Music Preview: Groban's Gift
August 2, 2007
By Jane Vranish
While he currently seems to be coasting along on his creamy baritone voice, Josh Groban always carries with him a little reminder of his humble pie beginnings. Sweeney, his Wheaten terrier, is named after the demon barber and serial killer of Fleet Street in "Sweeney Todd," something not in keeping with the singer's cherubic image.
Probably the most rabid of his fans know that Groban's first appearance on a stage in high school began, not as the top-billed star, but as Broom Sweep #3 in "Sweeney Todd." But that's about as far a trip goes to Groban's dark side, aside from his penchant to play Nazi video games and watch "stupid" movies.
The rest of us started to catch up with him in a fast and big way when a 17-year old Groban subbed for Andrea Bocelli at a rehearsal session with Celine Dion at the Academy Awards in 1999 and the Canadian singer publicly raved about him. Then there was an "Ally MacBeal" guest performance that produced plenty of water cooler talk the next morning and the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Olympics, where he sang "The Prayer" with Charlotte Church. Still, viewers were asking, "Who is this guy?"
"It wasn't until I appeared on 20/20 about five years ago that people connected the dots," Groban says. "It was like a light bulb going off. My record jumped from 120 to 12 and it had a snowball effect from then on in."
But as the modest singer will be the first to tell you, it takes more work to keep a career going -- tours, interviews, composing -- so much so that he admittedly doesn't stop training "for a second."
"There's a work ethic that is absolutely mandatory [in theater]," Groban says on the phone from Wilkes-Barre. "It's grunt work from the ground up." He learned that at during his year studying theater at Carnegie Mellon University, before being signed to a Warner Bros. recording contract. "You're taking so many classes. After you're done with your classes, you're working on sets, you're working on lights. The whole idea of theater is the group thing -- it's a team effort. It's about the show as a whole -- it's about everyone working together to make things right."
Because of that foundation, Groban is "grateful that, on a much bigger stage, I can do the same thing and be myself -- I don't have to play a character," says the young Californian. "But still, that kind of discipline kind of stuck with me."
It's paid off in a big way. Groban recently sang along with Sarah Brightman with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber at Prince William and Harry's Concert for Diana in London. He can count on Oprah as a "huge supporter" and hangs out with "my pal" Gayle King whenever he's in New York.
Even here in Pittsburgh, he has progressed to larger venues, moving from Heinz Hall to the Post-Gazette Pavilion and Mellon Arena (where he plays on Saturday). According to Groban, the stage is bigger, the musicians better and the concert "a high energy show. I've been exploring a lot more music rhythms with world music."
"I lean more toward casual concerts," says Groban, who has played PBS, the Hollywood Bowl and the Metropolitan Opera with Broadway songstress Barbara Cook. "I like shows where I feel I can go and escape, especially when I play arenas, where fans can buy a beer or a T-shirt."
Just this month he will play 17 concerts from Pennsylvania to California on a tour that will end in Australia in October. Groban calls touring a "double-edged sword. It's the greatest gift, but it's also the biggest sacrifice for the people left behind," he says. "I love touring, I live for touring, I make albums to perform live. I also have to look out for my voice, so there's no burning the candle at both ends."
But things are blossoming -- in some areas. "I wish I could say [it's easier to] get a date," Groban says with laugh. But he acknowledges that "as more doors open and as I'm growing as an artist, it's getting easier and easier and more and more fun to make music."
His third record, "Awake," released last November, finds Groban mixing more classical Italian fare with pop-oriented songs in English. It features guest spots from Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Herbie Hancock. Groban gets a writing credit on four of the songs.
"There's a quote -- 'entertainers give audiences what they want and artists give audiences what they didn't know that wanted,' " he says. "I always strive to surprise people more and more as I go on."
But in the end, Groban doesn't completely want to let go of that teenager who went toe-to-toe with Dion. "I'm always grateful for the opportunities," he says. "Not a day goes by that I still don't pinch myself."