Meantime, last summer in Central Park, Jonathan Groff plays Claude in the Public Theater's revival of Hair, a production that gets rave reviews and a transfer to Broadway. But Groff receives an offer for another '60s gig, Taking Woodstock, a film by Ang Lee. Into the role of Claude steps Creel, and Hair is not only well-received, it garners eight Tony nominations, including best revival of a musical and best actor for Creel.
Back Stage recently spoke with the actor about the 1960s, the vagaries of Broadway, and his instant karma.
How are you doing?
I'm blissed out. I'm in a show that looks like it's going to run for a while, and it's got an amazing message, and it's nice to be in a show where you agree with what it says.
What's the message and why do you agree with it?
The overall thing that I take away from it is being aware and being awake to what's around you and what you're a part of: not ascribing to what the media or whoever else tells you what to ascribe to; following your own instincts; being your own person. I also like that it's about a youth generation that's aware, that's hooked in socially and not just into surface things.
How did you prepare for Claude?
When I met with Diane [Paulus, the director], I had this obsession with two questions: How old is this character, and how long is his hair going to be? Hair length is definitely a statement. When I was growing my hair out and I refused to cut it for La Cage I got so much flack for having long hair, and I was like, "Fuck you, you know? I'm going to do what I want." I can only imagine at the time what a statement it was to just quote unquote let yourself go. As for age, I couldn't play an 18-year-old, because it's just not in my realm, and she said, as long as you are between the ages of 18 and 26, you can be any age you want. I just made this decision that I was 25 years old and seven months, and in five months I was going to turn 26 and be free of this death sentence. It just heightened the whole thing for me, so that when I smoked pot, it was that much more important. The clock is ticking really loudly in my ear, every day I wake up and there's not a letter in my mailbox, I'm like, okay, one day closer. And the days feel like years.
How did that preparation serve you as an actor?
The thing that Diane worked with me on a lot was taking every opportunity completely seriously, and to be unafraid and unashamed to stand up and say, I'm Aquarius and with my powers and my love I can heal this entire theater. This entire theater will then have the power to heal the entire world. And it was kind of just, honestly, drinking the Kool-Aid. I had to go back to when I first moved into the city. Every day I walked through the streets and felt, I own this city. You could call it eager, naïve, but I had to get back to that place of completely believing.
How did you get away from that?
Ten years of being in the city I think it just— [pause]. I think I'm a pretty positive and optimistic person but I'm guessing my wick is way shorter than when I first moved here. And also, I guess just growing up does this thing where it takes the shine off of everything. And also having success takes the shine off it more than anything.
Because when you fail when you're younger you can still get up and there's still something to find. When I did Thoroughly Modern Millie it was almost every "first" I could have imagined: I dreamt someday being on Broadway, and then dreamt someday playing a lead on Broadway, and then dreamt someday of getting to originate a role, and then getting a Tony nomination. It all happened at once. I was just terrified.
You were determined to come to Broadway out of college, and it is not necessarily the first choice of people of your generation. Why Broadway?
As opposed to what, Los Angeles? Being on TV?
Honestly, 'cause I like singing. I like singing too much and I believe in the art form, the musical. When it's great, there's nothing better, and when it's bad there's nothing worse.
Do you not want to work in TV and film?
If I don't, I won't be in therapy. It doesn't really matter to me. I'm just kind of like, I'm 33 years old, I got a life here, I got a dog and hopefully some day I'll have a family. That's why I'm grateful I'm a bit older. I just realized, "Yeah, you get on TV and so what?" It's not going to make me happy. And I don't want to move to Los Angeles. That place creeps me out. I want to live here. I don't know. I don't think about it that much.
Tell me about your album, Goodtimenation. Where'd you get the idea and why are you doing it?
To be an actor, it's really tough to find your own voice because you're always tied to other characters and going to auditions and trying to get a job, hoping they'll pick you. And I think it's just so important for an actor to have something else that's creative, something that's creative and you're in charge of.
What music from the '60s did you like?
Oh, the Beatles. Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. I just think it's as good as it gets. As good as songwriting gets.
For some people, the 1960s have become the Coca-Cola of American history. There is no other brand, no other decade that matters. Why?
It was the turning point in the television age. I think with television, people could watch life happening around them, and we had people saying, "I don't want to be like this. I don't want to be like my parents' generation. I don't want to behave—I want to be able to express myself." I think the '60s were a time where they were singing about what was going on around them. They weren't singing about "my ho's and my humps" and all the stupid fucking shit I can't stand listening to now. People were acting out in a way that was in reaction to a war they didn't support. Where is that now?
When you're ass is not on the line, you don't take to the streets.
I didn't think it would be this cynical and this apathetic. The people who lived in those times, they say, "You kids don't understand." I hate to say it, but I kind of agree with them. We need to wake up, start a renaissance. Maybe Hair will start it. Maybe this revival will.