Jonathan Groff appears in City Center’s production of “A New Brain” June 24-27. | JOAN MARCUS/ NEW YORK CITY CENTER
Though actor Jonathan Groff’s HBO show “Looking” was recently canceled after just two seasons, he has definitely landed butter side up, with the fun and juicy role of King George in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliantly soulful, burgeoning theatrical juggernaut “Hamilton,” set to open on Broadway this season. In the meantime, he is doing Encores! revival of William Finn’s “A New Brain” (New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, through June 27; nycitycenter.org).
Radiantly handsome and delightfully real, he had just hopped off his bike (riding it to City Center from 16th street), told me he had the same antiquated microcassette recorder I was using (my digital having gone AWOL in the black hole that is my apartment), and described his latest musical foray to me.
“It’s sort of an autobiographical story about [the show’s composer] Bill Finn, who, right after he won the Tony for ‘Falsettos,’ collapsed on the street and went into the hospital, Something in his brain exploded, and he had to have emergency surgery and nearly died. The thing that makes this show so relatable is his hospital experience and the sort of drama and hilarity that happens when suddenly you’re thrust into this system with all the different nurses and your family and the choices you have to make, also the way that you’re given this very serious information in this sort of formal way. My dad just went through open heart surgery two months ago and this is so much like that, waiting to find out what you’re gonna do, and this show sort of encapsulates all of that.
Blissfully out actor Groff embraces his community, revels in the work opportunities before him
“The music is so fucking beautiful. I have been obsessed with this show since high school, 15 years ago. It’s one of Finn’s lesser known scores, the perfect show to do at Encores! because it’s one of those scores that people don’t know or haven’t heard in a while. It’s my dream role, which is funny because I never think of dream roles. Last summer I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda do ‘Tick Tick Boom’ at Encores! and thought I’d love to do ‘A New Brain’ for a week. Then Jeanine Tesori, who runs this program, reached out to me and asked if I wanted to do it next summer, this weird coincidence!
“The show hasn’t been seen since 1998, and what is surprising is I thought we would just put it up and honor it, but [director] James Lapine and Bill wanted to look at it again and reshape and make it better than it was before. They’re making some changes to the score, cutting and moving things around, and hopefully making it a more effective evening than it was originally.”
Following this, Groff goes into “Hamilton”, the only white member of the cast: “Brian d’Arcy James played King George for the first month of the run at the Public Theater and I did the last month. ‘Something Rotten’ came up for Brian, which originally wasn’t supposed to move to Broadway this season. When they asked me to do come in, I said yes because I love Lin, Tommy Kail, the director, and the Public. ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do it, will be fun for two months or whatever,’ not realizing how epic and groundbreaking the show was. I saw it before I went into it and thought, ‘Ohmigod, I’ve won the lottery!,’ to be able to jump into this pool of actors and creative team, who are so lovely.
“And it’s not that thing where 99.9 percent of the time, you’re trying to get people to come see the show. With ‘Hamilton,’ you could feel the energy from the audience right away. I had to do the lottery to get a ticket for a friend –– my own show –– so that adds to the excitement, knowing you’re performing a show people are elbowing their way into.”
Jonathan Groff will reprise his role as King George when “Hamilton” hits Broadway later this year. | JOAN MARCUS
In “Hamilton,” Groff enjoys the kind of instant audience adoration it takes other actors a lifetime to win, especially with his second entrance when you can feel everyone blissfully grinning at him.
“It’s so in the writing because King George does not spend a lot of time on stage but the way they’ve placed him throughout is incredibly effective with the audience going, ‘Ohmigod, here he comes again!’ Three weeks ago, our music director Alex Lacamoire and I sang my first song at a benefit, and I was interested in seeing how it would play outside the context of show and it killed! I texted Lin afterwards and said, ‘You’re a crazy genius!’ Even out of context, the show is just fucking hilarious, so, so clever in his writing.”
While Groff was performing in ‘Hamilton,’ he got the news that his HBO series, “Looking,” was canceled.
“Landing the show helped soften the blow because I was so upset that it was over. It was amazing how you could feel the audience shift when the first season came out. That was a complex response which I felt was a reflection of the fact that there just isn’t enough gay programming on TV, so everybody puts a lot of expectation on something that’s the only thing on the air. The lovely thing about doing press for the second season was that everybody now knew what the show was, so they could just watch the show instead of watching it in the context of the entire gay community.
“That’s why it’s such a bummer to me that it’s canceled because I thought that we were just finding our groove. But the silver lining is we get to do it again when they make the film of it later this year. Hopefully, there will be some sense of closure and goodbye.”
Groff considers “Looking” director Andrew Haigh another genius in his life: “I saw his film ‘Weekend’ in a New York movie theater and was like ‘Wha-at?!’ The first gay film that I felt super into, it was all so very real. He’s a sneaky poet because he paints with this palette of total realism but then at the end you realize how meticulous everything was. You feel this slice of life just happening and then you get to the end and you’re like, ‘Oh, this all added up to something!’ Like he just dropped his camera into real life with no commercials or manipulative underscoring, which he never uses, a beautiful and surprising style of working.”
Even those of us, like myself, who may have resisted aspects of “Looking,” were entirely won over by the Season 1 finale, which had Groff simply cocooning his troubles away, in bed, watching the perennially comforting “The Golden Girls”: “Exactly. I totally watched ‘Golden Girls’ with my family, but I was more into ‘I Love Lucy’ –– own every episode –– and ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ and ‘Mary Tyler Moore.’ I just watched a ‘Mary’ show I got on Amazon last night, before I went to bed. There’s something very comforting about the opening [sings the opening the theme music].”
Groff has been out of the closet since 2009: “I wouldn’t say it was easy. I was completely closeted all throughout ‘Spring Awakening’ on Broadway. I had a boyfriend/ ‘roommate’ for three and a half years, whom I met in Pennsylvania. We both lived in New York and had this secret relationship. Other people assumed what was going on, obviously, but we never spoke to anyone, even our families, about it. It was so ironic because ‘Spring’ was all about sexual repression and there I was, so repressed.
“I came from a [Mennonite] community where being gay was not welcomed with open arms but I also grew up sort of in the middle generation. The gay community is such a huge umbrella: there are the older men who went through the AIDS crisis, some of whom are still not out. It was way more taboo than my generation, could never imagine marriage as a possibility, but I grew up with ‘Will and Grace,’ and now, it’s kids growing up with the idea of marriage and all these other examples, which keep getting better, as the years go by, as far as acceptance goes.
“It wasn’t so easy for me to declare being gay, even though I was in the theater community. I went by myself to Italy for two weeks and was journaling, and I thought, ‘Ohmigod, what am I doing?’ I came back and came out to my family and friends and a year later I was dating someone, and was asked at a gay rally what did I represent, and that’s when I publicly said that I was gay, to Broadway.com.
“Even though I was out in my personal life, I felt slightly nervous about it, like when you’re about to throw up a little bit, this sweaty thing. That’s the power of coming out: once I declared it personally first, and then professionally, any anxiety I had about it went away. Like they say, the truth will set you free and I thank God that I live in New York and in a theater/ film/ TV world where it’s not taboo to be gay so I don’t feel like an outsider in the community where I work. I was so embraced and that doesn’t happen to everybody.
“For me, coming out was the best. I’m a totally different person and to think back to that person in the closet, ‘Wow, who was that guy?’ It’s still me, but life has gotten so much better, without that sense of always trying to negotiate the extra energy to compartmentalize. I never lied to the press, but I was always finding ways to dodge the question, making sure they never asked. Ohmigod, who has the time for that?”
Jonathan Groff in his two-season HBO series “Looking.” |HBO
Playing gay or straight has also become a non-issue for Groff: “I no longer had to worry about not looking gay when playing gay, or trying to seem straight playing straight. It now is just about the intimacy between two people when you’re acting, unless you’re playing a super butch lesbian or a very effeminate gay man. Once I was out, I became fearless with men and women, talking about what was happening in the scene and not bringing my own baggage into negotiating who I was or wasn’t.”
Groff was one of the gay actors singled out in Ramin Satoodeh’s creepy Newsweek article about the impossibility of gay actors playing heterosexuals: “Oh, that was fine with me, which I sort of equated to getting a bad review, which I’ve gotten millions of times, saying I’m not believably playing my character. What he was saying about the population of gay actors in general was so absurd to me. What he said about me personally, I sort of shrugged off, that’s his opinion of me and that’s fair.”
Groff’s honesty will undoubtedly make it easier for younger, unsure gays coming up, as actors before him like Christopher Sieber and Cheyenne Jackson helped clear the way for him.: “Yeah, and Gavin Creel was a big one for me. We like dated and he was so inspiring, and continues to be, as an out actor and activist. He was the one for me who kicked it over the edge. I owe so much to him, learning from him and taking his lead.
Groff is single now: “For a couple of years now [laughs]. I was a serial monogamist for a decade, so you go through phases, I guess. But let me say that when I was in high school one of the reasons I became obsessed with ‘A New Brain’ was because there was this love duet, which I just finished singing downstairs, which was between two men. I didn’t really realize back then but it was the first time I saw men singing love duets to each other. I grew up with ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘South Pacific,’ and even ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie.’ And of course there was ‘La Cage aux Folles’ and ‘Falsettos,’ plenty with gay stories for me growing up in Pennsylvania. Now I get to exorcise all these feelings, performing such a beautiful gay storyline, so well-defined and complicated, with this beautiful relationship between these two men that is so great.”
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com, follow him on Twitter @in_the_noh, and check out his blog at nohway.wordpress.com.