Even longtime fans of singer Josh Groban could be forgiven some degree of surprise upon seeing the multiple-Grammy nominee in his 2016 Broadway debut Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, so impressive was his Tony-nominated performance in that splendid, eccentric musical. And those that saw his turn as that production’s bookish, melancholic Russian aristocrat Pierre might just as easily be forgiven still further surprise upon seeing Groban in his latest Broadway endeavor as the mad title character of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
“I always said that Great Comet was the greatest challenge I’ve had in my career,” Groban told Deadline during a recent conversation after Sweeney had brought him his second Tony Award nomination, “but this role has definitely topped that.” Even after I urge him to put aside any false modesty to describe how it feels to have landed in the upper reaches of the Broadway leading man heap, the amiable Groban brings it back to the material: “I have really been two for two in terms of the just brilliant works that I have been so lucky to give to the audiences.”
Groban is new enough to the Broadway game that he’s capable of coming to the stage from a place that’s somewhere near the polar opposite of blasé. This is a man who has sold more than 35 million albums worldwide and spent decades headlining great venues the world over, yet delights in the stagedoor devotees who giddily ask about his decade-old cameo on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Josh Groban takes it all in.
Deadline spoke to Groban in the weeks after his Tony nomination for Best Leading Actor/Musical. He pondered awards of all sorts, and what it means to win and lose them. He addressed the differences between Broadway and concert performing, how Sweeney differs from Comet – and why he still gets asked about Sunny.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: Was Sweeney a role that you had your heart set on for a while? How did it happen?
JOSH GROBAN: It’s a role on a show that I’ve loved for a really long time, for as long as I’ve loved theater. But I think I always had a healthy bit of my own kind of self-awareness about it, of just wanting to be the right age and wanting it to be the right time and never just jumping into it just because I love the show.
I’m sometimes not my own best champion for things that could be great and so my manager actually was the one who asked me at some point before quarantine, before Covid, Have you ever considered maybe thinking about seeing if the rights for Sweeney Todd are available and would you ever consider doing it? And I went, Do you actually think that would be possible? It just always seemed like such an enormous pipe dream that I didn’t actually dream it for myself, my manager had to bring it up.
And so that started the conversation with [producer] Jeffrey Seller and with [director/producer] Tommy Kail, and then we hit lockdown and it gave us a real long time to have some thought about it. So many stars continued to align that it just wound up being one of those miraculous things that can only happen in the theater because theater takes a really long time to get right. I just can’t believe that it’s here and I’m talking to you about it.
DEADLINE: Vocally it’s in your wheelhouse…
GROBAN: It is and it isn’t. There’s a lot about the way Sondheim wrote that is very lyrical, very romantic, very much in line with what my thing is and where my techniques lie, but there’s a lot that I had to learn, to find the character and where the angst and the anger and the rage fits into my technique. And there was a lot that really scared the crap out of me, as far as how I might be able to approach it and whether or not it would be healthy for my voice.
You know, for 25 years I trained to have not a single bit of fringe in my singing, and when I come back to doing theater, whether it was Great Comet or Sweeney Todd, I have to totally adjust and change and rearrange what my technique is so that I can do what the character needs, but with the same kind of health and safety as I would for a concert performance.
As I did with Great Comet, I started with an idea of how I would sing Sweeney in concert, and then I slowly start to build and build and build on what the character voice is. Vocally I’ve learned so much from this show.
DEADLINE: Is there a greater risk to your voice with an eight-performances-a-week production than a concert?
GROBAN: Ask me in September. I think there’s always a risk, but that being said, my voice tells me a lot in real time. I’ve never been one of those singers that, you know, goes out and trashes myself and then wakes up in the morning and goes, wow, what happened? I know my voice tells me what’s happening in real time. It’ll tell me if it’s tired, it tells me if it’s not. I’ve put in my 10,000 hours now to know how to get it in line and how to do it in a healthy way.
So, I guess my quick answer would be that no, I’m not doing anything that would damage my voice because I’ve done every step of this in collaboration with my voice coach and with my voice doctor and voice specialist. We’re looking out for it.
DEADLINE: This musical has always been so linked to its original performers – Len Cariou [as Sweeney], Angela Lansbury [as Mrs. Lovett]. Does that sit on your mind, or are you just focused on your own performance?
GROBAN: I think it’s a good combo of both. I think for Annaleigh and I both, we came into it with an enormous amount of reverence for what Angela and Len Cariou and then George Hearn brought to the roles. There was a kind of a magic formula that they helped lay the groundwork for, and that is their gift to every Sweeney and Lovett that comes after them. And after you try your hardest not to mess that up, then comes the added ingredients of what makes you and your Sweeney and your Lovett unique to a production. So it’s a combination of not wanting to go against the grain of what they discovered so early on, and at the same time wanting to not go against the grain of our own instincts as actors. That’s what the rehearsal process is and the preview process is – finding that magic ingredient is. And then the audience tells you so much.
DEADLINE: In what ways do you think that what you and Annaleigh are doing is different from the original performers? I have my own idea as an audience member, but I’m curious about what you think from your perspective.
GROBAN: Well, off the top of my head, and I don’t want to speak for Annaleigh because I know she feels very deeply about her journey with the role, but one thing that I can say as somebody who’s playing off of her is that there is very much more a kind of physical desire from Lovett towards Sweeney in this version. We had a lot of fun playing with the idea of their chemistry, the flirtations, her constant trying to get Sweeney out of his shell and into bed, you know. That’s something that’s been made I think a little bit more apparent in this production.
And the fact that I’m certainly not the “type” that people would say is a serial killer or a murderer. I’ve had fun playing with the skepticism out there, playing with the idea that my demeanor and my voice might be a little more unassuming, less monstrous, than what’s expected [of Sweeney]. It plays into the question of who was this boogeyman before he had all these horrible things done to him, and how an everyday small business owner, loving husband and father turns into this monster? That was something that felt very scary to me and allowed me to lean into what I think Sondheim very much did on purpose when he wrote some of his most melodic, romantic, smooth, beautiful melodies for the most murderous moments.
DEADLINE: Well, I was going to say I think this is a much sexier Sweeney, which I guess is a cruder way of saying what you just said more eloquently. There’s a sense of two characters who begin as flirtatious before taking a very, very dark turn.
GROBAN: Absolutely. The betrayal that is the final twist of the knife so to speak becomes even more tragic and Shakespearean if you believe that there actually was a desire between Sweeney and Lovett. Perhaps romantic love meant different things at those points in their lives, but from the very first moment [that Sweeney arrives] Lovett was pining for him, and he realizes that at his very lowest she pulls him out of his deepest despair. As crazy and cartoonishly evil as the musical number “A Little Priest” is, in its own sick way it is something that everybody can connect to, that moment when somebody sees you so completely and at your darkest says, I see you and I’m going to take you to where the light is. That’s a powerful aphrodisiac and I think that to have gotten under Sweeney’s skin that way makes a more interesting tragedy than just having two monsters doing their monster things.
DEADLINE: What do the Tonys and the nominations mean to you, and what were your thoughts when you heard the show might be canceled due to the WGA strike?
GROBAN: First of all, we were all just so unbelievably thrilled and delighted that the Tonys recognized our show. It’s an incredible feeling. My relationship with awards in the past has been, you know, it’s nice to be nominated, and not winning certainly does not affect anything, and winning is no guarantee of anything, either. But it is a wonderful thing to be acknowledged by your peers, and when it seemed possible that the Tonys weren’t going to happen, I think we were all really devastated. We are all in support of the WGA and what they’re doing, and I don’t think there is a single person that felt any hard feelings about this righteous strike that’s happening now, but as a theater community that has been trying so hard to stay afloat, the Tonys are just an incredible showcase for why theater is important. To not have that showcase would have been devastating.
DEADLINE: No false modesty needed here – in terms of Broadway leading men, you’re certainly among the actors who can pick and choose what you’d like to do next. Have you given any thought to roles you’d like to play, or how long it might be before your next Broadway show?
GROBAN: It’s very kind of you to ask and I feel very lucky. With Great Comet and Sweeney Todd I have really been two for two with just brilliant works that I have been so lucky to give to audiences. And I also feel two for two as far as the uniqueness of each experience. As far as what would be next, I have until January to think about that. After Great Comet I said to myself Wow, this was really, really challenging and I think I’ll probably do a comedy next. And then Sweeney Todd came and I went, No, put on the helmet, you’re going to go even deeper into the dark place.
After this if I were to come back I’d love to get in on a new work from the ground up because I think we are rich in revivals right now and there’s some incredible new work out there that’s bubbling up, and inspiring, and I’d love to see where that could grow.
DEADLINE: On that note I’ll let you go with one final question: Any possibility of you returning to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?
GROBAN: Oh, my gosh. If they call I’m there. I love that show, I love those guys, and of course, you know, me and Dee [the Groban uber-fan character played by Sunny regular Kaitlin Olson] , we have a rich history and relationship. It’s so funny, sometimes at the stage door people will quote from little cameos that I’ve done on television over the years, and you’re reminded of just, like, the power of TV. Something you did for 30 seconds will, in somebody’s mind, completely outweigh 23 years of other things I’ve done. It’s amazing. So, yeah. If Sunny calls, I’m there. Anytime.
The Tony Awards air Sunday, June 11 on CBS. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been nominated in the following categories:
- Best Revival of a Musical
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Ruthie Ann Miles)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical (Annaleigh Ashford)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical (Josh Groban)
- Best Scenic Design of a Musical (Mimi Lien)
- Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Natasha Katz)
- Best Sound Design of a Musical (Nevin Steinberg)
- Best Choreography (Steven Hoggett)