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Josh Groban raises the bar with Broadway debut and summer tour

Josh Groban, who appears Tuesday at Starlight Theatre, will soon perform in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” on Broadway.
Josh Groban, who appears Tuesday at Starlight Theatre, will soon perform in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” on Broadway. MCT

More than 18 years have passed since Josh Groban snagged the attention of producer/arranger David Foster, who hired him as a stand-in and rehearsal singer for Andrea Bocelli. A few years later, in 2001, Groban released his self-titled debut, which has sold more than 5 million copies in the United States.

Since then, Groban has established himself as a mainstream star, as a singer, songwriter, musician and actor. This fall he will add Broadway actor to his resume. He was chosen to play the role of Pierre in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” Groban, who performs at Starlight Theatre on Tuesday, recently talked to The Star about his Broadway adventure and how it fits into his summer tour.

Q: You will make your Broadway debut this fall. Talk about that.

A: I’d spent the past year promoting a musical-theater album and touring it but never really expected that at the end of it I’d be making my Broadway debut, which was the universe being awesome.

This is a show I’d loved for a really long time and a show I saw off-Broadway about four years ago. It’s called “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” It’s based loosely on a very small portion of “War and Peace,” a very salacious kind of portion. I play Pierre Bezukhov, one of the great literary characters and someone who a lot of people see themselves in at different points in their lives.

It’s an immersive show, 360 degrees, designed by MacArthur genius grant winner Mimi Lien. She is going to turn the Imperial Theatre into an in-the-round Moscow supper club.

The music is a blend of rock and opera and klezmer and very gypsy-feeling. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had in theater. I’m really excited to bring it to a Broadway audience because I think it has deserved a large stage for a long time.

Q: What are the most difficult components of this production?

A: First of all, the way the show is built is not like anything else on Broadway. The character itself is complicated and nuanced, so the songs are challenging vocally. It’s Russian, so the scenes are big — big emotions, fight sequences. It’s a big, physical show.

But on top of that, for me, realistically, the challenge is going to be getting my bearings with people’s knees next to me at all times. You’re constantly moving throughout people.

There’s no separation between the actors and the audience. There are booths onstage, there are tables onstage. The stage basically wraps through the entire house. There are stairs that go up to the mezzanine.

So the X-factor through all the rehearsals is figuring out how having people in there will change how we move and what we do. Not to mention the fact that we all play instruments, too, so I’ll have an accordion strapped to me on top of my fat suit — Pierre is a really big guy.

So there are a lot of challenges, and that’s why I’m getting started early. I want to make sure that I’m stronger than what is necessary. To do that you have to work out and get your voice ready. So as I’m getting ready for this summer tour, I’m also really knee-deep into the score for “Natasha and Pierre” and really preparing for that.

Q: Will you work on the musical while on the road this summer?

A: I will, yes. Basically, every day while I’m on tour, between meet-and-greet and show time, I have two hours, and that’s my two hours to rehearse for the (musical).

I bring my accordion on the road with me. Sometimes the music director will fly out. I was just in New York a couple weeks ago for the Tony Awards, and I had 12-hour days every day to work with the cast.

We start official rehearsals in September, and we’ll have the normal amount of rehearsal time for a show. I’m adding all this stuff on as extra because it’s a complicated show, and also as my first time out, I want to make sure that I’m prepared.

Many, many members of the cast have already done the show, so I want to make sure I have it in my DNA.

Q: How will you take care of your voice, with all that extra singing?

A: It comes down to, little by little, building your stamina and muscle memory in a healthy way for what it is you have to sing. You can’t overdo it right away. You can’t just lift 500 pounds out of nowhere. You have to build yourself up to it. … It’s a challenge, but it has been a lot of fun.

Q: What can your fans expect to see and hear on this tour?

A: This is going to be different from the show they may have seen over the last year. That show was basically all (musical theater) in these intimate, old theaters and a celebration of those songs.

Now we’re going back to the bigger venues, and I love playing the outdoor venues. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere. We will have an orchestra each night, like last year.

It’ll be a good half-and-half. We’ll have songs from the theater world. I think with a full orchestra, you have to sing some of those songs. The other half will be songs from previous records.

Q: You are touring with Sarah McLachlan this summer. Do you perform together?

A: Sarah is amazing. I’ve looked up to her for a long time, as a vocalist, a songwriter and a human being. I’m so honored she is joining me on this tour and, yes, we will sing together on this tour.

Q: How have the rewards and satisfaction of performing changed for you?

A: What I love about live performance is it doesn’t get old. That hasn’t changed at all. The feeling I get before I go onstage is the same. It has been the same since night one of my first tour ever, in Boise, Idaho. That’s how I know I can do a Broadway run or even a summer tour.

We have already done almost 100 concerts this year, and I’m always ready for more because you always know there’s a new audience that night that will experience it for the first time. Or maybe it’s their first concert or first Broadway show ever.

That’s where the satisfaction comes from, knowing you get to go out there and reach people and tell stories and hopefully make them escape for a couple hours and maybe feel something they didn’t expect.

I go crazy when I have a year or so without performing because it’s a big part of who I am, a part of what makes me feel most whole as a human being.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Tuesday

Josh Groban performs Tuesday at Starlight Theatre. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Sarah McLachlan and Foy Vance are on the bill. Tickets are $32-$152 at StarlightKC.com.

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