From The New York Times:
Josh Groban has sold more than 30 million records, making him a household name all over the world. But when he began talking to the producers and creators behind the Broadway-bound musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” it was clear he’d need to learn a few things.
Sure, he had played Tevye in high school; he had shared his pure, clean baritone at concerts before enormous crowds; and he had done charming cameos in TV series like “Ally McBeal” and “Parks and Recreation.” But his theater education had ended in 1999, when he dropped out of Carnegie Mellon University as a freshman to pursue a recording career. From then on, Broadway had just been a dream.
Could he now act well enough to play Pierre, the unhappy Russian aristocrat who would be onstage for most of the show? Could he adapt his voice, often described as angelic, for a character who was often drunk? He had become a celebrity by being Josh Groban, the euphonious romantic; would he now be willing to become Pierre?
“He was like, ‘What should I read while I’m on tour?,’ and I told him, ‘You can read Meisner on acting, but also read “Please Kill Me,” the oral history of punk,’” said Rachel Chavkin, the show’s director. “You have to put other people aside for a while, because you’re playing a profoundly ruined man, and there’s nothing sweet about Pierre.”
For Mr. Groban — at 35, both winningly self-deprecating and quietly driven — the stretch was risky.
“The time period I had in my life to look like an idiot, and fail, and for no one to see that, came and went when I was 17,” he said. “When you have early success, people are just lying in wait.”
So for months before rehearsals began, the creative team behind “The Great Comet” and Mr. Groban undertook an ambitious joint venture to retrain the superstar — a “boot camp” in the words of the choreographer, Sam Pinkleton.
With Mr. Groban as eager student, they set about working on roughing up his voice, strengthening his sense of character and coaxing him to dance. “What does it mean for this incredibly talented human to suddenly be carrying a Broadway musical when he hasn’t done that before?” Mr. Pinkleton said. “We left no stone unturned.”
The preparations succeeded. The show, adapted from a brief section of “War and Peace,” is selling strongly. Critics have praised Mr. Groban’s performance. (In The New York Times, Charles Isherwood called it “absolutely wonderful.”) And Mr. Groban is happy; he was originally contracted through April, but he has just agreed to stay in the show until July. The work, he says, was worth it.
“There’s always been a desire in my own life to be scared again,” he said. “I knew it would shake me up a little bit, and that was exciting to me.”
A New Instrument
First, the tools.
In the fall of 2015, just before he was due for a concert sound check at the Beacon Theater, Mr. Groban walked into a Midtown Manhattan accordion shop and asked for help. “I probably had sucker written all over my forehead,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, I’ve never played before, and I’m doing a role on Broadway, and I’d love a great instrument that’s hopefully a little lightweight, since I’ll be wearing a costume.’”
Mr. Groban is a capable pianist, and he plays the drums, too. But Pierre, as it turns out, plays the accordion, and Mr. Groban does not. So he decided to teach himself, while on tour.
He walked out of Alex Musical Instruments with a Gretsch accordion — the Fiesta La Tosca. He loved that it looked like an old folk instrument, with its red velvet strap and mother-of-pearl keys, and he loved the bright sound.
He started listening to Russian folk music, and to a recording of the “Great Comet” score, trying to play along. His touring schedule helped — most days, he had several hours in his dressing room between sound check and showtime, so that’s when he would practice. And sometimes, he would just rehearse putting the instrument on and taking it off, because Pierre does that three or four times during the show.
“The best way for me to teach myself an instrument is to just jam on it, and sound awful sometimes, and sound great other times,” he said. “Little things — just being able to find your keys with your eyes closed — took a long time. So I took it all around the world, this accordion.”
Getting Into Character
For a week in March, Mr. Groban holed up with Ms. Chavkin, the director, to start finding his inner Pierre.
Ms. Chavkin, who had directed the earlier, pre-Broadway productions of the show, had only a passing familiarity with Mr. Groban. She had never worked with a star of his wattage and had never directed on Broadway. But she had often worked with untrained actors — many of them musicians — and she knew what she had to do.
They met in the upstairs loft at Ars Nova, the Off Broadway theater that had commissioned the composer Dave Malloy to write “The Great Comet” five years earlier and then staged the first production. Ms. Chavkin made Mr. Groban read the libretto, aloud, without singing, while staring into her eyes.
They read it sitting across a table. They read it standing across the kitchen island. They read it while eating.
“If you can be honest saying a line and eating a carrot, then you can do it standing with the storm of 1,200 faces in front of you, because it’s rooted in the real,” she said.
The challenge of being convincing is especially acute in this production, because there is no barrier between audience and cast — the show’s action takes place amid the seats, and the actors, including Mr. Groban, are often just inches from the patrons.
“As a pop star, Josh’s whole concert life involves literally being blinded by the spotlight that’s on him,” Ms. Chavkin added. “The most concrete thing I could offer is the skill of meeting someone’s eyes as you’re saying language.”
One homework assignment: building daydreams. Ms. Chavkin wanted him to imagine a back story for some of the scenes, like thinking about what might have happened the first time Pierre met Natasha, a beautiful young countess and family friend, long before the musical begins.
Mr. Groban said the process reminded him of his one semester at college. At times, it was fun. At times, it was frustrating. Reading lines while looking into the director’s eyes “made me really uncomfortable,” he said. But he understood the rationale.
“I’m a control freak, and sometimes when you do stuff that hits a nerve, or makes you feel embarrassed, or makes you feel like you’re not performing well, then it can make you feel like you’re not cut out for this,” he said. “It was an amazing wall to break through.”
Roughing Things Up
Mr. Groban tours nonstop in support of his booming recording career, so the show’s musical director, Or Matias, chased him around the world — from New York to Denver to Los Angeles to Stockholm — to help him master the electro-pop score for this unusual show.
Mr. Matias began by studying Mr. Groban’s albums — a mix of classic covers and original songs — while Mr. Groban memorized the score. Together they worked on tempo and phrasing, with a special emphasis on “Dust and Ashes,” a challenging six-minute Pierre solo that Mr. Malloy had written to take advantage of Mr. Groban’s skills.
They wanted to record it as a single, to introduce the musical to Mr. Groban’s fans and to promote it to theater audiences. “It would make a connection between the music he often sends out into the world and our show,” Mr. Matias explained.
Mr. Matias had already pulled together a 30-person orchestra and recorded the instrumentals in New York; then he and Mr. Malloy flew to Stockholm to meet Mr. Groban at a recording studio rented from a member of Abba.
The song was released for sale and streaming, and Mr. Groban added it to his summer tour. But although it was the song Mr. Groban learned first and knew best, it was also the one that required the most work, because Ms. Chavkin wanted him to shed what he called the “performance vanity” of the elegant concert rendition and replace it with a more expressive stage version.
“The thing she had to kind of push out of me, once I started rehearsing with her, was the idea that this is a vocal performance of a song that is beautiful,” he said. “It felt kind of twitchy, unlearning a lot of the instincts that came from standing at a microphone and singing your guts out.”
The process was uncomfortable, as Ms. Chavkin asked Mr. Groban to incorporate back stories for the lines he was singing. “All of a sudden I started messing up on the piano,” he said. “All of a sudden I started missing notes. I got really frustrated. But it was work that was worth it.”
Another challenge was darkening his voice to reflect the fact that Pierre is often drunk and agitated. In August, Mr. Matias met Mr. Groban in Colorado — the singer had a rare three days off from his tour there — and they settled into a music room at the University of Denver, trying to figure out, Mr. Matias said, “when is it time in the show to resort to the natural gift he’s been developing since he was a teenager, and what moments can we rediscover and push him out of his comfort zone.”
Mr. Groban said he had to learn to make his voice rougher. “I would never put any growl on my voice in concert — it’s not the kind of music I sing,” he said.
“I’m singing notes in this role that I’ve never dreamed of singing in my day-to-day recording life,” he added. “I’m going up to Bs, and singing notes that would feel part of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ There are some things that I’m sure my voice doctor will be happy that I leave.”
Looking the Part
Fun fact about Josh Groban’s costume in “The Great Comet”: He’s wearing a fat suit.
O.K., the show hates calling it that. They refer to it as padding. But whatever it’s called, for every performance the singer must put on a onesie made of athletic mesh and porous foam and covered in nude Lycra that bulks up his stomach, his chest, his hips and his arms.
“Pierre is in bad shape physically — he drinks too much, he talks about his own corpulence, and he’s in ill health,” said the show’s costume designer, Paloma Young. “Josh Groban is in fine shape. We knew we had to go in and modify his body, but we didn’t want it to be comic — I just had to figure out how Josh would look if he put on 60 pounds and wasn’t going to the gym.”
The padding is just one element of the physical transformation Mr. Groban goes through for the role. He let his hair and beard grow out. He found a slower walk.
Much of his costume is intentionally a bit ill-fitting and folksy, rather than fancy. “He feels very out of place in Moscow society, and I wanted to represent, in his clothes, that discomfort,” Ms. Young said. He wears an embroidered linen peasant’s shirt, rather than a Western dress shirt, and a stablehand’s lace-up boots, rather than a more upscale slipper. His gray wool bouclé overcoat has a raccoon fur collar.
“We wanted enough fur around Pierre’s face to feel Russian, but not so much that he seems like a pimp walking down the boulevard,” Ms. Young said.
The biggest challenge, it turns out, has been his beard, which not all of his pop fans love.
“The beard is a constant point of contention, and I heard even recently his management team was wanting to clean it up for holiday media appearances, but he shut it down before the question even reached my desk,” Ms. Young said with admiration. “He’s really determined to live in Pierre for as long as he’s performing in the production.”
Finding His Feet
“I’m the world’s worst dancer,” Mr. Groban said. “I have dancephobia.”
That, of course, is a problem for someone with Broadway aspirations.
“Nothing compares to the complete red-in-the-face embarrassment I get when I’m given steps to rhythm,” he said. “I probably had one too many awful junior high school dance experiences, and it ruined me for life.”
Pierre doesn’t dance much — a fact Mr. Groban had noted, happily, when he first saw the show, and loved it, in a tent during an earlier Off Broadway run. Two years later, when the show’s producers reached out to see if he’d be interested in joining the cast for Broadway, he wanted in. But Mr. Malloy (who initially played Pierre himself, and will substitute for Mr. Groban during some performances next spring), decided to expand the role, and Mr. Groban knew that would probably mean more movement. He took the part anyway.
In June, Mr. Pinkleton was given three hours with Mr. Groban in the Ars Nova loft for what the choreographer calls a “secret dance session.” Mr. Pinkleton asked Mr. Groban to run around the room. Then he asked him to start jumping up and down.
“I was just warming him up and doing some dopey exercises, and I’d teach him a little stuff from the show, and from there I could sneakily encourage him to start riffing on his own,” Mr. Pinkleton said. “He’s not Britney Spears, but he had a giant sense of humor about it. In the space where somebody else would shut down, he was like, ‘Let’s see what happens if I twirl around and pretend to screw in light bulbs with my hand.’”
Over the next few months, as the choreographer was working on a raucous 14-minute section of the second act, in which a playboy tries to abduct Natasha so they can elope, he custom-built a dance break for Mr. Groban — the one moment in the show when he really lets go. It’s at the end of a three-song scene in which the rest of the cast, decked out in green and red, cuts loose ecstatically, debauchedly, and then violently.
Mr. Groban, as Pierre, spends much of the scene at the center of the theater, in a sunken study with a brass bear statue and eagle-shaped lamp, playing the piano and observing with something between curiosity and envy. As the chaos begins to subside, he rises to the main stage, and for about 90 seconds, dances alone.
His routine (he calls it “busting a move”) is in an improvisational folk style — mimicking the more athletic ensemble, but intentionally awkwardly. He kicks his feet, punches his hand in the air, throws his arms behind him. Then he returns to his study and punctuates the chaos with a big sung note.
“It’s like when your slightly grumpy uncle has had a little too much to drink at the wedding, and gets the good idea to run onto the dance floor and show off his moves, which he might regret the next morning,” Mr. Pinkleton said. “It’s an unguarded animal expression of joy and community, and an unconscious celebration of being alive.”
Mr. Groban has a more simple explanation of why it works.
“I get equally embarrassed by it every single night,” he said, “and I think that’s the point.”