Tonys 2018: Co-Hosts Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban Prepare to Let Their Theater-Geek Flags Fly

After earning Tony nominations last season for their work on ‘Waitress’ and ‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,’ respectively, the pop superstars this year will give back as emcees of Broadway’s big night.

This year’s Tony Awards promise to be a magical evening. How could it be otherwise, with a certain wizard poised to assume a large role in the proceedings via the theatrical juggernaut Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, nominated for 10 awards?

Not that the event will be all about Hogwarts. There’s also the revival of Tony Kushner’s landmark drama Angels in America, nominated for 11 Tonys — the most of any play in Broadway history. And the musical race pits the small-scale, critically adored The Band’s Visit against such name-brand behemoths as Mean Girls, Disney’s Frozen and SpongeBob SquarePants.

The awards come at the end of yet another record-breaking season, with grosses up more than 17 percent from last year to total just under $1.7 billion. Contributing mightily to those numbers was Bruce Springsteen, whose extended Broadway stint ($65 million and counting) has garnered him a Special Tony Award. John Leguizamo also will be receiving that honor, with Lifetime Achievement Awards going to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Chita Rivera.

This year’s hosts are pop music stars Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, who are no strangers to Broadway, both having recently made acclaimed debuts.

Bareilles made hers first as composer of Waitress, the 2016 musical adapted from the Adrienne Shelley film, for which she wrote the Tony-nominated score. Although the lead character, Jenna, was originated by Jessie Mueller, Bareilles took over the role for months-long stints both this year and last, resulting in sell-out runs. More recently, she took another step into musical theater, playing Mary Magdalene in the glowingly received NBC live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar. And Bareilles is again nominated for a Tony this year, as one of the troupe of composers from the pop world behind the original score for SpongeBob SquarePants.

Groban starred in last season’s critically lauded Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, a wildly unconventional sung-through musical based on a segment of the classic Tolstoy novel War and Peace. The singer donned a fat suit to play Pierre, a boozy, depressed aristocrat, unhappily married and hopelessly in love with the beautiful fiancee of his best friend. Groban, who received a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical, made the show a hit for as long as he was in it.

Bareilles and Groban recently spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about their theater experiences, the current state of Broadway and their upcoming hosting duties at the June 10 ceremony, which will be broadcast live on CBS from Radio City Music Hall. The following are excerpts from the conversations, conducted separately.

Hosting the Tony Awards is a very tough gig! How did you two get roped you into this?

Groban: (Laughs.) I got a very unexpected call about it. I was floored, honored, excited. The Tonys have been a wonderful community of friends. I’ve been a part of the show for the past few years and was nominated last year and had a great time with my cast.

Bareilles: It was just after Jesus Christ Superstar. I got a call from management telling me my name just came up about hosting with Josh Groban. It was kind of an immediate yes. Josh and I have known each other for a very long time. We’re great friends. My love for the theater community is no secret. I am an unabashed fan and devotee. I feel like it’s a huge opportunity.

Do either you have any experience with hosting?

Bareilles: Not in this particular capacity. I’m no stranger to being onstage, and in my line of work you endlessly get thrown into a position of having to lead a room. I don’t feel intimidated about that part. It is a big gig and a big responsibility. We’ll see how we do!

Groban: No experience hosting an award show. I’ve hosted TV shows, both here and in the U.K. I’ve hosted with Kelly Ripa about 13 times now. And I hosted a music television show on ABC called Rising Star a few summers ago. That was a bit crazy. This will be crazy in its own ways.

Can we expect musical duets?

Groban: We have to do some singing. We’re known for our singing, so we should get up there and flex our strengths. We’re hoping to sing in the opening, we’re hoping to sing throughout the night. Some stuff maybe a little more serious, some stuff comedic. But most importantly we just want to make audience members feel like they can let go and relax. These award shows are so tense.

Bareilles: It would feel really out of character if we didn’t sing at all. I think we’re both excited to use our voices onstage. But there are things about Josh that many people don’t know. He’s extraordinarily funny and has a wonderful dry wit. He’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. I think we’ll both get to share our personalities in a deeper way on this night.

You both recently made your Broadway acting debuts. Is that something you dreamt of from an early age?

Bareilles: Oh, yeah. I grew up listening almost exclusively to musical theater albums. It was a huge dream come true when I went into Waitress last year and then reprised the role this year. It’s incredible. Not only the experience of getting to be on a Broadway stage, but also in this show which means so much to me, obviously. It was a total fantasy, one of those pinch-me moments.

Groban: I was a theater major in college. Musical theater, to be exact, at Carnegie Mellon. I was there as a freshman when I got signed to a record deal. I hit a fork in the road and my life took a different turn.

That was a pretty good fork.

Groban: Yeah, pretty good fork, I’d say. When that kind of choice is presented to you, you do a gut check. My gut said, if you don’t do this, you’re crazy, and I’m happy that I listened. But theater, in the back of my mind, was always a dream of mine. It always felt like it needed to be a big part of my career at some point. I did not grow up dreaming of being a recording star. I grew up dreaming of being a theater star. That’s why I thought it would be great for Sara and me to host together. We both came into the theater world from very similar places. We both loved it when we were kids. We both studied it and wanted to do it. We both have lots of videos of us doing it when we were younger. And we took on pop music and songwriting, and then Broadway came calling at around the same time for both of us. It’s funny how life works.

Will we be seeing some of those videos of you from an early age on the Tony broadcast? That would be great.

Groban: (Laughs.) I think it would be great, too. I would love to. I have to talk to the producers about it. We have to find a way to do it. I think that’s something that everybody relates to. Everybody in that audience, we all have those videos. We were all in a poorly fitting costume and bad makeup, running around a stage.

Is there anything that surprised you about acting on Broadway?

Groban: One surprising aspect was the support of everyone from every show, regardless of whatever competition exists. Which is different from the music business! The other thing that surprised me was just how much my body was capable of. It’s very easy when you’re your own boss in music. You can say, I need this day off, or whatever. But on Broadway you just gotta do it. There’s no excuses. If you’re not there, you’re letting your cast down, you’re letting your fans down. There were so many shows I did when I was singing through the flu, or a migraine, or body aches or vocal fatigue. And before you know it you’re taking a bow and thinking, “Damn, I did it!” It teaches you what kind of stamina you have if you work hard enough for it.

Bareilles: I thought it would get very monotonous because you’re doing the same thing eight times a week. But I was surprised by how very different one show feels from the next. It’s a product of the energy from the audience, or where the cast is at on a given day. I thought I would get bored, but I never for a second did. It’s a lot of work, certainly. The schedule is absolutely grueling. But it stays very alive. That was new for me.

Has it whetted your appetite for more stage acting?

Bareilles: I would love to do more. Knowing that it really becomes the dominant force in your life, I would want to be very discerning about what the project is. Because I’d want to end up in something that I really love.

Groban: Absolutely, no question. It’s just a matter of what. That’s assuming the theater community will even have me back after June 10. Maybe a play. I’ve been so inspired by the plays this season. So much interesting new work happening, and also so much interesting music incorporated into the plays these days. I would like to do something that’s not musical theater for a spell. But on the other hand, there are so many great musicals.

Josh, you starred in a show that was deeply unconventional and definitely not based on an established property, in the mainstream entertainment sense. Did you feel any trepidation about making Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 your debut Broadway show?

Groban: It was unconventional, but it spoke to me. Something about the character of Pierre, something about what the show was trying to accomplish. The immersiveness of it. The genre-bending of the score. It was challenging to me and I knew it would be challenging to an audience. And inspiring at the same time. I think that great art should have that balance of pushing and pulling. It was a great, fun story to tell, with a style of telling it that I had never seen before on Broadway.

The show closed prematurely after the controversy that ensued when Mandy Patinkin was hired to replace the African-American actor who took over your role when you left. Now that some time has gone by, any thoughts about the matter you’d like to share?

Groban: I remain such close friends with every single person in the cast. From time to time, we all get a drink and talk about what an unfortunate situation that was. I think the general consensus among all of us is that, bottom line, this was one of the most diverse, inclusive casts on Broadway. We were happy there was so much representation in the show. And the audiences saw that and they experienced it. So for that kind of drama to happen — based on a conversation, by the way, that was, and is, 100 percent necessary — I believe the show it was placed upon was the wrong one. Everyone involved in that show, including myself, tried to do whatever we could to save it, for that diverse cast who were still in it. Unfortunately, it was one of those things that had run its course, and there was nothing we could do. But I would say, there are no hard feelings.

Sara, you made your mark with a relatively unconventional musical. The film Waitress was well-regarded, but it was an indie, not a studio blockbuster. How hard is it for musicals not based on Disney cartoons or big movie properties to succeed on Broadway?

Bareilles: We were really lucky to have a lot of support from a lot of producers. I think it’s really hard for a new musical to get made without that name recognition. Waitress had name recognition, but it wasn’t Frozen. From a creative standpoint it’s nice to have the freedom to do a reinterpretation. When you’re doing something not based on a household name, you actually have more leeway in creating a new world. Waitress the musical is very similar to the film but also very different.

For a long time, Broadway wasn’t considered cool. But thanks to shows like Hamilton, it’s hotter than ever. Do you see the theater and popular music worlds blending even more in the future?

Bareilles: I certainly see more and more artists coming out of the “theater closet.” Embracing their love of theater. I think for some reason it was stigmatized and now thankfully, as you pointed out, Hamilton has made it so cool. We’re finding out that people have been listening to cast albums their whole life and they’re just feeling like it’s OK to admit it now.

Groban: Especially since producers have seen that it’s commercially viable. Experimentation is cool. Breaking boundaries and incorporating sounds that young people listen to into musical theater is important. I think people like Lin-Manuel [Miranda] are helping to change that. But it’s easier said than done.

The 72nd Annual Tony Awards will air live from Radio City Music Hall June 10 on CBS at 8 p.m. ET, tape-delayed on the West Coast.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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