By BRUCE DENNILL
Other than a cup of what is presumably coffee, Josh Groban makes no concessions to fatigue after a full day’s travel from Los Angeles, via Heathrow, to Johannesburg. His chatty, friendly stage persona is shown to be an extension of his good-natured self in his thoughtful answers to questions – he’s a pro, but a very approachable one.
On his latest album Stages, a collection of songs from musicals both hugely famous (Les Miserables, Phantom Of The Opera) and less so (Finian’s Rainbow, Fantasticks) the singer takes on the challenging phrasing of such highly-esteemed composers as Claude-Michel Schonberg (Bring Him Home), Stephen Sondheim (Finishing The Hat and a medley of Children Will Listen/Not While I’m Around) and Marvin Hamlisch (What I Did For Love). Relative to some of the more mainstream material Groban has recorded and performed, do these songs provide an interesting challenge?
“Phrasing and interpretation is so important,” he states.
“Each composer marries the words and the melody differently; they make them dance in different ways. The major challenge here was not so much the singing but sitting down without my songwriter hat on and trying to honour what they wanted to convey as songwriters while still making the songs my own.
“Blue-printing the album was the biggest issue here – the selection of the songs and deciding which songwriters to place with the others on the tracklist.”
Groban was a fan of stage and film musicals as a child and has often made reference to that grounding. Some of the songs on Stages, however, needed to be learned and perfected during the album’s production phase.
“Some of the songs were from roles I played in high school,” he smile.
“I was privileged to go to a public arts school in LA, so we put on these great productions – Finian’s Rainbow was one of those, which is why the song Old Devil Moon is on the album.
“All I Ask Of You from Phantom was, I think, the first song I sang for David Foster, so it was probably the reason I got my first record deal. He asked me to step in for Michael Crawford at an event. I was 17 years old – I had to come straight from class.”
Whatever the case, Groban is not too concerned about the mix of songs being a problem for listeners.
“I think what I do is not quite down the middle anyway,” he muses, “but some people seem to get it. South Africa’s always been one of those places for me, which I’m grateful for – a place so far away getting so involved with what I do.”
A young journalist responds to that by telling Groban that she “grew up with his music”.
“I knew I’d feel old on this trip! My last visit here was 2004. I weighed next to nothing and had this huge ‘fro…”
Talk turns to the singer’s taste in other music – the other languages that he sings in and the stuff he sings at home, including in the shower.
“I think my voice is traditional enough to sing in different languages,” he says, “and I love the challenge of singing in the first language of a country I’m visiting, and of writing in that language and interpreting the work of writers; translating it as I go, figuring out what it means and what story the lyrics are telling.
“As for the shower, I find the reverb similar to a karaoke situation, so I go for the big rock hits – the 10-octave bands, like Journey, Guns & Roses and Queen.”
That’s just fun, obviously, but is it a marker of a musical direction he might consider taking in the future?
“I’m very restless about pushing my music to some place outside of my main influences,” says Groban, “but my mind is perhaps more restless than my voice, and there’s also betraying your audience to consider.
“Stages is both down the middle and a risk. I knew I’d be able to sing the crap out of the songs – to shower-sing them! – but there are also some songs on there that people may not be comfortable with at first. That’s okay, though – I think I already took the risk by choosing to be myself in a world where I didn’t quite fit.”
Trusting his gut has so far been a great strategy for Groban.
“I find that my songs do well when I sing it and I think, ‘Man, I love this’ rather than trying to tick boxes – it’s worked well across the board,” he agrees.
“In the Stages set, I have a few go-to moments, though I can’t pick a particular favourite, as [affects a Gielgud-ish accent] they are all my children. Put Pure Imagination as an opener is great. I sing those first lines – ‘Come with me…’ – and I’m in it, right from the start. Anthem is wonderful, as everyone’s giving it everything. And then Bring Him Home, written about the French Revolution but a song that fits so many situations today.”
Stages both celebrates musical theatre and introduces listeners to it, offering a sort of case study in how best to perform the music. With Groban’s own Broadway debut, in Natasha And Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812, coming up in September, is he not creating a strange sort of pressure on himself?
“That show is a wonderful book-end for me,” he nods.
“Being offered the role was a complete surprise. It was a show I loved off-Broadway, and I’ve had other offers in other shows, but this is something new that I can originate – at least on Broadway. I need to play the accordion in it, so I’ve brought that with me to brush up on my chops. It really confuses the security guys at airports.
“Again, though, taking that show on is part of my enjoying being scared of new challenges. When I stop getting nervous, I think it’ll be time for me to pack it in. I have enough hours under my belt now to ensure that the nerves funnel into excitement now, rather than fear.”