Josh Groban still remembers when he was growing up in Los Angeles there was a Sunday in the Park with George videotapes on a shelf in his parents’ house.
“It was the version with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, and I always saw it and thought, ‘This is a funny cover – strange orange color, half painting, half jeans and boots,” says the Grammy-nominated singer and actor. known for his big voice and multiple pop classic records. “Once I asked my parents:“ What is an this is?’ and they said, “This is a musical. Do you want to watch it? “
This is how the Stephen Sondheim fan was born.
Since then, Groban, now 40, has often returned to the work of the brilliant and beloved composer and poet who died Friday at age 91 after redefining the Broadway musical from shows including Sunday in the Park, Company. “Madness,” “Passion,” and “We Roll Joyfully.”
For his 2015 album Stages, Groban mixed Children Will Listen (from Into the Woods) and Not While I’m Around (from Sweeney Todd). And last year, shortly after his Broadway debut in Tony’s winning play Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, he took part in Sondheim’s 90th birthday virtual tribute to rave reviews.
On Saturday, Groban wrote on Instagram about his admiration for the late icon; Later I called him to find out more.
“Sunday in the Park” about the French artist Georges Seurat touches on rather mature topics: creative inspiration, professional ambition, sexual disappointment. At the age of 8 or 9, did you understand what was going on in the show?
Steve had a way of explaining these things in his music so that everyone could understand. Some of the lyrics were outside of me, but only the chords – the way they were constructed and the idea that he could literally paint a picture of this person – I suddenly found myself understanding Sera through this music. And then, by understanding it, maybe I can understand the broader creative process. This is what Steve did so beautifully: he piqued your curiosity without even knowing it.
Did you feel early on that his music was different from the music of other composers?
He was able to simultaneously light both sides of the brain. There are shows that I come to, and I am captured by music, drama, greatness. And then there are shows where I said, “Damn it, this is great,” but the goosebumps did not go. Steve’s work stimulated the intellect; he prompted you to think more deeply about yourself and about the world. At the same time, he could take the breath away with his music. This is very rare.
Which Sondheim song did you sing first?
The first crack I made was at the Interloken Art Academy. They put on a production of Sweeney Todd and I sang My Friends at the audition. I was about 14; I think I was chosen for the role of Prisoner Sent to Death No. 3, but I loved the soundtrack so much that I just sat on the edge of the stage cheering for the show. After that, they got better. The first time I was able to professionally sing his works after becoming friends with Barbara Cook. She really helped me early in my career and introduced me to Steve. She told me to sing “Johanna” from “Sweeney Todd” and asked me to sing “Move On” with her several times. I also had to sing for Steve, which was very important – it allowed me to say thanks to him in a way I don’t think I could ever say in words.
They say music is difficult to sing.
Technically it is very difficult – very subtle. The roles he writes are usually diverted from the traditional types of voice: baritone, tenor, alto, soprano. You have to fit these shapes, but you also have to have a lot more up your sleeve if you are going to sing the entire score. But like all great writers, he gives so much. Every time you have a question about why a show or a character, everything is at work. And these are the shows that you keep opening. Years, years and years after you first hear the song, you may find something new in the lyrics that you didn’t know before. This is another great problem with his music: when you think you know everything there is to know about it, that’s not all.
Aside from Let’s Clowns, Sondheim didn’t have many big pop crossovers. Why do you think this is so?
For theater writers, this is a narrow window to that world because you write in very long arcs. I will never forget: he invited me to his apartment to talk between [“Great Comet”] shows; I had a day with two exhibitions, and I ran – ran, ran, ran – to spend half an hour with him. He asked me questions about the musical world, and I asked him about his process. And this theme arose, the idea of a three-four-minute hit. I asked him, “Do you ever write snacks for fun? A song that will have the whole story in these four minutes? “And he said no. He said, “If this is not a story that I love and want to see from start to middle to end, I really don’t want to dive into it.” The process was so long for him. We’re talking about album artists and singles wonders, right? He was the artist for the album.