Even multi-platinum singer-songwriters like Josh Groban can learn new things about their voice. Groban tells host Ophira Eisenberg that that's exactly what happened during his stint as the titular Pierre in the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, based on 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. "All my life and career I was training my voice to have this more pure, classically trained, technically sounding voice...Pierre is decidedly not those things...He's very rough around the edges." To portray this character, Groban learned how to safely add a gruffness to his voice, which he said was an opportunity to stretch his boundaries that made The Great Comet "one of the greatest creative experiences of my life."
Lucas Steele, who's played Anatole since the show's Off-Broadway origins, joked that--contrary to Groban--he is exactly like his more villainous character. He's never quite sure if the audience will be on his side, but in the second act, his ability to play a certain instrument often warms their perspective. A veteran of the theater, Steele once received advice from Cyndi Lauper while performing in Threepenny Opera. Lauper told him, "You don't ever need to settle," a sentiment he's held onto.
The show's current iteration recreates the intimacy of its early run, which was staged in a circus tent. The Imperial Theater's proscenium was removed to make room for a cabaret-like on-stage seating area, allowing the actors and musicians to perform all around the audience. Groban and Steele explained the technical aspects that ensure audience members in the back have the same sonic experience as those on the stage. "There are almost 250 speakers that are out in the house...[the sound designers] wrote code so that when we move through the space, the sound goes where we are," Steele revealed.
Inspired by the musical's unlikely source text, we challenge them to a game where we've adapted famous TV commercial jingles into show tunes. Josh and Lucas must guess the product each clue is about!
CECIL BALDWIN: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm puzzle guru Cecil Baldwin, with guest musician Julian Velard. Now, here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Cecil. Before the break, our contestant Graceann won her way to the final round at the end of the show. We'll find out a little later who she will face off against. But first, it's time to welcome our special guests. They star in the Broadway musical "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812." Please welcome Josh Groban and Lucas Steele.
LUCAS STEELE: Wow. Hi.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
JOSH GROBAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
EISENBERG: So this musical is fantastic. I had the pleasure of seeing it. I was entranced by the entire production - the songs, the music. And "The Great Comet" is based on a 70-page slice...
EISENBERG: ...Of "War And Peace."
EISENBERG: And "The Great Comet" is described as a electropop-opera version.
GROBAN: As you do.
EISENBERG: As you do. When your friends come up to you and they say, hey, I would love to come see the show. What's it about?
EISENBERG: What do you tell them, Josh?
GROBAN: Oh, I mean, you've described it perfectly.
EISENBERG: OK, good.
GROBAN: I just say - you know, I say, well, it's a 70-page portion of "War And Peace," and it's a genre-bending musical that is in the round. This - they've taken this proscenium setting of the Imperial Theatre and turned it into this 360-degree kind of supper club. And it's an exciting, immersive, beautiful story that's very relevant to today.
STEELE: Yeah, it's an experience that's happening all around you. But it doesn't - you're not sort of put-upon to be part of it.
STEELE: You're able to exist inside it.
GROBAN: Some people are put-upon to be part of this.
GROBAN: There are a couple people...
GROBAN: Yeah, exactly. There's - there's a couple moments in the show.
EISENBERG: Well, you know, because - right, the audience is all around you.
EISENBERG: And, Josh, you play Pierre, a philosopher who finds it difficult to connect with people. To prepare for this role, I know that, you know, a couple things were new for you. One, you had to learn how to play accordion.
EISENBERG: And also, please explain what this means, that you had to kind of rough up your voice...
EISENBERG: ...For the role of Pierre. What does that mean?
GROBAN: Well, I mean, all my life and career I was training my voice to have this kind of more pure, classically trained, technically sound voice. And Pierre is decidedly not those things. He's very rough around the edges. One of the first conversations I had with Dave Malloy, who composed it and was the original Pierre, was how do I find that fringe so that I'm able to kind of bring what I bring vocally to the role, but also show that angst and show that roughness and do it in a way that's healthy? The role has taught me a lot about what I'm actually capable of vocally because when you do a certain style for so many years and then you kind of have permission to change it up because that's what the role needs - I've never had that - you learn what your - what your new boundaries are, which was fun.
EISENBERG: I'm sure you've had other Broadway offers before, Josh.
GROBAN: I've had some - certainly a lot of conversations and some offers. And, you know, timing is everything when it comes to mounting a production. And I'm glad that I waited. I read on a - in the blogosphere that they were thinking of bringing this show - that I had seen downtown - they were bringing it to Broadway. And so I threw my name in the hat, and a couple of conversations later, it wound up being a really good organic first step in. I've been spoiled. It's been the greatest creative experience of my life.
STEELE: ...But even in his - I'm going to jump in...
EISENBERG: Yes, please do, Lucas. Yes.
STEELE: ...Because he's so humble about all of this - there are very few people that I can even think of that can be over the title and actually sell a Broadway show that have the skill set that is required to actually do this.
EISENBERG: That's not just a stunt kind of thing.
GROBAN: (Laughter) Well, I was...
STEELE: There was nothing stunt about it.
GROBAN: I was very cognizant of the fact that I didn't want this to be viewed as a gimmick or a stunt casting kind of thing...
GROBAN: ...Because I wanted to - and I have such a huge respect for this extraordinary ensemble that I knew I was going to be a cog in this incredible wheel - but at the same time, I wanted it to be right. And I wanted it to be organic. And so I'm very - I am very lucky. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Anatole - who you play, Lucas - Natasha's love interest...
STEELE: I'm just like him. (Laughter)
EISENBERG: Yeah, I mean...
EISENBERG: He is - he is described as succinctly as hot.
STEELE: That was so cool and horrible (laughter).
EISENBERG: Is it hard to play just super hot, night after night?
STEELE: Yeah, I - for me, you can't play hot. It's not something you can sort of...
GROBAN: You just have to be it, baby.
STEELE: I just walked right into that one.
STEELE: I don't know. It's thrilling and terrifying every time. Every night, I sort of think, is this going to work again? Will the illusion be intact (laughter)?
STEELE: And will they sort of believe all of this?
EISENBERG: And you have to play with the fact that sometimes the audience might not like what your character does.
STEELE: Yeah. There's a moment in the second act where Anatole sort of surprises people with the ability to play a certain instrument. I'm not going to give it away.
STEELE: And I find each night at that moment that I notice them looking at me a little differently.
EISENBERG: They soften up a little bit.
STEELE: Yeah. They go, oh, he's not such a bad guy.
GROBAN: Anybody who plays the nose flute certainly has a heart. Yes.
EISENBERG: And there is true lack of fourth wall. I mean, you - you made a joke about interacting with them. Has anyone ever just really tried to join the cast?
STEELE: I've had a couple moments where I have a microphone on, and it's silence. And a couple...
GROBAN: Oh, yeah.
STEELE: ...Times people have sort of tried to chime in. And everyone's a comedian...
STEELE: ...As you sort of learn.
EISENBERG: They're like, hey, Anatole.
GROBAN: He sits - he sits down next to somebody during a certain scene. And he goes - and he says, yes, that's the way. It's a Russian custom. And the guy next...
STEELE: Dead silence.
GROBAN: Dead silence. And the guy is leaning in next to his microphones and goes, some customs are better than others.
GROBAN: To which Lucas, off the cuff, replied...
STEELE: So are some audience members.
GROBAN: Yes, that's right.
EISENBERG: Ah, yes.
GROBAN: Zing, zing.
STEELE: That was the same thing that happened in the theater. Right there, that sound (laughter).
EISENBERG: I will say one of the greatest things as an audience member in "The Great Comet" is being surrounded by everyone singing. And I got to feel what it was like to hear that powerful sound of unbelievably talented people singing side by side.
STEELE: It's a fascinating thing, the sound design on this show.
STEELE: It really is remarkable, and there are almost 250 speakers that are out in the house.
GROBAN: They built a program just for our setup. It's so...
STEELE: They wrote code...
GROBAN: They wrote code just for our show.
EISENBERG: They wrote code?
STEELE: ...That never existed...
GROBAN: Yeah, they wrote code.
STEELE: ...So that when we move through the space, the sound goes where we are.
GROBAN: So if you close your eyes - so the idea of it is wherever you're sitting in the house, you can close your eyes, and you can know where somebody is standing when they're singing. So...
STEELE: It's also there to help you know where to look because the action is happening...
STEELE: ...Through the whole theater. So you need to - oh, sound is coming from over here. I need to look this direction.
STEELE: But I think that ties into what you were saying about feeling like you are in it because you are...
EISENBERG: Because there was technology actually creating that experience.
GROBAN: That's right.
STEELE: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: That is absolutely fascinating. Wow. Lucas, at one point, you received career advice from Cyndi Lauper. Can you just walk us through that entire story?
GROBAN: Yeah (laughter).
STEELE: So I was doing "Threepenny Opera" with Cyndi Lauper and Alan Cumming and an incredible cast. And I have to say the show that was happening offstage rivaled...
EISENBERG: Was the show (laughter)?
STEELE: ...The show that was happening...
STEELE: ...onstage. And we were out one night at a bar, and I was talking to Cindy about writing and being an artist and everything that that is and also working in theater and what you sort of are - you're a vessel for other people's material. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's an amazing thing to be. But if you also have leanings that lead you in other artistic directions, that may not be the most appropriate thing for you to be doing all of the time.
And she was talking about how specific, like Josh said, she needed to be in choosing something that was gratifying to her and pushed her in a direction. And then I said, everything you're saying right now, you're kind of speaking the words of my heart. And she looked at me. I remember this - this was over a Hoegaarden - I don't know why I remember the beer that was sitting in front of me.
EISENBERG: The greatest.
STEELE: And she said, (imitating Cyndi Lauper) you don't ever need to settle. You don't ever need to settle.
STEELE: And I've held on to that.
STEELE: Yeah - I mean...
EISENBERG: I'm glad that it ended up being real advice because I was once given advice from, of all people, Joan Rivers. She went, do you want showbiz advice? And I was like, yes. She goes, wash your hands. That was it.
GROBAN: Oh, so important, though.
EISENBERG: But that is important.
GROBAN: So important, yeah. That rivals don't settle, I'd say.
GROBAN: It's so easy to get sick. It really is.
EISENBERG: It is. All right, you guys are a dream to have on the stage. And now, I would love to subject you to an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge.
STEELE: Subject away.
GROBAN: Can't wait.
EISENBERG: Bring back our house musician Julian Velard and our puzzle guru Cecil Baldwin.
EISENBERG: So we've crafted a musical challenge for you. As you know, many fantastic Broadway shows are adapted from other works. But in this game, we wondered what it would sound like if someone adapted television commercials into Broadway spectaculars.
EISENBERG: So guest musician Julian Velard, take it away.
JULIAN VELARD: We've reimagined TV commercial jingles to be in the style of Broadway tunes. Buzz in and name the product associated with each jingle.
EISENBERG: You'll be competing against each other. And if you need a hint, our puzzle guru, Cecil Baldwin, is standing by. The winner will receive an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
GROBAN: ...I want that so bad.
STEELE: Dreams coming true.
EISENBERG: A dream. OK, here we go.
VELARD: (Singing) Meow, meow, meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow, meow.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
GROBAN: I mean, that's just from "Cats," right? I mean, that's...
EISENBERG: I know...
GROBAN: Is that the warm-up?
EISENBERG: That is actually how that song has always sounded to me.
EISENBERG: Lucas rang in. Do you know the product?
STEELE: I'm going to say Meow Mix.
EISENBERG: You are correct.
GROBAN: Oh, very good.
GROBAN: All right.
EISENBERG: All right, here's your next one.
VELARD: (Singing) Hold the pickles. Hold the lettuce. Special orders don't upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way. Have it your way. Have it your way.
GROBAN: Oh, man.
GROBAN: That is so good.
GROBAN: Your way.
EISENBERG: Do either of you want - Lucas, are you just not ringing in because you want Josh to have...
GROBAN: You know it. Go for it.
STEELE: I don't know if I know it. I think Burger King.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.
GROBAN: Oh, good job. OK.
STEELE: I wasn't sure, though.
GROBAN: Good job. Have it your way. OK, good.
EISENBERG: Have it your way.
EISENBERG: Here's your next one.
VELARD: (Singing) Double your pleasure. Double your fun. That's the statement of the great mint in...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
GROBAN: Doublemint gum?
VELARD: (Singing) The answer to the question is Doublemint gum.
VELARD: (Singing) Nausea, heart burn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea.
GROBAN: (Singing) Pepto-Bismol.
VELARD: Yes, yes.
EISENBERG: Josh, that's correct. All right. Sadly, this is your last clue.
VELARD: (Singing) You could keep it to yourself, but it wouldn't be fair 'cause that chocolate, crispy taste is loved everywhere. Give me a break. Give me a break. Break me off a piece of that...
EISENBERG: Oh, Lucas rang in too early.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
GROBAN: You're locked out?
STEELE: I tried it and it wouldn't let me.
GROBAN: Oh, sucks to be you. Kit Kat.
EISENBERG: Yeah, Kit Kat. You guys were both very excited by that commercial.
GROBAN: Well, I mean, I just - I love Les Mis.
STEELE: There's nothing like...
GROBAN: Just brings a tear to my eye no matter what words you use.
EISENBERG: Puzzle guru Cecil Baldwin, how did our special guests do it?
BALDWIN: Congratulations, Josh. You won an...
GROBAN: Did I win...
BALDWIN: ...ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
GROBAN: It was a close match, though. It was very close.
EISENBERG: You guys, I can't thank you enough for joining us on the show and...
GROBAN: We love you guys. Thank you for having us.
EISENBERG: ...We had so much fun. Josh Groban and Lucas Steele.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.