"This story sounds like it's not true but usually the true stories are the ones that sound untrue," says Jonathan Groff. He is sitting on a hospital bed, one of the few set pieces that make up the minimalist design of the staging of A New Brain, directed by James Lapine. The medical tragedy, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1998, follows a composer's unexpected diagnosis with a brain tumor and his struggle to come to terms with the illness and the consequences for his creative ambitions. It will be presented at City Center, as part of the Encores! Off-Center series, June 24-27.
Heart and Music! Jonathan Groff, Dan Fogler, Ana Gasteyer Prep For City Center's A New Brain
When struggling composer Gordon Michael Schwinn (Groff) collapses face-first into this plate of spaghetti, it marks the beginning of his uphill battle with his body. While lying in his hospital bed, he fears that he will die with his best work yet to come. Told through both humor and drama, his journey is colored by those closest in his life: an overbearing mother (Ana Gasteyer), a ruthless kid-show host (Dan Fogler) and his boyfriend Roger, whose mind is forever sailing away (Aaron Lazar). The musical, which closed earlier than expected in its original production and featured Malcolm Gets, Chip Zien, Liz Larsen and Kristin Chenoweth, was based on Finn’s own experiences with a brain tumor.
"I cam here last year at City Center, I saw Tick, Tick…BOOM! Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and was so inspired," continues Groff. "The next day, I listened to A New Brain, sang through the whole score and I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to wait one week and if I still feel as juiced as I do in a week about doing this, I'm going to email Jeanine [Tesori].'" Tony-winning Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori is also the artistic director of the Encores! Off-Center series. Little did Groff know, she had a similar idea in mind. "Five days later Jeanine emailed me and said, 'Hey, how do you feel about doing A New Brain next summer at City Center?'" says Groff. "I was like, 'What?' So I emailed her back and I was like, 'First of all, yes. Second of all, we need to have lunch.'"
The two had a meeting and began to plan the production of A New Brain. "The fact that she had asked me was all kind of surreal," reveals Groff.
What makes the experience particularly special for Groff, is that he has loved A New Brain from an early age. "I know this show very, very well," he says. "A friend of mine put 'And They're Off' on a musical theatre mix-tape when I was in high school, so I went on Amazon when I was 14 or 15 and bought the CD, went to my bedroom and read the liner notes and cried and acted it out. "
Groff describes himself as a "huge fan" since; the New Brain track "I'd Rather Be Sailing" was his audition song and at 17, he got into a car accident listening to the cast album. Despite acting out the entire musical in his bedroom throughout high school, the role never came about in real life, until now.
"I've never performed it," says Groff. "I've always wanted to. It's kind of been like my high-school obsession is exorcising itself in this production and the fact that it gets to happen with James Lapine and Bill Finn and this phenomenal cast is like a dream come true for me."
Groff admits that being able to restage A New Brain with the original creators has been an incredible experience, made even better by the fact that Lapine and Finn are collaborating with the cast in making some changes to the show. "The thing about this production that was a surprise to me," he says, "[is that] they're using this opportunity to look at the show again and recreate it."
"That's been beyond my wildest dreams," beams Groff. "It's so fun."
Performances of A New Brain will run June 24-27 at New York City Center. For more information and to purchase tickets visit NYCityCenter.