The singer makes his Broadway debut alongside 'UnREAL' actress Denée Benton.
Nineteenth-century Russian high society is going multi-platinum.
Singer Josh Groban will finally make his long-awaited Broadway debut this fall in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, an original musical that conquered New York’s Off Broadway scene for a handful of years before it shipped up to Boston in 2015, re-invented itself for a proscenium stage, and now heads back to Manhattan for its Broadway turn this November.
Groban plays Pierre, the perennially inquisitive wandering hero in Dave Malloy’s trimmed slice of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Malloy (who first played the role of Pierre Off Broadway) has chopped the epic down into just a scandalous portion, all set to a genuinely indescribable electropop-opera score.
Groban has fielded ample offers for years to make his Broadway debut, but chose Great Comet for the chance to invent something new. “I didn’t want to jump into anything as a stunt-cast kind of thing — I wanted to do it the right way,” says Groban, a lifelong musical performer and, in the best connotation, a pure theatre geek. “I saw they were thinking of bringing it to Broadway, so I reached out on a whim, kind of at the same time they reached out, really. That led to drinks with Rachel and Dave, and some very open and honest discussions about whether we felt this was something we could really knock out of the park together. To have their belief in me, and to have such a belief in the show, it feels like it’s the right time, the right show, and let’s just have the best time ever.”
Timing, certainly, is everything, both for the mounting of a new Broadway show and the tricky scheduling of a music superstar. But Groban has wanted to hit Broadway for years, and the singer is presently deep into a musical theater leg of his career: He’s wrapping up his current North American tour of Stages, the album of musical theater hits he released in April 2015. Though Great Comet doesn’t open on Broadway until November, it’s already a part of his everyday routine. “The musical director Or Matias has flown out to have sessions with me on the road, and I’ve been able to jet back and forth to New York to work with [director] Rachel Chavkin and the cast to do some very preliminary work to just get it in our bodies and get a sense of how we’re all going to play off each other,” says Groban.”Now, first preview, my fingers are going to be shaking. I’m gonna miss a note or two on the accordion for sure. But opening night, it’s going to be great.”
Groban continues: “I’m coming from a weird world into this. I think there are going to be fans who come and, when I first walk onstage, will say, “Well, that’s Josh.’ It’s going to be my job to make sure that by the end of my first song, they’re thinking, ‘Oh, that’s Pierre.’”
Groban’s inquisitive hero — “a tragic clown,” he muses — will match wits with naïve ingénue Natasha, played by Denée Benton, who previously starred in The Book of Mormon on tour before breaking out in her own right this summer after a stand-out role on Lifetime’s UnREAL. “I’ve been in Vancouver for the past few months filming, so it’s great to get back into the headspace of my hardcore spring training,” she laughs.
Benton follows in the footsteps of Hamilton star Phillipa Soo, who originated the role of Natasha; Benton inherited the role last year in its re-imagined run at Boston’s American Repertory Theatre, and she’s transferring to Broadway along with most of the company (a far remove from when she, as a college student, couldn’t even get a ticket to Great Comet‘s Off Broadway run). And, just in case you wondering, no, she’s not fazed remotely by her famous costar. Well, at least not anymore. “They told us, ‘Josh is playing the lead and he wants to meet all of you tonight,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘What!? Josh Groban!? He was on Oprah!”
A year later, she’s had time to sink into her role as an elegant Russian aristocrat, from both from a technical standpoint and an emotional one. “Being a black woman and having the opportunity to be so featured in a role like this where she is the girl in the corset in the beautiful lighting, desired by all these people — growing up, I didn’t have very many roles to look at like that was possible, outside of Audra McDonald, whom we all cling to with desperate hope,” says Benton. “When I first got this audition, there was a part of me that said, ‘Oh, they’re not looking for me.’ And I had to get past that, and tell myself, ‘Denee, you can go in there and have your talent speak for itself,’ and that billboard is up now [in Times Square]. It’s a testimony to me of what really is possible and that some of those limitations, I don’t have to let them tailor my dreams. I can dream just as big as I want to dream. And I hope little girls learn Natasha songs and dream just as big.”
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 opens at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre in November.