Josh Groban never gave up his dream of playing 'Sweeney Todd'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A new revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sweeney Todd" just opened on Broadway. The original show premiered on Broadway in 1979 and won eight Tony Awards. The music is extraordinary and our guest, Josh Groban, gets to sing it. He stars in the title role. New York Times theater critic Jesse Green called the revival, quote, "ravishingly sung, deeply emotional and strangely hilarious." Josh Groban talked about "Sweeney Todd," his life and career with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.
ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Josh Groban first auditioned for the role of Sweeney Todd back in high school for a summer camp production of the musical. He didn't get the part at the time, but he never really gave up that dream of playing the demon barber of Fleet Street. In the years since, Josh Groban did manage to become a multiplatinum artist. Not so long after that camp audition, he was discovered as a teenager and released his debut album in 2001. He went on to perform in front of huge crowds while on tour and developed a rabid following of his pop operatic sound. And he sold over 35 million records worldwide. He's appeared in movies and TV shows, often self-deprecatingly playing himself, and he's been nominated for Grammys, Emmys and a Tony Award. That Tony nomination in 2017 for best actor in a musical was for his Broadway debut in the show "Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812."
He's back on Broadway in the revival of "Sweeney Todd," the story of a London barber wrongfully convicted, imprisoned and separated from his beloved wife and daughter. After years, he escapes prison and is out to seek revenge on those who've wronged him. He partners with a struggling baker named Mrs. Lovett, with Sweeney killing his clients and Mrs. Lovett grinding up their remains and turning them into meat pies. Here's a song from "Sweeney Todd" at the point of the show when they first hatch their plan. Josh Groban plays Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett is played by Tony award-winning actor Annaleigh Ashford.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE PRIEST")
JOSH GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd) What is that?
ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) It's fop - finest in the shop. And I've got some shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd on top. And I've just begun. Here's the politician, so oily it's served with a doily. Have one.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Put it on a bun. Well, you never know if it's going to run.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Try the friar - fried, it's drier.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) No, the clergy is really too coarse and too mealy.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Then actor - that's compacter.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Yes, and always arrives overdone.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett) Woo (ph). Yeah.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) I'll come again when you have judge on the menu.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett) True, true, we don't have judge yet. But we've got something you might fancy even better.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd) What's that?
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett) Executioner.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Have charity towards the world, my pet.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Yes, yes, I know, my love.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) We'll take the customers that we can get.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) High-born and low, my love.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) We'll not discriminate great from small. No, we'll serve anyone, meaning anyone.
ANNALEIGH ASHFORD AND JOSH GROBAN: (As Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd, singing) And to anyone at all.
BALDONADO: That's Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford from the new revival of "Sweeney Todd." Josh Groban, welcome to FRESH AIR.
GROBAN: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.
BALDONADO: Congratulations on this great production. The story of "Sweeney Todd" is menacing. It's about grief, rage and loss. Also, it has grisly murder and cannibalism. In that song we just heard, you're talking about turning people into pies. I know this is a role that you've wanted to play for a long time, since you were younger. What was appealing to you about this show when you were a kid?
GROBAN: I mean, when you mention the storyline like that, I just - I think back to, like, what the elevator pitch must have been to this in 1978 when it was being written, you know? It has so many things about the show that are outlandish and terrible and melodramatic and beyond the realm of comprehension. And yet, like everything that Sondheim wrote, there is this throughline of human connectivity. And he had that genius ability to take these outlandish things and find the core human truth in them. And as a young kid who was, you know, finding my own way and having a hard time kind of getting out of my own shell and wondering, you know, how best to communicate myself, his work reached me at a very young age. There was something about it that felt like I knew - he - like he knew me.
And I think for those of us that have loved his work for a very, very long time, we, of course, love being swept away by the stories and by these sometimes crazy characters that we have nothing in common with. But the music and the lyrics and the way they all tie together make us feel deeper about who we are. They make us feel things that we never expected. And that's what first brought me to the piece as - just as a fan when I was younger.
BALDONADO: Do you have early memories of the show, of the music, discovering it?
GROBAN: Yes. I saw a production of it in Los Angeles by a wonderful cast called the East West Players, who are an incredible Asian company that works out of Los Angeles and around the country. And they blew my mind. It was my first time hearing the score. I then went out and got the VHS copy of the famous Los Angeles recording of George Hearn - wonderful George Hearn - and, of course, legendary late, great Angela Lansbury and - pun intended - devoured everything I could from the musicals, as I did for so many of Sondheim's shows. And, you know, as a young baritone who could sing OK and act OK but couldn't dance at all, these were the kinds of roles that really, you know, felt like the kinds of thing I could one day grow into.
BALDONADO: I know you're a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away in 2021. Can you talk about what it is about his writing that you are drawn to most in general and in particular as a vocalist? You know, his songs - they're a feat to perform his songs.
GROBAN: They are. It's a beast to sing each night. I definitely - there's not any moment in this show to coast. It takes - it requires an enormous amount of focus and an enormous amount of checking in, you know, really tuning in with yourself, with your cast. There's so much that you have to kind of lift in this, emotionally and vocally, that it's tiring. You feel it at the end of the show. And what I love about his writing, especially this role, some of his writing can be very staccato. The writing for "Sweeney" is - has such incredible line and such incredible fluidity. There's this romanticism to the music for "Sweeney" in particular.
That was one of the first things I connected with because I felt like, ooh, that's something I can - I can really play upon that juxtaposition of the romantic nature of the music and also these horrific things that are happening, you know, by his hand. And I know that that was a juxtaposition that really - he did, you know, by design and something that he was very enthusiastic about playing with. And it's just - it's such a feast. And it's something that even though everybody in this cast has known it their whole lives, you keep finding and you keep finding and finding and finding. We've opened. We're officially frozen, but we keep finding. And that's the incredible thing about his work - is that you can keep peeling and peeling and never get to the center. So I can't wait to see what we find by show 100.
BALDONADO: By frozen, you mean that, you know, when you're kind of working on workshopping a show and then doing previews, you might still make changes, but then when it's frozen, this is the version that you're going to try to at least play with every evening. Were there changes that - like, were there important changes that happened in that workshopping and preview process?
GROBAN: Oh, absolutely. We did the workshop, the musical workshop, just at podiums for about a week. And we just - our main goal for that was to get it off the page, to sing it, you know, act in place, but just to get it - just get it out. And it was just us and a piano and some of Sondheim's closest friends and some people that we thought might - would be in our team at some point, 50 people in the rehearsal room above "Hamilton." And then the preview process was such an interesting time and very tiring time.
Audiences that get preview tickets, you're watching something very, very special because you're seeing something - that may be the only time that blocking happens. You're seeing maybe a song that might not be in it the next time. And those are the things that, you know, were really, really fascinating to see because to us on stage, sometimes those felt really, really small. But then when I would have a friend come to the show one night and then another night, they'd say, oh, that different lighting beat or that different, you know, blocking cue - oh, that made such a huge difference in the scene.
So it's really a time during that period for us to get to know the roles better and feel what that feels like for an audience, but also for our incredible creative team. That's a time for them to sculpt as well each day. And so the tables come out. There's tables out in the audience. And they've got their computers, and they've got their mixing boards and light boards and things like that. And then it all gets taken away, and an audience comes in, and we do what we worked on that day.
BALDONADO: You - when you're describing Sondheim, you talked about how, you know, he often writes staccato, but this - of "Sweeney's" a little more romantic. Could you give an example of that comparison that you're making?
GROBAN: Sure. For instance, you know, in a show of his, which is also a favorite of mine, "Sunday In The Park With George"...
BALDONADO: That Annaleigh Ashford was in.
GROBAN: That Annaleigh Ashford was also in, yes, with Jake Gyllenhaal. And they were both wonderful. You know, Sondheim wrote the way that Georges Seurat painted - you know, lots of, you know, red, red, red, red, red, red, orange, red, red, orange. I want to pick blue. (Vocalizing) - very staccato, almost pointillist the way he was - the way he wrote the notes because that's what was going on in George's head. And so he brilliantly kind of made that synergy between what the character and what the music was doing.
And, you know, there's - one of my favorite scenes in "Sweeney Todd" is the second song of Act 2, where this - they called it the "Johanna Quartet" - where Sweeney is, you know, dispatching victims with this kind of sociopathic ease and calmness and singing this, you know, (singing) and are you beautiful and pale, my turtledove, you know? And he's singing about Johanna and how life is fine. And I may miss you, and maybe I won't. And life is good, and the machine is rolling. And, you know, and meanwhile, the hands are quite, you know, calmly and terrifyingly smoothly, you know, slitting throats and sending people down in the chair.
And that could have been written very sharply and very angular and more twisted. But if the actions weren't there for an audience to witness, the song is something that people might - maybe not play at their wedding, but something very, very, you know, romantic sounding and more legato. So, yeah, I think those are two examples of where he's made those choices, and it's just so much fun.
BALDONADO: If you're just joining us, my guest is Grammy, Tony and Emmy nominee Josh Groban. He sold millions of records since he first started performing as a teenager. He is now starring on Broadway as Sweeney Todd in a new revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical. We'll take a short break here, and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE TROTTER TRIO'S "BY THE SEA")
BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado, back with Josh Groban. He's playing Sweeney Todd in a new revival of the musical about a murdering barber out for revenge. Josh Groban has also sold millions of albums and has been nominated for Grammys, Emmys and a Tony. The Tony nomination was for starring in the musical "Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet of 1812."
Of course, one of the signature things about "Sweeney Todd" is the murdering. Different productions of "Sweeney" handle the killing differently. But in this one, you know, you do shave and kill. There's blood spurting out, and there's the chair that has the chute where the bodies slide down into the basement, where they're made into meat pies. Can you talk about the decisions that your production made and what it was like to, like, wield a blade and have blood coming at you?
GROBAN: Yeah. Well, it was really nice to be able to have a fake razor - plastic razor to kind of have all through the rehearsal process to just have in my hands. Like, there was very few moments where I was hanging out where I just - I wasn't, like, playing with it. And I took some good lessons on, you know, what the different ways of shaving are for a straight razor and just - I wanted to get it so comfortable in my hand because he says it's - you know, it's what makes his arm complete, is this razor. And so I wanted it to feel that way when I pick it up on stage.
The other thing we kind of really wanted - and I remember me and Mimi, our set designer, talked about it early on - was like, let's petition for real - for blood. I don't want red light. I want this to be blood. And she's like, yeah, yeah, blood. Let's get blood. And so, you know, the blood is something that - it took a while to get right. I think there were a few - and the chair did, too. They were definitely - talk about preview audiences get some things nobody else does.
There were two nights where the chair didn't work, and poor Jamie Jackson, our extraordinary Judge Turpin, had to crawl down the hole and pretend he was suffering and get down there, and the audience kind of laughed. And you just, like, go, well, that's previews. We've had a couple that the blood didn't come out. You know, we thought, OK, well, there's just - you know, there's - slow, slow. But, you know, now we've got - everything - is very, very fine-tuned, and it all works. But there's a lot of moving parts. Everybody that works on this stuff behind the scenes is such a well-oiled machine. And everything we're doing onstage comes with, you know, an enormous, brilliant team of people backstage that are setting all this stuff up so that we get to look nice and gruesome out there.
BALDONADO: You've been a professional vocal performer for decades now, but you were singing in concert halls and on albums as yourself. Do you have to do anything to your performance to change the way your voice sounds, to rough it up or make it gritty?
GROBAN: (Laughter) Well, there's a lot of vocal challenges in "Sweeney Todd" that are quite different from when I would just do a normal concert. The character commands a different approach. You're using different colors. They're all colors that I still have in my wheelhouse. It's just - you're just tapping into different ones and allowing others to take a rest until the next tour, you know? And so there is a darker texture to this score. It's far more baritone than I would normally maybe sing - maybe not far more, but there are definitely lower - I'm definitely resting more in the warmer, lower part of my range, which has been really fun. There's also a lot of screaming. There's a lot of yelling. There's a lot of angst and anguish. And so finding ways to do that in a healthy way each night are also really fun and challenging and require a lot of rest in between. You know, it's the kind of show where, vocally and emotionally, I can't think about some of those songs and some of those moments that maybe happen an hour later or two hours or even three hours later when I pop out of the stage at the beginning. I have to kind of take the ride vocally with the show and with the character and let it get me there because it is the kind of show where you just kind of hang on and let the wave carry you.
BALDONADO: I want to ask you about the audience. I think "Sweeney" is such a beloved show. Like, people are fanatical about it, which, you know, may lead to more pressure for the performers. But, really, I was - you know, I was lucky enough to see the show, and the audience was so hungry and into the show. So at the beginning of the show, you know, during "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd," the ensemble is telling the story. And then there's this big moment near the end of the song when Sweeney - you as Sweeney - come through the crowd and sing attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. And, you know, I'm sure it's something you prepare for. And at least the night I was there, the cheers for you were so loud that you couldn't even hear you deliver those first lines.
GROBAN: You can't hear the first line. And you know what? That's fine, you know, because the next line is, what happens then? Well, that's the play. And you wouldn't want it to give it away. So you know what? They got a lot of show left after that line, even if they cheer louder than my singing. But that's - I mean, we hear their enthusiasm before we even enter the stage. We hear their enthusiasm when the lights go down. We hear their enthusiasm when - Judith Light did our please turn off your cellphones message, you know, and they're cheering after please turn off your cellphones and enjoy the show. They're ready for this. And so, you know, we're - we hear it. We love it. We're excited that, you know, "Sweeney Todd," of all things, is getting a, you know, rock star, you know, cheer out there. It's really, really fun.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Josh Groban. Groban stars in the title role of the new Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical "Sweeney Todd." Let's hear Josh Groban as Sweeney and Annaleigh Ashford as Mrs. Lovett singing "My Friends" from Act 1 of "Sweeney Todd."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FRIENDS")
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Speak to me, friend. Whisper. I'll listen. I know, I know, you've been locked out of sight all these years, like me, my friend. Well, I've come home to find you waiting. Home and we're together, and we'll do wonders, won't we? You there, my friend.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) I'm your friend, too, Mr. Todd.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Come, let me hold you.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) If you only knew, Mr. Todd, ooh, Mr. Todd.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Now, with a sigh, you grow...
ASHFORD AND GROBAN: (As Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd, singing) Warm in my hand.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) My friend.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) You've come home.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) My clever friend.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Always had a fondness for you, I did.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Rest now, my friend.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Never you fear, Mr. Todd.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Soon, I'll unfold you.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) You can move in here, Mr. Todd.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Soon, you'll know...
ASHFORD AND GROBAN: (As Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd, singing) Splendors you never have dreamed all your days.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Will be yours.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) My lucky friends.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) I'm your friend, and you're mine.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) 'Till now, your shine...
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Don't they shine beautiful?
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) ...Was merely silver.
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Silver's good enough for me.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Friends...
ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Mr. T.
GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) ...You shall drip rubies. You'll soon drip precious rubies.
GROSS: Our interview with Josh Groban will continue after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE TROTTER TRIO'S "A LITTLE PRIEST")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Josh Groban. He's starring as Sweeney Todd in a new Broadway revival of the Sondheim musical. He's sold millions of records since he first started recording as a teenager, working closely with producer David Foster. Groban has received Grammy, Emmy and Tony nominations. The Tony nomination was for his starring role in the musical "Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812." Josh Groban spoke with FRESH AIR's Anne Marie Baldonado.
BALDONADO: Now, you were born and raised in Los Angeles. Can you tell us a little bit about your family and the neighborhood where you grew up?
GROBAN: I grew up in an area of LA called Hancock Park. And I grew up in a very artistic but not showbiz family. My mom, who helps me run my arts education foundation now, she was a visual art teacher at a couple of different schools in Los Angeles. And my dad played jazz trumpet all through college and, you know, at some point decided that was enough of that, even though he was incredible. We have old recordings of him playing, and he was just awesome. He went into business. He's a - you know, an executive recruiter they call a headhunter. And so, you know, they both have musical and artistic sensibilities.
But the way that I was introduced to entertainment - and my brother as well, who's a brilliant TV and film director - we both found our bug really naturally. And then in high school, having the great privilege of having a good theater program in school, I was able to, you know, join the ensemble of "Anything Goes," you know, in seventh grade. And just putting on a costume and standing on stage and feeling part of something like that was life-altering.
BALDONADO: You went to a performing arts high school in LA, and you started to do musical theater. You played Tevye in a production of "Fiddler On The Roof" while you were in high school, and I want to play a clip from it, from the big number...
GROBAN: Oh, my God. This is your life (laughter).
BALDONADO: ..."If I Were A Rich Man." You can - yeah, you can find this on YouTube. Can you tell me...
GROBAN: Is there a mute button? Can I...
BALDONADO: (Laughter) Sorry. Can you tell me...
GROBAN: That's OK.
BALDONADO: No, you're great. Don't worry. Can you tell me where this was, how old you were here and what year it would have been?
GROBAN: Sure. So this would have been 1999. I was either - I think I was 17. And this was at the wonderful, wonderful Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, which is still around and thriving even more than ever. I just recently went and saw their production of "Sweeney Todd," which was so much fun to see, and a couple of their students have already come to the show. And it's a place where I really cut my teeth and really found myself and found my musical theater confidence. And one of the first lead roles I got was Tevye in "Fiddler On The Roof," and it was a lot of fun. I could not grow a real beard. That was a fake beard. And - but it was a blast.
BALDONADO: OK, let's hear a little bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GROBAN: (As Tevye, singing) If I were a rich man - (vocalizing) - all day long, I'd biddy-biddy-bum (ph) if I were a wealthy man. I wouldn't have to work hard - (vocalizing) - if I were a biddy-biddy (ph) rich yidle-didle-deedle-didle (ph) man.
BALDONADO: That's my guest Josh Groban in a high school production of "Fiddler On The Roof."
BALDONADO: You mentioned a fake beard.
BALDONADO: And because the video's old, it actually doesn't look that different from your "Sweeney" beard (laughter).
GROBAN: No, it doesn't. Strangely enough, my real beard grew in quite nicely, very similarly to that beard. But, yeah, that was a lot of fun.
BALDONADO: Yeah, well - yeah, what's striking to me here is that your voice is already so full. I'm going to read the Wikipedia description of Tevye, which is, quote, "Jewish dairyman living in the Russian empire who is patriarch of a family." And this performance is giving me that. It's giving me Tevye.
GROBAN: I'm so glad.
BALDONADO: Did you feel like you had a voice that was beyond your years, even back then?
GROBAN: Yeah. I did. I definitely felt like I had puppy paws, you know, with my voice and that I needed to grow into it, which is why it's so nice to kind of finally be, like, 42. You know, I'm finally, like, at the age where my voice sounds. And, you know, it was just an incredible platform to sink in and feel that and feel, you know - that performance and that year was really when I started to feel like my voice was coming into its own. And, you know, again, many of the friends that I made from that production are still some of my close friends today. You know, it was wonderful. Every Jewish relative on my father's side came and saw it and pinched my cheeks. And it was just a wonderful experience all around. I'll never forget it. And it was. It was - I go back, and I listen to it, and I go, wow, kid, you were so self-critical, but you were actually pretty good (laughter). He was pretty good.
BALDONADO: Yeah. You have said that you felt - kind of like you felt old, like an old soul. But does that have to do with your singing voice - do you think? - that, you know, you have this baritone deep voice from that time you were a teenager?
GROBAN: Yeah. I mean, I had somebody tell me once when I sang at a, you know, recital or something when I was really young, when I was, like, 15, and said, you know, you've got an incredible lightbulb. You just need to up the wattage. And - which was, by the way, kind of mean at a - like, I don't know you, sir.
GROBAN: But yeah, I - that was, like, the equivalent of, you know, realizing that I could, you know, throw a football or, you know, hit a home run, you know? I - to me, that was my sport, you know, was realizing that I had that thing that I could do and I could really feel confident with. And it took until about 11th grade or even 12th grade, I would say, which is when that performance happened, for me to actually feel, you know, that I could do this and do it reasonably well. And it was really not long after that clip you just played that David Foster kind of said, you know, hey; you know, I need a singer for something. You know, would you mind coming and singing at this event? And, you know, that was 17, and I was in the studio at 18 1/2.
BALDONADO: I want to ask you about your singing career. You know, you made records, toured and were heralded as this teen, young man prodigy almost with this deep, operatic voice. How would you describe the music that you were making with David Foster, the producer?
GROBAN: We were both, I think, trying to enjoy this wonderful path that had been kind of laid for us by a lot of wonderful classical singers who were, you know, exploring more contemporary feels and sounds, the Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli, of course, you know, Sarah Brightman, who took me on her tour when I was young. She came from musical theater and was making these, really, kind of eclectic pop albums.
And so it really seemed at the time like there was this realm where a voice like mine, which didn't really fit in one purist place or the other - when I woke up in the morning, it always kind of felt like it was in the middle - that there was a way to make music that allowed me to kind of reach my highest potential as a singer at the time, and also to do it with somebody who knows how to make voices fly. I mean, David Foster, singing in the studio with him is an extraordinary task. And he has such a great ear for what works and how to make a song, you know, lift in all the incredible ways. And so it was a masterclass. It was an incredible learning experience for me. And it's been that kind of serendipity ever since. I've been very lucky - of course, lots of peaks and valleys, but have had some incredible opportunities.
BALDONADO: You've said that all that success, all that adoration and fandom directed towards you at that age - that performance schedule of touring and recording - caused you a lot of stress and anxiety. Did those feelings of anxiety around performing, like, did they stay with you at all? Or do they manifest themselves still in different ways?
GROBAN: So the nerves got to me big when I was younger, especially when you add to that, like, morning TV, you know? Your voice is not warm at 6 in the morning and jet lag. And, hey; we need to fly you out to Japan to do this show. And your voice is going, wait a minute. It's 3 in the morning for me. What are you doing? And the songs that I had to sing were really, really hard. So being neurotic already, it was just - feeling that pressure was just - was really hard. I was very, very, very hard on myself. I was more critical of myself than any critic could have possibly been at that age, and maybe still am. But the difference between the nerves that I had then and the anxiety or the nerves that I get now backstage is, back then, those nerves came with me onto the stage. And I was - I look back at some of those earlier performances, and I think, oh, God. You were really shaky. You were - your breath wasn't there. Your pitch was off because you were - you know, your throat closed up. And you were just in your - you're living in your head.
And now, the 10,000 hours have given me a way to kind of channel those nerves into an excitement to go and take the reins, because you realize that those nerves are a lack of control. You don't know what's going to happen out there. You don't know whether people are going to like it. You don't know whether you're going to do a good job. And so for me now, I think of those nerves as an unknown. And then when I go onstage, that becomes the time when I get to have it be known. And I get to put it in my control and make it what I want it to be. And that's something I had to kind of grow into after many years. I'd say the first six or seven years of my career, I was battling the former. And after that, I kind of learned to embrace the latter.
BALDONADO: If you're just joining us, my guest is Grammy, Tony and Emmy nominee Josh Groban. He sold millions of records since he first started performing as a singer when he was a teenager. He's now starring on Broadway as Sweeney Todd in a new revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE TROTTER TRIO'S "PARLOUR SONG")
BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado, back with Josh Groban. He's starring in the new revival of "Sweeney Todd" on Broadway. Josh Groban has sold millions of albums and has been nominated for Grammys, Emmys and a Tony. The Tony nomination was for starring in the musical "Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812."
You continued to perform, tour, release albums. But you also, along the way, found opportunities to act. And I always admired how you would play around with your persona and make cameos and play around with your image. For example, you're in episodes of "The Office," "Glee," "Ally McBeal." You made cameos as yourself in "Parks And Recreation." That one is a personal favorite of mine. And you also...
GROBAN: I hit all of television (laughter).
BALDONADO: Yes. And you also sang a song in an episode of the show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." One of the writers of this song that you sang was the late Adam Schlesinger. It's a song that comes at a very serious part of the show, when the main character, Rebecca, played by Rachel Bloom, is at a low point and reflecting on how her life doesn't make sense like it does in the movies. As she does this, she imagines you singing next to her, giving voice to her thoughts. It's a serious moment, but as it is with this show, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," the grave and the heavy coexist with the comedy. I want to play a bit of this song called "The End Of The Movie."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND")
GROBAN: (Singing) So this is the end of the movie. Whoa, whoa, whoa. But real life isn't a movie, no, no, no. You want things to be wrapped up neatly, the way that stories do. You're looking for answers, but answers aren't looking for you, because life is a gradual series of revelations that occur over a period of time. It's not some carefully crafted story. It's a mess, and we're all going to die. If you saw a movie that was like real life, you'd be like, what the hell was that movie about? It was really all over the place. Life doesn't make narrative sense, no.
BALDONADO: That's Josh Groban from an episode of the series "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Later in the song, you even sing your own name (laughter). Why do you enjoy making these appearances in comedies as yourself?
GROBAN: For me, it was a way to - you know, whether I was playing a goofy version of myself or whether I was playing a goofy other kind of character, it was a way for me to kind of break the ice of just showing a little bit of the other side of my head. You know, when you sing serious music and you've been promoted as a really serious artist for so long, you're yearning to show more sides of your own personality.
And before I started realizing that I had kind of a serious baritone voice, like, my whole - my love was comedy. I loved - I was part of an improv troupe in Los Angeles, and I was - I loved hanging out with funny people. And I loved, you know, doing comedy. And so, you know, it gave me a chance to kind of - you know, I don't take myself very seriously. I take my music and what I do very seriously, but I don't take myself very seriously. And so it gave me a chance to kind of show that side and to have a little bit of fun with that, which is - which was - every time I had a friend, you know, reach out to say, hey; we've got a funny bit, and especially if it was on a show that I loved watching, I always jumped at the opportunity.
BALDONADO: I wonder if you, looking back at how you wanted to be in musical theater all those years back and here you are playing one of your dream roles, if not a main dream role - do you think about that, about your younger self and what he would think?
GROBAN: You know, I give myself time to do that. It's really - I mean, I can't even describe sometimes in words just how special it is. And sometimes that specialness can be a detriment because, ultimately, it's for the audience. And so there's a good amount of time where I have to, for my own - you know, for my own sake, performance-wise, leave some of that emotion and full-circleness (ph) of it at the door to do the job. And then there are times where I allow myself to really sink in and enjoy and appreciate what this has meant all of these years.
I have a signed photograph of George Hearns in my home when he was doing - I was here for - I was in New York looking at colleges. I was 17. It was around the time I was doing "Fiddler," actually. And George Hearn was doing "Diary Of Anne Frank" with Natalie Portman. He was playing Mr. Frank. And I had a letter all written out. I wrote the whole thing, telling him how much I just loved his Sweeney Todd and just loved his work and loved his voice. And would he be so kind to send me an eight-by-10, you know? And I brought it up to the front of the stage, which, you know, of course, now, I realize, like, don't do that, you know? But I brought a letter up to the front of the stage, and I found a stagehand. And I said, excuse me. Excuse me. Can you please pass this letter? And the guy goes, no, no, no, we're not accepting anything for Natalie Portman. I'm so sorry. And I'm like, no, no, no. This is for George Hearn. And he goes, oh, for George. Yeah, yeah, he'd love that. OK, yeah, sure. And so I handed it to the stagehand, never expecting to get anything back. I know they're extremely busy.
And sure enough, a couple months later, I got an eight-by-10 back - to Josh, fondly, George Hearn. And this is - I've never told this story publicly, so I don't think he has any idea that this happened and that I'm now doing "Sweeney." But if any of you know him, please pass it along, that I'm very grateful that he did that. And it's - you know, like I said, it just - it means so much to me that I get to carry the torch right now for this iconic piece and for this role and to have this time to share it with new audiences until the next person takes it on.
BALDONADO: Josh Groban, thank you so much for your time, and congratulations again on "Sweeney Todd."
GROBAN: I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.
GROSS: Josh Groban is starring on Broadway in the revival of "Sweeney Todd." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new memoir by Nicole Chung. Maureen says it will hit close to home for many readers. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLARK TERRY'S "IMPULSIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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