Josh Groban will have you know: He is a bona fide theatre nerd. To wit: When Groban was in fourth grade, his teacher had the class make objects out of papier mâché. While all the other kids made a horse or a car, what did Groban make? “I made the Phantom mask!” he says with a wry chuckle. He made the white half mask from Phantom of the Opera. “It's breaking my heart that it’s closing because that was one where I said to myself, ‘One day, Josh. One day, you might put on the real one,’” he says, wistfully.
Groban may not be serenading the crowd with “Music of the Night” in Phantom of the Opera (though phans can look up his renditions of that song and “All I Ask of You” online). But he is currently tackling another dream role of his: Sweeney Todd. Groban takes his turn around the barber’s chair February 26, when the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical begins performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, with an opening night of March 26. Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford (who last starred in another Sondheim revival, Sunday in the Park with George) will be Groban’s Mrs. Lovett.
But Groban cautions against any assumption that Sweeney Todd is just a vanity project, just another celebrity checking off a bucket list item. “Sweeney Todd is, without question, going to be one of the most difficult artistic endeavors I've ever taken on,” he says, with complete sincerity. After all, this revival has been three years in the making, and Groban’s been deliberate every step of the way, saying, “I always want to jump into things that I feel I have something to add to, that I can really sink my teeth into. I don't like to force myself into stuff.”
Groban is self-aware, he knows he’s not the usual type to play the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. For one, he gives off an “aw shucks” energy rather than a menacing one. But Groban considers his innate affability and good-naturedness an opportunity to shine a new light on the role.
“There's a human being that arrives back in London, on the edge of a break, because of this trauma that has been done to him,” explains Groban of his conceptualizing of the role. He says that at the top of the show, he plans to lean into the “human elements” of Benjamin Barker because “those are the elements where I can take the person that I am. And those are the elements where any of us can imagine how we would feel if these things had been done to us.”
What this new Sweeney Todd portray's is not just what one man is capable of doing when pushed to the brink, but what anyone is capable of doing in the face of overwhelming injustice. So in this revival, by the time Sweeney makes his first kill, and then proclaims that “they all deserve to die” in “Epiphany”—it should feel like a shock to the audience, instead of a sad inevitability.
“You're watching somebody break in half, you're watching somebody become what they never expected to become,” says Groban. “And it's devastating and it's terrifying. And then the horror begins. But it has to be earned.” He then adds, sage-like, “They say psychopaths are born, but sociopaths are made … I think it's an interesting way to view this monster being made.”
It’s not facetious to say that everything Groban has done up until this point has led him to this next great challenge. Groban grew up watching musicals. You might say he’s a theatre kid who just happened to become a global music superstar. In his youth, he went to musical theatre summer camps and studied at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. He first saw Sweeney Todd when he was 13 years old, at East West Players in Los Angeles (a longtime Asian American theatre company). Groban then became obsessed, watching the George Hearn and Angela Lansbury recording; he also saw a production in Dublin, the 2005 Broadway revival starring Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, and the 2017 immersive Off Broadway version starring Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello which turned the entire theatre into a pie shop.
“The first time I saw Sweeney Todd, when I was 13—when you sit there and say to yourself: If I ever had the opportunity to make people feel the way that I'm feeling right this minute, that would be my life's purpose,” says Groban. It also helped that Sweeney, as a baritone, was also in his vocal range.
When Groban was 18, he initially enrolled at Carnegie Mellon with the intent of studying musical theatre. But then famed producer David Foster offered Groban a recording contract, and soon he was performing in venues around the world.
A few world tours and platinum records later, the theatre world started to call Groban back. In 2013, he saw a much-buzzed-about Off-Broadway show by an up-and-coming composer, Dave Malloy: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Groban saw it and then immediately tweeted, “One of my most favorite theatrical experiences ever. LOVED.” Then in 2016, he became the lead in the show on Broadway, even though he hadn’t done theatre since high school.
“I chose it like I choose everything: It just made me feel so damn good to do it and to hear it,” says Groban. “I felt happy that I had not said yes to, like, a two month stint in something that had been around forever. That I had waited to do something really special and important for the street.” Or as the kids say, for the culture. Groban remembered performing The Great Comet on the same street as Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen and feeling like “there was so much freshness and inventiveness on Broadway. I feel very privileged to have been a part of that year because it was, just, very special.”
The Great Comet required Groban to entirely leave his comfort zone of performing a setlist on stage solo, where he usually stood still or swayed. Broadway was a new beast. Pierre required Groban to learn two musical instruments and play them onstage, take acting lessons, and even do some fancy footwork. And he learned how to sing in an entirely new way, where for the first time professionally, he had to be gruff and rough when he sang—to tap into his inner rock god for Malloy’s electro-pop score.
It would have been easy for Groban to choose a Broadway debut that coasted on his charms and good looks. But instead he chose Pierre, a man suffering from depression, who “was rough and drunk,” he says. Groban also wore some padding to give himself a more strout physique. “There was nothing about Pierre that was supposed to be outwardly pleasing. And so finding ways to rough up, growl and to sing the score, but do it in a way that was different from the way I would normally sing one of my own songs.”
Since The Great Comet, Groban has leaned into being a Broadway star. He hosted the Tony Awards, sang on the steps of Times Square in honor of Sondheim’s passing, and even made some appearances in Freestyle Love Supreme on Broadway. This past December, he learned how to operate a 60-pound puppet for Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration. Even on the day of this interview, Groban was wearing a baseball cap that said, “Drama Bookshop.” For someone used to giving solo concerts, theatre has allowed Groban to challenge himself in new ways and to grow as an artist.
“There's a certain amount of sameness to the cycle of the music business,” Groban admits. “To have been embraced by the Broadway and theatre community is, for me, an opportunity to step up and challenge myself within that community. And take on things that I know are going to be exciting for me, are going to be a little scary for me, and are going to make me feel very alive.”
Now in Sweeney Todd, Groban is taking what he learned from Great Comet—how to tap into his dark side, how to not sing beautifully—and putting it into one of Sondheim’s most “beautifully difficult” scores. For the revival, the new challenge for Groban will be to give a dichotomous performance: look and act ugly, but sing beautifully. At the very least, it will sound fantastic—this new revival has a 26-piece orchestra, a size that is rare on Broadway these days.
“There are lots of ugly, monstrous, angry moments that will have to be reflected in the vocals. But what I have really found quite chilling in Sweeney Todd is the juxtaposition of the beauty of what Sondheim has written and what his characters are doing,” explains Groban. “There is this line in his music that almost puts you into a trance, with how beautiful it is, while at the same time a throat is getting slit.”
Here, Groban speaks quickly, becoming visibly excited when talking about the intricacies of Sondheim’s score: “The ‘Joanna’ quartet is a perfect example of that in the second act. Sweeney is resigned, having said goodbye to his former life. He's got a routine, ‘Goodbye, Joanna. I'm fine.’ He's singing while he's doing these monstrous acts. And the notes that Sondheim has written around this are not ugly, they're not gravelly. He's written everybody an aria to sing, while this extraordinary fog of darkness is surrounding and getting more claustrophobic around everybody.”
Groban then throws his hands up in amazement, stating with wonder, “There's so much still to be mined from these greatest of works.”
As for what is the next great challenge for Josh Groban? Well, he doesn’t know yet, but he’s always scoping out new works, new collaborators. At this point in his career, Groban isn’t focused on the traditional markers of success, such as album sales, box office numbers, or awards recognition. These days, what he’s looking for is work that excites him, that he can “shout from the rooftops” about. And it’s advice he’s eager to give for any artist who is struggling and not sure if their hard work will be recognized.
“There are different ways to judge success,” says Groban. “I certainly know from being in this business for 20 years, you could put your heart and soul into something and the stars were not at the right place.”
So how do you come back from failure? Answers Groban: “You dust yourself off. And you have to continue to try and find ways for work you believe in to continue to thrive and continue to inspire people. The great gamble we all take, when we love something, is the risk of it not clicking.” He then closes, with that passion common to many theatre lovers, “But it's a risk worth taking.”
See more photos from Josh Groban's exclusive photoshoot with Playbill.