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Dom O'Hanlon interviews actor Jonathan Groff
Jonathan Groff is a Tony Award nominated American actor of stage and screen whose credits include the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening, as well as the celebrated revival of Hair. In London he last starred in Deathtrap opposite Simon Russell Beale at the Noel Coward Theatre, and returns to the West End to star as 'Finch' in a new concert presentation of hit musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Southbank Centre.
On screen he is known to fans of 'Glee' having played Lea Michelle's love interest Jesse St James. He is the star of HBO's 'Looking' which has achieved global success, and also starred in the hit Disney film Frozen as 'Kristoff'.
We caught up with Jonathan on a break from rehearsals, and asked about his upcoming concert performances which also includes A New Brain for Encores! at the City Center New York this summer.
DOH: Jonathan - I'm so excited to see you in both concert performances within weeks of each other!
JG: You're seeing all the unrehearsed shows! I actually like the blind panic - for me, sometimes the best stuff works on a first instinct and we are just forced to do that in these situations.
DOH: How did the 'How to Succeed' concert come about?
JG: I literally got an email from my agent asking me to be Finch - and without hesitation I said yes. It's one of my favourite shows of all time, I did it in my freshman year of high school. It's one of those shows that gets done a lot - it was the show that I was obsessed with and the first musical that got under my skin. It's so brilliant. It's fast, funny, hilarious and smart. It exposes American ambition that is sometimes hard to admit and hard to look at, and what I'm experiencing learning the material this time around is working out the nerve they're touching and how they're able to do it with humour. It reminds me a lot of The Book of Mormon in a way, dealing with potentially uncomfortable material or ideas and helping them through it by making them laugh and entertaining them at the same time.
DOH: You're right ! The show won the Pulitzer Prize - at the time that was their way of saying this is a piece that says something about America and needs to be preserved - it's not a bit of fluff - it's an important piece of musical theatre.
DOH: So how will you preserve that for a concert version?
JG: Fortunately it's so well written that when you do it in a concert version it still works, it jumps off the page and can be funny and thought provoking. We're doing a concept of it as a radio play. There's a table on the side doing sound effects - window washing, knocking on doors etc, it gives it an old school vibe of a radio play. It allows everyone to be on book but allows us to feel playful and also move around at the same time.
DOH: Will it have dancing? Can we expect an amazing "Brotherhood of Man" routine?
JG: I don't think they'll be any dancing! We haven't gotten to "Brotherhood of Man" yet - we're kind of making it up as we go along here. Yesterday suddenly they were like 'Oh - we have to put a little bit of movement into "A Secretary is Not a Toy" and that just suddenly appeared - it wasn't intended to happen. We got to that number and they thought 'Wait a second - let's add movement'. It's sort of a hybrid between a standing at music stands reading and a staged reading, because of the radio play atmosphere.
DOH: Concert musicals are really picking up here - the strange climate in the West End means producers are putting them on without the risk of mounting a full production. You're doing A New Brain next for the Encores! Concert Series in New York - is this your first concert production?
JG: I did an Encores! production of Hair in Central Park, which then turned into a full production but when we first did it we rehearsed it in seven days and performed for three. I did a benefit for the Public Theater where we did The Pirates of Penzance in three days, so this isn't my first time doing a 'quick let's throw up a musical' project. They're really fun! For me, I love musicals it's how I fell in love with theatre. When you do one on Broadway you have to commit usually for a year or so, and I haven't had a chance in the past seven years since Spring Awakening, so when opportunities like this come up to jump into the world of musical theatre I get kinda excited. It brings me back to the vibe of the 'High School Play' - that joyful, fun environment. It feels carefree and anything can happen energy because everyone is aware this is the only night that it's happening then it vanishes, and you'll never get to see this incarnation again. It becomes special.
DOH: Did you feel any pressure taking on the role of 'Finch' following Daniel Radcliffe and fellow Glee star Darren Criss?
JG: I did see Daniel and thought he was phenomenal. He blew me away. I had seen him in Equus so I knew he was a real stage beast but I didn't know he could sing and dance like that so that blew my mind. Once you get into a process of your own, I have such a history with the show - I didn't think about that at all - I was just so excited to jump into the world.
DOH: You're working with the great and the good of West End theatre - Hannah Waddingham, Clive Rowe, Cynthia Erivo - are they exciting to work with?
JG: They are incredible. Hannah was making me laugh so hard in rehearsal yesterday she is going to kill everyone. It's a real top notch cast. Everyone is very well cast.
DOH: Looking ahead to A New Brain - how have you found learning music for a William Finn musical different to Frank Loesser's 50s musical?
JG: Weirdly A New Brain was also a high school obsession! I grew up with this recording and I sang "I'd Rather Be Sailing" for every college audition I had and I know the score very well from listening to it. I love it, I love it, I love it! What's been a real challenge for me over the last couple of weeks was trying to be able to play an actual composer. There are a couple of exposed moments in the show where he's trying to write a song and has to play the piano. Jeanine Tesori is actually giving me piano lessons - I have a new found respect for people who play the piano. We'll see how much of that sticks by the time the end of June comes around.
DOH: This is the first time you've performed in London since Deathtrap - do you have any favourite things about London or places you always like to go?
JG: I come to London about twice a year - I've stayed close with Simon Russell Beale and some of the crew. There's a restaurant bar behind the Noel Coward Theatre where we used to go after the show under the heat lamps and we'd drink wine and unwind. That's my favourite thing to do.
DOH: Have you found post 'Looking' that you feel like a celebrity?
JG: It's interesting - I've actually been stopped every day on my way to rehearsal, at least once! People are talking about Looking which is lovely. 'Looking' was so personal and means so much to me when people start talking about it, it feels like my baby and it's great that people connect with it.
DOH: And what can 'Looking' fans expect from the TV Special or the Film - whatever they're calling it now?
JG: It's a 'Special'. I have no idea! They were in the writers room last week writing it - that's ALL I know. No more details.
DOH: Finch is a very interesting character - what's your favourite thing about him and do you have any similarities?
JG: Oh gosh! I'm a little scared - I connect so much with him. It's a bit embarrassing, I'm reading it and genuinely laughing out loud at my self. He reminds me of do you know that TV show 'The Comeback'..?
DOH: Umm - it's only my favourite thing EVER.
JG: Oh my god me too.
DOH: I don't need to SEE that!
JG: (laughing) It's my favourite show of all time. When I watch it I'm laughing but laughing at myself, but she's playing such a stereotypical actress and I see so much of myself in her. She's you at your most egocentric and embarrassing - as an actor you think oh god, we DO do that. Yesterday at rehearsals we had someone taking pictures and we were all preening and when I read 'How to Succeed...' I just think oh god, yes I know exactly where all of these moments are. You get to laugh at yourself and the opportunistic side of yourself. I relate to Finch in a very big way!
DOH: Finally - can you sell the show in one sentence?
JG: Come see the show for its Pulitzer Prize winning wit and intelligence, its incredible toe tapping score and its hilarious laugh out loud moments...
DOH: Great I'll let you get back to rehearsals! What are you rehearsing this afternoon?
JG: I have no idea! I guess it's a surprise...
DOH: Well T-minus five days until curtain up, so very best wishes - have a fantastic time in London and I can't wait to see the show!
JG: My pleasure!
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is playing at the Southbank Centre in London on Tuesday 19th May for one performance only.