Attend the tale of Josh Groban
More than two decades after missing out on his dream role at Interlochen Arts Camp, the Grammy Award-nominated singer stars as the titular character in the Broadway revival of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.’
Twenty-five years after his first production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Josh Groban (IAC 97-98) has returned to the iconic Stephen Sondheim musical. But this time around, a certain composer/lyricist won’t be standing in his way.
“Rokicki!” Groban interjected in a 2019 interview with Interlochen’s Crescendo magazine, softening a jocular fist shake with a good-natured chuckle.
Groban’s unfinished business with Sweeney Todd dates back to 1997, when fellow alumnus Rob Rokicki (IAC 96-97) landed the starring role in Interlochen Arts Camp’s production. Groban, meanwhile, played a dustman in the chorus.
“I was killed in the first five minutes of the show, hanged by Judge Turpin,” he confessed to The New Yorker.
On Feb. 26, Groban finally earned his straight razor, stepping into the shoes of the homicidal barber in the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd at the Lunt Fontanne Theater. For Groban, it was the realization of a long-held dream.
“The first time I saw Sweeney Todd, when I was 13—when you sit there and say to yourself: If I ever had the opportunity to make people feel the way that I'm feeling right this minute, that would be my life's purpose,” Groban said in a recent feature in Playbill.
Gaining experience in a nurturing place
But while Groban immediately became obsessed with the show—he went on to see it live three more times, watched the George Hearn and Angela Lansbury recording, and even named his late soft-coated wheaten terrier after the titular character—it was his summer at Interlochen that solidified his desire to play the role of “Sweeney Todd.”
“I’ve thought about it ever since I was a camper at Interlochen,” he told the Washington Post.
Groban’s first production of Sweeney Todd got off to a shaky start—impressed by his gifted peers and inexperienced with the audition process, Groban faltered during his audition. He cited the experience as his “worst audition ever" in a 2017 interview with Vogue.
“I really botched that audition,” Groban told Crescendo. “You come to a place like Interlochen, and you've got lots of talent around you. Suddenly, you're one of many people who've been chosen to be here, and so I was just very nervous.”
Luckily for Groban, the anticipated post-audition embarrassment never materialized. “Afterwards, I was expecting to be made fun of or to feel isolated, but that couldn't have been farther from what happened,” he told Crescendo. “The togetherness, the friendships that developed, and the immediate support that every kid showed each other was something else. I'm so glad that I was able to experience what the nervousness of auditioning felt like in a place that was actually very safe, nurturing, and loving.”
Returning to his roots
Groban went on to experience a “profound” summer at Interlochen and returned in 1998 for the Camp’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Just three years later, Groban released his eponymous five-time platinum-certified debut album, launching his career as a pop music superstar.
Despite his transition from theatre to music, Groban never lost sight of his passion for the stage. Throughout his career, Groban has made acting appearances in numerous movies and television shows, including Ally McBeal, The Office, Crazy, Stupid, Love., and most recently, Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration. His Grammy Award-nominated 2015 album, Stages, featured Groban’s covers of iconic songs from Broadway musicals, including “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd.
In 2016, Groban finally arrived on Broadway, making his debut as “Pierre” in the Tony Award-winning production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
“It was the best time of my life, but the hardest I’ve ever worked,” Groban said of his first Broadway role during a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Humanizing a horrific character
Now, Groban has returned to the bright lights of Broadway in his darkest role to date. While a cold-blooded killer seems at odds with Groban’s well-publicized affability, both Groban and his resonant baritone voice have long yearned for more mature roles.
“I couldn’t wait to be 40,” he told the Washington Post’s Peter Marks. “I was an 18-year-old kid who couldn’t wait to have that gravitas. Because my voice was big but I was not. And I loved the roles that were bigger, darker. More aged.”
At 42, Groban is physically and emotionally ready to step into the role that eluded his baby-faced 16-year-old self. “I know it wouldn’t have been right for me 10 years ago,” he told ABC Audio. “I am the age now that the character is. And [Sweeney Todd] also is a weighty show emotionally; there’s a lot to it. And I’m a little wiser and I’ve got, y’know, stuff to draw on.”
While no morally responsible actor literally draws on the titular character’s experience—”There should be no method acting in Sweeney Todd,” Groban quipped in the ABC Audio interview—Groban’s approach to the razor-wielding antihero attempts to humanize the character. By emphasizing the psychological distress that transformed loving family man Benjamin Barker into vengeful sociopath Sweeney Todd, Groban hopes to challenge audiences to imagine how they would respond in similar circumstances.
“There's a human being that arrives back in London, on the edge of a break, because of this trauma that has been done to him,” Groban told Playbill. “You're watching somebody break in half, you're watching somebody become what they never expected to become.… I think it's an interesting way to view this monster being made.”
Finding success after failure
For Groban, returning to Sweeney Todd is a natural moment to reflect on his journey since Interlochen.
“There are different ways to judge success,” he told Playbill. “I certainly know from being in this business for 20 years, you could put your heart and soul into something and the stars were not at the right place. You have to continue to try and find ways for work you believe in to continue to thrive and continue to inspire people. The great gamble we all take, when we love something, is the risk of it not clicking. But it's a risk worth taking.
Finding the teachable moment when the risk doesn’t pay off is one of the key lessons Groban took away from his Arts Camp experience.
“Sometimes, your worst audition can be your best life lesson, and you know what? It was for me,” Groban said in his Crescendo interview. “I'm very lucky that Sweeney Todd at Interlochen was my worst audition. They all got pretty good after that.”