For Jonathan Groff, the summer of 2008 will always be his own summer of peace, love, music and camaraderie. After concluding his two-year run as teenage rebel Melchior in the Tony Award–winning Spring Awakening, set in chaste 1890s Germany, Groff chose two projects set in a mind-expanding world in which Melchior would have reveled — the free-loving 1960s, a time of idealism, hedonism and the sobering reality of an escalating war in Vietnam.
In the summer's celebrated revival of Hair, mounted at the Public Theater's Central Park summer stage and now headed towards Broadway, Groff played Claude, a character taking his first tentative steps into the Dionysian world of sex, drugs and freedom that defined the hippie movement. Then, in mid-August, the 23-year-old began shooting his first feature film, "Taking Woodstock," in which he plays the festival's indefatigable organizer, Michael Lang.
Playing flower children in two different projects provided Groff with a chance to break out of his comfort zone and grow as an actor. He was most thrilled about shedding the rigid, stifled psyche — and the constraining knickers — of the sexually inhibited characters in Spring Awakening.
"Hair is everything that those kids in Spring Awakening need," he says. "I got to put on a pair of jeans and just go crazy, let my body be totally free — I mean, we were literally rolling around on the ground out there." This fall, however, Groff has returned to a more repressed state of mind. In the new Craig Lucas play Prayer for My Enemy (at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 21), the actor plays a young soldier, Billy, recently returned from the Iraq War. A psychically scarred but upbeat guy who wants everyone to be happy, Billy is grappling with a depressed, alcoholic father, a family roiled by a host of simmering tensions, and an unexpected reunion with a childhood friend with whom he experimented sexually as an adolescent. The action is frequently interrupted by the characters' interior monologues, expressing the frustrations and resentments bubbling just under the surface of this dysfunctional clan.
Groff connects with the dichotomous conceit of the play. "Think about your own family and your relationships with the people in your life, and the things that you actually think and feel as opposed to the things you actually do and say — and that's really universal," he says. "I think the rules that we set up within the family dynamic, as far as things you can and cannot talk about, are very interesting and completely relatable."
Landing in another play with war as a backdrop has Groff thinking about the parallels between the upheaval of the '60s — "a time when people were passionate, opinionated and really fought for what they believed in" — and the challenges facing the nation today. "With the internet and Facebook, with a thousand TV channels and On Demand, it's so easy to be distracted. But there is something really positive and hopeful about the late '60s that I think people are ready for again — there's a real desire to be inspired and engaged in what's happening in the world, to be hopeful about the future, to be hopeful about change. I think that people are really wanting that right now."