in a “stunt-casting” situation. “It’s like the dating game,” says Groban, who is single following a breakup with actress Kat Dennings this summer. “You wait, you don’t know why you’re waiting half the time, you say, ‘Maybe I should just settle,’ and then something like this comes around and you say, ‘I’m really glad I waited.’ ”

The wait was worth it: By the time Comet rolled around, Groban had proved himself as more than an angelic voice. Starting around 2011, his not-so-serious side surfaced on TV and in film roles: He sang Kanye West tweets in operatic fashion on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, guest-hosted Live With Kelly and played Emma Stone’s obnoxious boyfriend in Crazy, Stupid, Love. The appearances helped convince Rachel Chavkin, the 36-year-old director who has helmed Comet since its start in 2012, that Groban had hidden depths. “Pierre is a sad clown,” she says. “There’s something about Josh’s self-deprecating humor, mingled with a soulful center, plus his beautiful nerdiness, all together. He has a place to sing from.”

Groban plays accordion in the show — he taught himself during sound checks on his recent Stages Tour — and in Comet’s opening song, he is called “dear, awkward, bewildered Pierre.” Groban can relate: “I feel like I only ever sing sad songs,” he says with a laugh. “I could use a good midtempo song in my life.” He also had to figure out how to perform without defaulting to his signature grandiosity, since Pierre’s gruffness is incongruent with Groban’s vocal training. Chavkin encouraged him to leave that polish at the door, invoking a favorite acting mantra: “Perfection is for assholes.”

Though Groban says he has always felt like an outsider — and notes that he’s one of 18 Broadway debuts in Comet’s cast — the theater community has embraced him. This summer, his Carnegie Mellon classmates Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton), Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) and Rory O’Malley (both shows) prank-called him, singing a mangled version of his “You Raise Me Up” in a video that went viral. “His path has been so unique,” says Odom. “I think the show will reveal a willingness and talent for shape-shifting that he takes seriously.”

Michael Desmond/ABC via Getty Images
Josh Groban on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Bernadette Peters texted him “good luck” on his first preview performance. Sara Bareilles, a fellow Broadway transplant (Tony-nominated for Waitress), calls him “a modern-day superhero, really. I love that Josh knows what his fastball is as an artist, but he still chooses to stretch.”

Likewise, Groban has been eager to involve himself in his new community’s causes. He took time the night before his first preview to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at Stronger Together, a Broadway benefit concert for Hillary Clinton. “I can’t believe it got this far with Donald Trump,” he says. “I think it will be looked back at in history as one of the great shames of the political process. Hopefully, we grow from it.”

It’s a unique career that has let Groban expand his creative wheelhouse while trusting that his fan base will evolve along with him. “When you start out, there’s a fear, an ‘I don’t want this to go away’ thing,” he says. “I’m not afraid to try political humor or to collaborate with artists you might not expect. Maybe you lose a couple of people when you do that, but you gain people who are really in it for who you are. That’s worth everything.” 

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Billboard.