Jonathan Groff: Demi-God

Jonathan Groff: Demi-God The actor known for his troubled-teen turn in Spring Awakening is now Dionysus in a fresh Central Park telling of Euripides' The Bacchae.

Jonathan Groff in The Bacchae
Jonathan Groff in The Bacchae Photo by Joan Marcus

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In the four years since he swapped the pastoral fields of Lancaster, PA (Amish country) for the fast track of big-city theatre (Broadway), Jonathan Groff has been at the vanguard of youthful revolution, a rebel with all kinds of causes, fighting The Good Fight in a host of different eras.

On and off and in workshop, his Spring Awakening lasted three and a half years — that's how long he and other overheated teens stormed the barricades of sexual repression in a provincial 19th-century German village, hammering away at starchy, chafing constraints with a rock score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.

Last year, after 500-plus performances on Broadway and nominations from the Tonys and the Drama Desk, he took his new and knowing ways to the Delacorte in the park, dovetailing smoothly and logically into the war-protesting flower children of the late '60s for a summer of Hair. Then, skipping its successful Broadway transfer, he cut that Hair short and extended his "Summer of Love" with his first film, Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," which opens on Aug. 28, just a few days after the 40th anniversary of the famous rock festival in upstate New York.

This spring he awoke to an Obie for two Craig Lucas plays he performed sans sheet-music: Prayer for My Enemy, in which he trooped off to war in Iraq to do his father proud (much as his Claude did to Vietnam in Hair), and The Singing Forest, where he shuttled back and forth from Nazis to Starbucks. Now (Aug. 11–30), the well-traveled 24-year-old time-traveler finds himself back at the Delacorte, steeped in Greek mythology with The Bacchae, Euripides' classic 405 B.C. tragedy. He plays no less than the son of Zeus, Dionysus — but, because of mortality on his mother's side, he's not acknowledged as a god by his maternal relatives. In response, he gives them a lot of Greek-sized grief, with a little help from his fiends (a cult of female worshippers he has amassed called The Bacchantes).

The role fits right into his game plan: "Craig Lucas said to me recently, 'If you could pick anything to do next as an actor, what would you want to do?' I said, 'I'd like to do a classic piece of theatre and play a character who is, maybe, not so moral.'"

Presto! Dionysus, whose name is synonymous with wine-fueled revelry, showed up on his doorstep "two weeks later — literally. I started reading the script [translation by Nicholas Rudall], and my heart was beating so fast I thought it would pop out of my chest. I stopped immediately, went to Barnes & Noble and spent three hours reading Greek mythology so I'd know what was going on before I jumped into the script." He also did a weeklong "atmosphere soak" among the Grecian ruins before he joined Andre De Shields, Joan MacIntosh and Rocco Sisto in rehearsal.

Alan Cumming, last year's Dionysus (in a National Theatre of Scotland production reprised at Lincoln Center), made a rock-star entrance from the top of the theatre, handcuffed, dangling upside down by his ankles, wearing a kilt (or trying to). Don't expect Groff to top (or bottom) that. "Our production is going more the traditional route than that one," he concedes. Which is not to say there won't be unconventional touches, with JoAnne Akalaitis directing and Philip Glass composing.

"We had a pretty intense work session when I went in for the audition. She [Akalaitis] is extremely eccentric and made it seem like the rehearsals would be a really specific and interesting process. They've been workshopping this version a while. There's a group of women — y'know, the bacchae — who have been learning and developing the music together now for years. I'm joining the team sorta late in the game."

For a curly-headed rustic who came to New York with hopes no higher than chorus duty in Hairspray, Groff's grasp has far exceeded his reach. Spring Awakening was just that for him: "We went into that show as one kind of person and left a totally different kind of person — the challenge of doing the show eight times a week and the emotional toll that takes on you and the emotional muscle that you develop. Vocally, you gain endurance and strength. You really glow, and it really changes you. Then, personally, you're suddenly thrown into the spotlight, given a huge work load and a huge amount of responsibility, and you have to grow up and take all that on and be able to come out of that on top. I've started doing films, and I don't think I could have without the training I got in theatre."

Even he's amazed at his progress. "When I moved to New York to become an actor, I was coming here just to work — get work, be employed, make a living as an actor — but every job I've had as an actor, every job, has been a job that spoke to my heart and said things that are very important to me. To be passionate about the work you do is a real gift, and I've been really lucky that I've been involved in projects that, for me at least, are very worthwhile. I am blessed in every way."

Jonathan Groff and the chorus of <i>The Bacchae</i>
Jonathan Groff and the chorus of The Bacchae Photo by Joan Marcus