Josh Groban Leaves Big Shoes To Fill In The Tony-Nominated 'Great Comet'

May 18, 2017
Originally published on May 18, 2017 7:36 am

When Josh Groban takes his final bow in Broadway's Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, he'll leave some very big shoes to fill. Fans of the multiplatinum-selling recording artist have flocked to see him in this exuberantly offbeat musical, which is based on a section of the Russian novel War and Peace. Groban's performance as Pierre (his first role on Broadway) has won over critics, and now The Great Comet is up for 12 Tony Awards, including one for Groban as best lead actor in a musical.

Still, producers are confident that Groban's replacement, Okieriete Onaodowan from the original cast of Hamilton, is up to the task.

Broadway nerd alert

As the generous but miserable Pierre, Groban sports a scruffy beard and a fat suit. In the words of one song, Pierre is a "merry feasting crank" and "a warm-hearted Russian of the old school." Groban, whose last performance is July 2, relishes the part.

He says, "I think anybody who's been through moments in their life where there were a lot of questions and not a lot of answers, and didn't have a certain amount of internal peace or happiness and wondered why — there's a lot of that to Pierre that I love."

For viewers, The Great Comet is quite an experience. The action is everywhere — front, back, center, in the aisles and, of course, on stage, where some audience members actually sit for the duration of the show. Actors occasionally interact with them as if they're part of the performance.

Groban became a fan of the show after seeing it in the Kazino, a temporary, custom-built tent in Manhattan made to look like a Russian nightclub. "I remember it just being one of my favorite theatrical experiences I'd ever been to," he says. When Groban heard The Great Comet was planning to move to Broadway, he asked his agent to sniff around and see if there might be a part for him.

Producers were thrilled that a bankable star like Groban was interested, but the show's creator, Dave Malloy, admits he and director Rachel Chavkin were leary. "We definitely had that initial fear of, like, 'Oh, this big star's going to come in. Is he going to be this grand diva? Is he going to think he knows how to do everything?' " Then they met him. "He was just as much a dork as Rachel and I!" Malloy recalls gleefully.

Groban imagines what Malloy and Chavkin must've been thinking: " 'He is so awkward.' ... 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?' 'Nerd alert,' " he says, laughing. In this Broadway musical nerd heaven, Malloy even wrote a new song for Groban's Pierre.

Pierre's balancing act

The Great Comet has been six years in the making. Malloy first approached it as an experimental theater piece, mainly because he wanted to write songs for and play Pierre. "When I first read the book War and Peace, I just took such a shine to Pierre and I just related to him on so many levels," Malloy says — especially when it came to Pierre's awkwardness. "In social situations, he just doesn't know how to act. And he's a really big-hearted person, so he never wants to hurt anyone. He really wants to be a part of the scene, be friends with people, but he just can't do it. He just can't, like, make small talk."

Malloy originated the role off-Broadway and has stepped in to play him on Broadway as well. And even though The Great Comet is very much an ensemble show, Pierre does some heavy lifting. In addition to singing, he also plays piano and accordion on stage. Before he could take the part, Groban had to learn how to play the latter. He says he practiced between shows on his last album tour. "I picked it up and started kind of woodshedding note by note this very complicated score," Groban recalls. The Broadway show also calls for Pierre to accompany other singers on stage while navigating multiple sets of stairs. "It's like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach," he says.

When composer Dave Malloy created that balancing act, he never imagined The Great Comet would get to Broadway, let alone star anyone but himself as Pierre. Malloy learned to play piano when he was about 7 and picked up the accordion when he was a teenager. "I actually wrote Pierre as the piano player/accordion player because I'm actually so comfortable on the piano and accordion — like, I gave myself that as a crutch," he says. "I'm like, 'Acting is scary, but I can play piano; I can play accordion.' "

Hamilton star Okieriete Onaodowan takes Groban's place as Pierre this summer. He says he was told not to worry, the accordion would be easy to learn. "Everyone's like, 'No, no, no. It's super simple,' " Onaodowan says in disbelief. "... Josh was like, 'Oh, I had it with me on tour.' And [Malloy had] been playing it since high school. I'm like, 'Why did everybody say I'll be fine?' "

Onaodowan has about two months to learn both accordion and piano, though he can play the latter by ear. He's taking lessons on both instruments and practicing every day. He seems cool under the pressure. "All that acting and all that stuff ... will come after you know what you're doing, so that when I get on stage I don't have to think about it," he says. "I can really be in the moment and, like, 'What is Pierre feeling right now?' Not like, 'What the hell am I playing right now?'"

Onaodowan says he's also watching Groban as much as he can. The musician offered him just one bit of advice: "Learn the accordion parts backwards and forwards, standing on your head, blind-folded, drunk, sober. Every way, shape or form." Groban says he felt good about his accordion skills before opening night, "and then suddenly you get out there and it's like I had confidence in my body, I had confidence in my voice and I'm like, 'This thing that's strapped on to me, why does it feel so weird all the sudden?' "

After seven months as Pierre, the accordion certainly doesn't look weird on Josh Groban anymore. But if Onaodowan is still nervous come show time, Groban says Pierre drinks a lot anyway, so it's natural he might mess up a few notes.

Radio editor Rose Friedman and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812" is up for 12 Tony Awards. That's more than any other Broadway show. One of those nominations is for Josh Groban, who plays Pierre. This summer, he'll hand the part over to Okieriete Onaodowan from the original cast of "Hamilton." NPR's Elizabeth Blair sat down with both of them and with the third guy playing Pierre this summer, who also happens to be "The Great Comet's" creator.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Josh Groban fans are hardcore. They wait for him at the stage door, they cry when they see him, and they've bought a lot of tickets to see him play Pierre, a character who is rich, generous and miserable.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

JOSH GROBAN: (As Pierre, singing) The zest of life has vanished. Only the skeleton remains. Unexpectedly vile, I used to be better. I used to be better. I used to be better. I used to be better. I used to be better. I used to be better.

BLAIR: Groban says Pierre is full of self-loathing.

GROBAN: I think anybody who's been through moments in their life where there were lot of questions and not a lot of answers and didn't have a certain amount of internal peace or happiness and wondered why - there's a lot of that to Pierre that I love.

BLAIR: Groban sought out this part. He was a fan of this exuberantly offbeat show when it was off-Broadway in a tent.

GROBAN: And I remember it just being one of my favorite theatrical experiences I'd ever been to.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, shouting in Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) And this is all in your program. You are at the opera. Gonna have to study up a little bit if you want to keep with the plot.

BLAIR: "The Great Comet" is an experience. The action is everywhere, in the aisles, on stage. Actors sometimes sit next to audience members. It's based on the Russian novel "War And Peace."

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) 'Cause it's a complicated Russian novel. Everyone's got nine different names. So look it up in your program. We'd appreciate it. Thanks a lot. Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da (ph).

BLAIR: The person who decided to turn a section of this complicated book into a musical is Dave Malloy. He started working on "The Great Comet" about six years ago as an experimental theater piece, mainly because he wanted to play Pierre.

DAVE MALLOY: When I first read the book "War And Peace," I just took such a shine to Pierre, and I just related to him on so many levels.

BLAIR: Namely his awkwardness.

MALLOY: In social situations, he just doesn't know how to act, and he's a really big-hearted person, so he never wants to hurt anyone. He really wants to, like, be a part of, like, the scene, like, you know, be friends with people. But he just can't do it. He just can't, like, make small talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

GROBAN: (As Pierre, singing) There's a war going on out there somewhere, and Andrey isn't here. There's a war going on out there somewhere, and Andrey isn't here.

BLAIR: When Josh Groban heard the show was headed to a Broadway theater, he asked his agent to sniff around to see if there might be a part for him. The producers were thrilled that a bankable star like Groban was interested. But Malloy admits that he and the show's director were leery.

MALLOY: And we definitely had, like, that initial fear of, like, oh, like, this big star is going to come in. Is he going to be this, like, grand diva? Is he, like, going to think he knows how to do everything?

BLAIR: Then, they met him, and everybody hit it off.

MALLOY: He was just, like, as much a dork as Rachel and I.

GROBAN: (Unintelligible) He is so awkward. What a relief.

MALLOY: We were just, like, God, what a dork this guy is (laughter).

GROBAN: God. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Nerd alert.

BLAIR: Malloy even wrote a new song for Groban's Pierre.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

GROBAN: (As Pierre, singing) All the things I could've been, but I never had the nerve. Life and love, I don't deserve. So all right, all right, I've had my time. Close my eyes. Let the death bells chime.

BLAIR: Pierre is Josh Groban's first Broadway role. And even though "The Great Comet" is an ensemble show, Pierre does some heavy lifting. He not only sings and plays piano on stage, he also plays accordion.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

GROBAN: (As Pierre, playing accordion).

BLAIR: Before he could take the part, Groban had to learn how to play the instrument. On his last album tour, he practiced in between shows.

GROBAN: I picked it up and started kind of woodshedding note by note, this very complicated score. Thanks, Dave (laughter).

MALLOY: My pleasure.

BLAIR: Pierre has to navigate multiple sets of stairs while accompanying other singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

DENEE BENTON AND BRITTAIN ASHFORD: (As Natasha and Sonya singing) My cousin and I are so pleased to be with you while we wait on our fiances fighting in the war.

GRACE MCLEAN: (As Marya D., singing) Bring in their things. What are you dawdling for?

GROBAN: The keys are the same as the piano, but they're sideways, and they're smaller. And because there's so many stairs in the set, you're really - it's like - it's like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach.

BLAIR: But not for Dave Malloy. He never imagined "The Great Comet" would get to Broadway, let alone star anyone but himself as Pierre. Malloy learned to play piano when he was about 7 and picked up the accordion when he was a teenager.

MALLOY: For me, I actually wrote Pierre as the piano player-accordion player because I'm actually so comfortable on the piano and accordion. Like, I gave myself that as a crutch. Like, I'm, like, oh, acting is scary, but I can play piano.

GROBAN: You would.

MALLOY: I can play accordion. I can do that.

OKIERIETE ONAODOWAN: Way to just think about yourself.

MALLOY: So that's hilarious.

BLAIR: Now enter Okieriete Onaodowan. He's that third voice you hear. He'll take Josh Groban's place this summer. He says he was told the accordion would be easy to learn.

ONAODOWAN: Everyone's like, no, no, no, it's super simple, but then hearing you two talk about it, it was like - Josh was like, oh, I had it with me on tour, and you've been playing it since high school. I'm like, why did everybody say I'll be fine?

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Onaodowan is best-known for being in the original cast of "Hamilton." He says he can play a little piano by ear, so he's taking lessons.

ONAODOWAN: (Playing piano).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's excellent. Now, try that one more time.

ONAODOWAN: But I am using pedal.

BLAIR: Before he can act the part, he needs the technique.

ONAODOWAN: All that acting and all that stuff and emoting and crap will come after you know what you're doing. So when you get - when I get on stage, I don't have to think about it. I can really, like, be in the moment and, like, what is Pierre feeling right now? Not like, what the hell am I playing right now?

BLAIR: He says he's also watching Josh Groban as much as he can. In our interview, Groban offered him just one bit of advice.

GROBAN: Learn the accordion parts backwards and forwards, standing on your head, blindfolded (laughter), drunk, sober (laughter), every way, shape or form. That was - because that was the first thing that I messed up on those first few weeks. I was confident as all hell. Like I said, I took it out on the road with me forever. And then, suddenly, you get out there and it's like - I had confidence in my body, I had confidence in my voice and I was like this thing that's strapped to me, why does it feel so weird all of a sudden?

BLAIR: Certainly doesn't look weird on Josh Groban anymore, but he did pass along a helpful hint. Pierre drinks a lot, so it's natural he might mess up a few notes. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) Oh, Pierre, our merry, feasting crank. Our most dear, most kind, more smart and eccentric warm-hearted Russian of the old school. His purse is always empty 'cause it's open to all. Oh, Pierre, just one of a hundred sad, old men living out their final days in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.