While it comes as no surprise that the 33-year-old Groban finally set out to tackle an album dedicated to musicals (he started out as a theatre kid, attending Carnegie Mellon University, but leaving after only a few months when record labels came calling), fans had to wait until his seventh solo album to finally hear him wrap his voice around such Sondheim gems as "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park With George and a Into the Woods/Sweeney Todd medley of "Children Will Listen"/"Not While I'm Around."
Concert and recording stardom may have swayed him from becoming one of Broadway's most sought-after leading men, but Groban has still managed to keep one toe in the theatrical sphere. He portrayed Anatoly in the 2003 Actors Fund concert of the short-lived cult Broadway musical Chess, a performance he repeated alongside Idina Menzel and Adam Pascal at Royal Albert Hall in 2008. That performance was also preserved on DVD. He's also taking "Stages" on a U.S. concert tour this fall.
In the following interview, Groban opened up to Playbill.com about the roles that he'd like to tackle on Broadway, the cast albums he wore out as a kid and telling dirty jokes in the studio with Audra McDonald. (Listen to Groban duet with McDonald and Kelly Clarkson here!)
What was your musical theatre experience like as a kid?
Josh Groban: I grew up in Los Angeles and my first musical theatre experiences were at the Music Center in downtown LA. My parents kind of dragged my brother and I away from the TV said, "Hey, we should go and see stuff live." We started with touring companies in Los Angeles, which was amazing. We got to see Sondheim shows, Phantom of the Opera, Cats and all sorts of stuff. When you're 10 or 11 years old, it's just magnificent. The story-telling, the music – it lifts you out of your seat.
Is that when you first caught the bug?
JG: I got the bug for it at a young age. Then when I started going to high school, I found that through all of the ups and downs of adolescence and trying to make friends and feeling like an outsider, that having the arts classes really allowed me to build self confidence and build friendships with people. I was in seventh grade and a choir teacher pulled me to the front and said, "Does anybody know the Gershwin song 'S Wonderful'?" I said, "I think I know that song." So he gave me the lyrics and said, "Ok. That's it, you're doing it at the cabaret show next weekend." I invited my parents, and all the kids were there, and I thought for sure I was going to get wedgies for the rest of my life, and it went great. I got a standing ovation, and it was literally the first time in my schooling life where I felt like I did something that was good, and I did something that people appreciated. I was just immersed from that moment on. I wound up graduating from the Los Angeles County School for the Arts as a theatre major and then was honored to be accepted into Carnegie Mellon's Musical Theatre program.
What was the first you you remember seeing as a kid?
JG: It was either Phantom or Cats – one of those two. They were kind of back to back. I think it was probably Phantom. I was that kid who saw it and then the next day in class made the mask out of paper maché. I wanted to wear the mask all over the place and the teachers were like, "Yeah, no you can't be the Phantom today, I'm sorry." I was like, "Sing to me, angel!" And they were like, "No, no. Sit down. Shut up. Time to be normal." That was me. I wanted to be Mr. Mistoffelees, I wanted to be the Phantom, I wanted to be Georges Seurat. Whatever it was that I saw, I was the kid that went home and built the set and wanted to do it. It was deeper for me than I think just the idea of, "Oh that was fun!" I wanted to be the vessel for that. I don't know what it is, but that's why they call it the bug.
Do you have any crazy theatre kid stories?
JG: When you take the world of adolescent theatre and then you add camp to it, it's one bad "American Pie" joke away from reality. My experiences at Interlochen were incredible. That place is just a dream location for any young person to share that passion for arts and for theatre. Also, it's a bunch of kids just canoeing and stuff, showering every other Tuesday and then rehearsing for Sweeney Todd. I was a big Sweeney fan. I thought to myself, "Well, I'm going to play Sweeney. I'm going to play the role of Sweeney." I had, at 15 or 16, a deep, baritone singing voice, but my look was that of the detective from "Blue's Clues," and so I did not have the menacing look at all. So I go up, and I do my audition, and I'm singing probably quite well, but I'm putting on this murderous face, and everybody just starts laughing and I'm just like, "Why don't you fear me?!" I got the part of broom sweep number three. I got sentenced to death by Judge Turpin in about the first three minutes of the show. It was a valuable lesson, and I sat in the sidelines and watched the rest of the show. That was a summer of firsts. One of my first roles ever. My first girlfriend, first kiss...
Where there cast albums that you were addicted to as a kid?
JG: I wore out the Broadway Tommy recording. I just loved it. I just loved Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman [in Phantom]. That was such a classic album, I listened to that constantly. Loved Sunday in the Park with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. I had that on VHS, and I had the cassette of it when I was a kid and listened to it all the time. One album that I got when I was in London on a graduation trip was Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game, which never made it to the States. Beautiful score, and I love Irish music. I remember listening to that and really enjoying it as well.
How did those influences play into what you selected to include on "Stages"?
JG: It kind of started as a double Sondheim album in my mind and kind of worked its way down to a lot of other great things. There's so much extraordinary music from this canon, it is a little overwhelming, more than a little, when you start the process. We started with maybe 35-40 songs. At one point we were thinking to include film songs and that's how songs like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Pure Imagination" kind of made their way to this. We eventually realized they weren't totally breaking the rules because they had been performed on Broadway and the West End, so we fudged a little bit to be able to include those. A couple of things went into play when wheedling it down. One was: Was I in a place in my life, emotionally, where I felt like I could really sing it and believe it? I wanted to be in a place where, with these songs, I could tell the story and really find a place with the song that outside of the realm of the show, still had relevance in my life and would have relevance in the listener's life. That was the important thing: Do these songs live and breathe on their own as an album, away from the context of the show? And there were some songs where we thought to ourselves as we were recording them, "I need to see what the scene is before the song. I need to know what's going on. I need to see where this is in the body of the show for this work."
You work with some amazing guest artists, including Audra McDonald. What was the experience like?
JG: It was nerve-wracking for me because she is such a goddess and such a super talent and such an influential person to me. She's somebody that I have listened to for so many years and have admired. I've gotten to know the person that she is, to know what an amazing human being she is just on top of a what a dedicated artist she is... She's one of the ones we can all look up to. When you stand in a room with her, it's a wonderful thing because you can... I kind of wind up feeling like I have to psyche myself out to feel like I'm at the same level, but at the same time, I'm sitting there feeling like a student. You just want to be able to match what she does... that nuance and that artistry that she puts into every song and that interpretation that she has when she sings a song. To be able to sing a song from Carousel, which is a very special show for her, was also just special. To be able to sing this song was a dream come true for me, and I was thrilled that she said yes to it. And she's just also one of the funniest people I've ever met.
Were there any antics in the recording studio?
JG: Of course! All we did was tell dirty jokes and then we had to do the hand movement across our faces and say, "Ok. Focus. We have to... but, if 'I loved you...'" [Laughs.] I'm probably going to release a bloopers reel at some point of all the moments that went into making this very serious album that were so not that. I've found that to be the case with so many of my favorite artists, that really they're just big kids. I think that, with someone like her, when you can switch mindsets of being really humble and earth-bound, and then when you see her sing and hear her and experience what she does, it just takes you to new heights. Then off the stage again, an actual human being. It's cool to see.
Your duet with Kelly Clarkson on "All I Ask Of You" from Phantom is another really exciting track. How did that come about?
JG: She was super excited to do it, which was such a wonderful surprise for me. I was nervous to ask her because I knew she had a new baby and a new album. I didn't fully know if she would dig this world or want to sing that song. I just kind of took a shot in the dark at somebody who's been on my bucket list for a long time. To find out that she's a huge fan of musical theatre and that world and has loved that song for a long time and wanted to take a crack at it... I think that she's somebody who loves taking risks. She's somebody who likes to show her fan base new things and new ways that she can sing. She's got a range and so much that she can tackle, so for her to take that step out of the pop zone and do this, I just couldn't wait for people to hear it. It's a different approach to this song and one that I think is a pleasant surprise for so many people. It was really fun for me because I'm going to do it the way I'm going to do it, but to hear the way she sings this song is different to any way that I've heard anybody tackle this song. Whenever you take on a song that's this famous, I think that's the best you can do. You want to be able to provide something different that people haven't heard before, and I think that she did that completely. She's another person that I just admire as a human being, so we had a blast.
Are there roles that would be juicy enough to get you to do Broadway?
JG: I've been so fortunate that I've been able to, in the last 10 years, dip my toes in those waters a little bit and that I've been able to sing birthday concerts for Stephen Sondheim and for Andrew Lloyd Webber. I've also been able to meet and become friends with so many of the great new composers. People like Lin-Manuel Miranda, people like that, it's a really exciting time. Not to mention people like Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, who wrote Chess. To be able to do that at Royal Albert Hall was a dream come true for me. I love that role, I love that show. I don't think that show has ever gotten a fair shot from a book perspective. I think the music is so damn strong. I think the songs in Chess are so good, if it just were conceived in a way that made it less dense as a story, I think it could really fly. Sometimes I talk to Tim Rice about the idea of doing it some day. Anatoly would be a great role. Anything of Sondheim's, I'm such a fan of his. Sweeney Todd or Sunday in the Park With George would be dream roles, one day maybe when I'm older. Maybe the Phantom one day. We'll see. Whenever it happens, I would want it to be for the right reasons at the right time, and I would want to be able to dedicate myself to it and do it for an extended period of time and not do it just for two weeks.
You mentioned Lin-Manuel Miranda... Were you able to catch Hamilton?
JG: Any of us that have been able to see Hamilton at the Public [are] very, very lucky indeed. It's a very special thing that's happening over there right now, and it's going to be special on Broadway as well. I'm so glad that it's going to be there, and people are actually going to be able to get tickets. It's just phenomenal. Again, you talk about a composer who has every right to be the biggest diva on the planet and is the sweetest, most down to earth person you could ever meet. It's a show that made me realize that all this time taking voice lessons, I should have been learning to rap better, because apparently that's the future. That show is the future of musical theatre. I may have to work on my rhymes!