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by Michael Portantiere

Jonathan Groff: So Much Spring, and Summer

  • Jonathan-edit.jpgA Tony Award nominee for Spring Awakening, Jonathan Groff has been away from theater for a while, making himself known and beloved in two of the most disparate roles imaginable: as the flawed main character Patrick in HBO's sexually explicit, gay-centric, dramatic TV series Looking, and in film as the voice of nice guy Kristoff in Disney's family-friendly monster hit Frozen.

    But now, Jonathan is back with us in a big way. Later this week (June 24-27), he'll be playing Gordon Michael Schwinn, a songwriter faced with a serious illness, in the New York City Center Encores! Off-Center production of William Finn's A New Brain. And then, in mid-July, he'll return to Broadway as King George III in Hamilton, having taken over the part from Brian D'Arcy James during the show's Off-Broadway run at The Public Theater.

    Every Encores! production is a high-profile event, and Hamilton is already a Broadway smash even before it opens at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Here's what Jonathan had to say about all of this when I caught up with him the other day during a break in rehearsals for A New Brain.


    BROADWAYSTARS: It's a very busy and exciting time for you.

    JONATHAN GROFF: Yes. I just did an interview with Sutton Foster in this room, for the Playbill. [Note: Foster will star as Queenie in the Encores! Off-Center production of Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, July 15-18.]

    STARS: Did you interview her?

    JONATHAN: There was a third person interviewing us, but we could ask each other questions. And we took pictures out front. It seems like all of my high school dreams are coming true at City Center this summer -- because I grew up listening to A New Brain, and I was obsessed with Sutton Foster.

    STARS: I knew about your Sutton obsession; I was going to ask you if you were already familiar with A New Brain.

    JONATHAN: When I was in high school, someone gave me a musical theater mix tape that had two songs from the show, and then I bought the CD off of Amazon. I literally remember the moment of getting the CD and pushing "play" -- I remember it so vividly, sitting with the liner notes, going through the whole CD and following along with the story. I remember my mom calling me down for dinner, and me saying, "Give me 15 more minutes, I have to find out what happens at the end of this!" From then on, it was about me memorizing all of the songs and acting them out in my bedroom. Hearing the music live is a thrill for me, and hearing it with this incredible cast -- Aaron Lazar, Ana Gasteyer, and Rema Webb, who's playing the homeless lady. Everybody is singing their faces off.

    STARS: Have you yourself written any songs?

    JONATHAN: No, never. I feel like there are some people who have that ability and some who don't. I'm definitely one of the people who don't. I have more of an interpretive mind than a creative mind. Even on Looking, they would ask for my thoughts about what might happen with the character, and I was like, "I have no idea." When I get a script, I have a very clear opinion on what I think of a scene and what my instincts are telling me. That's when I sort of come to life as an artist. But I have such respect for people who create something from nothing, because I've never done that.

    STARS: I'm told you're getting piano lessons from [Encores! Off-Center artistic director] Jeanine Tesori, because you have to play a little in the show.

    JONATHAN: Yeah! It was this crazy thing where I saw tick, tick...BOOM! last year, with Lin(-Manuel Miranda]. I went home that night and was, like, "Oh, man, I really want to do a show at Encores!" I wanted to do a musical but I couldn't commit to a run because of Looking, so I thought Encores! would be perfect because the shows just run for a week. So I got out my New Brain music and sang it through the next day in my apartment. I told myself, "I'll wait a week, and if I still feel really jazzed to do this show, I'm going to ask Jeanine if she would consider it doing it next year at Encores!" And then, five days later, Jeanine emailed me and said, "How would you feel about doing A New Brain at Encores! next year?" Which sounds like a lie, but that is what happened. I emailed her back and said, "First of all, absolutely yes. Second, we have to have lunch." So we had lunch, and I told her, "This is so crazy. I wish I had proof that I saw tick, tick...BOOM! and then went home and sang A New Brain the next day, and I was going to ask you about doing the show, and then you emailed me about it. What are the odds of that?" But I also said, "I don't play the piano, and I know he has to play, at least at the beginning. Do you know anyone who could teach that to me?" And she said, "I'll teach you."

    STARS: Wow. Did you at least at least read music going into that?

    JONATHAN: I played trumpet in high school, so I know what the notes on the scale are, and I can find them slowly. I have a rudimentary, kindergarten knowledge of music. I'm learning to play piano from memorizing where to put my hands, not from reading the music and knowing, "Oh, that's this chord." It's been so surreal the past couple of weeks. I saw Thoroughly Modern Millie six times -- and Jeanine invited me to do this show, Dick Scanlan was here yesterday because he's directing Little Shop of Horrors, Sutton is doing The Wild Party.

    STARS: I assume William Finn is directly involved, and this is the first time you've worked with him?

    JONATHAN: Yes. They [Finn and director/co-author James Lapine] said on the first day of rehearsal that there were certain things they wished they could have done with the original production that they never got a chance to do, and they've always wanted to go back and change some things up, because the show sort of felt unfinished to them. They wanted to move the needle forward a little bit with this production and take the opportunity to make some of those broad-stroke changes -- even though we have no rehearsal! So that's part of the excitement; I had no idea they were going to be doing that.

    STARS: Well, it's been announced that Falsettos is coming back to Broadway...

    JONATHAN: Yeah, which...I do not know that show.

    STARS: Really?

    JONATHAN: No. Isn't that crazy that I would know A New Brain like the back of my hand, but I don't know Falsettos?

    STARS: You should look at it; you'd be the perfect Whizzer. And next up, you have Hamilton.

    JONATHAN: I can't wait for the world to see that show. It was impossible to get in to see it Off-Broadway; I had to do the lottery to get a ticket for my friend Katie from high school. As word spread and people were fighting to get in, the great thing you heard after the show was, "I came in with such expectations, and they were met." I would watch the whole show every other night from offstage in my King George robes -- I was afraid the cast thought I was creepy -- and I would be, like, "How did Lin write something so artistically groundbreaking and mind-blowing?" It's unlike anything you've seen before, and usually those things are the least commercial. To see something that's so groundbreaking and form-breaking, and yet is so commercial and so pro-America -- that's just amazing to me. The show has something in it for everyone, without it feeling like a show that's trying to have something for everyone.

    STARS: Yes. It never seems like it's straining to be clever.

    JONATHAN: And that's so Lin. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

    STARS: Well, it's great to have you back in two such wonderful projects.

    JONATHAN: I'm so excited to be back.

    Published on Sunday, June 21, 2015

    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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