A brief sampling — Josh Groban singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at Madison Square Garden — makes one thing clear: This powerhouse singer is in the hands of skillful TV people. Groban’s concert is Monday on most PBS stations, a key element to their pledge drives. Here’s the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
For Josh Groban, this all happened in a sudden swoosh.
He was, he says, a teen-ager with a “blissful naivete,” belting out show tunes at home and in class. Suddenly, he was with two important Davids (Foster and Kelley) and a Rosie (O’Donnell). He became a music star and now a key to the latest pledge drive.
On Monday, most stations will air his Madison Square Garden concert. The epic production has chorus, orchestra, guests (Jenniferr Nettles, Idina Menzel) and 17 cameras which, he insists, were discreet.
“They disappeared,” Groban said, “for me and for the audience. It’s a real art to be able to (get) up in the nostrils, without people knowing what’s going on.”
The pledge drive runs March 2-17, with varied elements. There’s the “Victoria” season-finale Sunday; there are looks at PBS icons — Ken Burns, Henry Louis Gates and the late Fred Rogers.
But the key is music, which is scarce on other channels, but quite big on PBS. Alongside lots of music memories – with such late stars as Lawrence Welk, Perry Como, John Denver and Nat “King” Cole, plus reunions of folk and pop stars – there are a few new specials.
David Horn, the “Great Performances” producer, points to pledge specials keyed to birthdays – Andrea Bocelli’s 60th, Joni Mitchell’s 75th. For the latter, he said, “the all-star lineup includes James Taylor, Diana Krall, Graham Nash, Chaka Khan, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Rufus Wainwright and Seal.”
Jim Dunford, PBS’ programming vice-president, points to the long link with Groban. “He did his first PBS special 20 years ago and it has been an ongoing partnership.”
Well, not quite that long. Groban – who turned 38 on Wednesday – did his first PBS specials in 2002 and 2004, when he was 21 and 23. That brought him to one of his boyhood influences.
“My introduction to great concerts and theater … was from PBS,” he said, citing “Sunday in the Park With George” in particular. “It’s been a favorite of mine ever since.”
Other shows also stirred him. “I was a late bloomer. I was a musical-theater kid. I would sing along to soundtracks. And I would write at the piano and I would sing about the day I had. And I would go take improv classes and just try to be as weird and silly as possible.”
Then everything accelerated: A music teacher told Foster about this teenager with the big voice. Foster began using Groban to sub for stars, during camera rehearsals for big events … O’Donnell heard him at a rehearsal and put him on her talk show.
Foster soon wedged him into a fundraising concert. “I was sandwiched between B.B. King and Ray Charles,” Groban recalled. “So the pressure was on.”
He apparently did fine: Kelley heard him and asked him to sing briefly during the “Ally McBeal” wedding scene. Then Robert Downey Jr., who was supposed to be the groom, plummeted into drug problems; suddenly, Groban said, the wedding was off. “Kelley basically said, ‘Can you act?’ I said, ‘Well, I did ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in 11th grade’.
And he rewrote overnight an entire script (about) an agoraphobic kid who was afraid to leave his house and he (hires) Ally McBeal to go to the prom and then he sings at the prom.”
At 20, this “late-bloomer” became a star. The first PBS specials followed; by 26, he was listed as the top-selling artist of 2007.
There have been more adventures – comedy bits with Jimmy Kimmel, a Netflix series with Tony Danza, multi-year romances with January Jones (“Mad Men”) and Kat Dennings (“2 Broke Girls”).
“All those songs about love and loss,” Groban said, “these grand emotional gestures that I was singing at 18, now I’ve lived them.” And he could sing them to the Madison Square Garden masses, with 17
cameras ready to capture a pledge-time epic.
— Josh Groban “Bridges” concert; 8 p.m. Monday on most PBS stations (check local listings)