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by Michael Portantiere

Jonathan Groff Moves Upstate

  • Jonathan Groff; photo by Michael Portantiere

    Jonathan Groff Moves Upstate

    Jonathan Groff's fans must be bummed that their boy will not be transferring to Broadway with the Public Theater production of Hair, in which he so memorably played Claude this summer at the Delacorte in Central Park. But they can take comfort in the fact that J.G., who gained a loyal following (and a Tony Award nomination) for his beautiful performance as Melchior in Spring Awakening, is now co-starring in Craig Lucas's Prayer For My Enemy at Playwrights Horizons, under the direction of Bartlett Sher.

    More in store: Come August, Jonathan will make his film debut with the release of Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock. His role therein? Michael Lang, one of the real-life architects of the 1969 music festival that changed the world. I recently chatted with him about these endeavors and asked him why, by his own choice, he is now disin-Hair-ited.


    BROADWAYSTARS.COM: From the blurb in the press release, it seems that Prayer for My Enemy is difficult to describe in brief. Will you take a shot at it?

    JONATHAN GROFF: [pauses] What can I tell you without giving too much away? It's about a family living in upstate New York with an alcoholic father. It's about forgiveness. The characters are so complex and multi-dimensional that our rehearsals were almost like acting classes. The way Craig has written the play, there are so many layers and you can go in so many different directions. I hope it's as exciting to watch as it is to perform.

    STARS: I understand that the script contains asides, in the style of Strange Interlude.

    JG: Yes. At various moments, a character will break out of a scene and speak his inner thoughts, then jump back into the scene. But the play is not so abstract that the audience will be thinking, "What's going on?" It's definitely followable, though you do have to pay attention. It's eccentric and surprising.

    STARS: How did you become involved with this project?

    JG: Bart asked me to do a reading about nine months ago. After that, it was a no-brainer; I was begging him to be a part of it. The writing is so great, and to be in a room with Craig is an incredible experience. Then there's Bart. He's amazingly talented and has great ideas, yet he doesn't operate from an ego place. He sees himself as an interpreter. Some directors have personal faults you can excuse because they're so talented, but you don't need to do that with Bart. He's this impossible combination of everything wonderful.

    STARS: There has been some speculation as to why you're not going to Broadway with Hair, especially since you don't yet have another project lined up.

    JG: It was a really hard choice, because I completely fell in love with everybody in that company, and I believed so much in the show coming to Broadway. But I had been working on Claude for almost a year, since those first few concert performances in the park last summer. I didn't want to do the show on Broadway unless I could commit to it totally, and I didn't feel I could do that because I wanted to leave myself open to new parts and continue to evolve as a performer.

    STARS: It would have been a nice combo with Taking Woodstock, since they're both about the counterculture movement of the late '60s. Tell me about the film.

    JG: I'd never done a movie before, and I couldn't have asked for a better first experience. Ang Lee held my hand through the whole thing and showed me the ropes. We had a lot of rehearsal time before we started shooting, which was great. There was a real Woodstock vibe on the set; it was very easygoing and laid back, definitely not high-stress, as I hear a film shoot can be. Michael Lang is still alive today, and I got to spend some time with him and his family at their house in Woodstock. That was so freakin' cool.

    STARS: Are you looking forward to seeing yourself on the big screen for the first time?

    JG: Yes. You know, Phoebe Strole and Skylar Astin [from the cast of Spring Awakening] were in Hamlet 2, and Jonny B. Wright was in Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. I saw both of those movies twice. I was beaming with pride.

    STARS: What are your goals for the near future?

    JG: I have career A.D.D. It broke my heart to leave Hair early to do the movie. That was devastating. But when I was working on the movie, I loved it so much that I never wanted to leave the set at the end of the day. Now I'm obsessed with this play and I don't want to leave Bart Sher. But I'm always looking for the next challenge, something that's going to help me grow. I'm 23 and I didn't go to college, so I feel I still have a lot of learning to do.

    STARS: Wow. I figured you must be a few years older than that by now. Are you really only 23?

    JG: Yup!

    STARS: Well, congratulations for having already achieved so much at such a young age, and for remaining grounded and focused despite the whirlwind.

    JG: I just love acting more than anything extra, like being in magazines or on TV. Do you know what I mean? I love performing and working on projects. That's all I want to do.

    [For more on Prayer for My Enemy, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org]


    Published on Friday, December 5, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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