It all began with the bears.
“I’m like, ‘Are you a baseball team?'” says Josh Groban, recalling an early-career encounter with a man who informed the crooner about his growing number of gay bear fans.
Nearly 15 years later, members of the LGBT community – even the non-hairy ones – are still feeling struck and soothed by Groban’s elastic range. “Stages” is yet another swoon-worthy set from the singer. His first collection of songs from musicals (out April 28), Groban takes on some of Broadway’s best for the album, which includes “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel” and “The Phantom of the Opera” showstopper “All I Ask Of You,” a duet with Kelly Clarkson.
While discussing the release during a recent interview, the 34-year-old also highlighted the significance of performing with the Washington, D.C. Gay Men’s Chorus during Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration, the validation his younger “awkward” self felt after being named “Sexiest Newcomer” and how Ryan Gosling put the singer’s sexuality to the test.
I was fortunate enough to see you during the summer of 2014 in Toronto for Rufus Wainwright’s “If I Loved You: Gentlemen Prefer Broadway – An Evening of Love Duets,” where you got your gay on.
(Laughs). I’ll always put my gay on for Rufus.
During an interview you did regarding that performance, Rufus referred to you as a “dreamboat.” At this point in your career, are you used to that kind of attention from gay men?
Yeah, it’s happened from time to time. Look, when Rufus Wainwright is complimenting you, musically or otherwise, it’s a great honor. Something that was surprising to me that happened when I first got signed at 19, 20 years old: I was at some kind of shop, and I was walking around with someone – it was probably my girlfriend – and this guy comes up to me and goes, “Hey, I just want you to know, the bears love you.” I’m like, “Excuse me? What?” And I didn’t know what that meant! I’m like, “Are you a baseball team?”
How did you figure out what type of bears he was referring to?
I think some Googling had to take place. And it was like, “Oh. Ohhhh!” (Laughs)
And you’re like, “Not the bears in the forest.”
Yeah, and not the Chicago Bears.
If you could duet on a love song with any man, who would it be and why?
If I could sing with any man, it would probably be Brian Stokes Mitchell. I love his voice, and I grew up listening to his voice. There’s such a warm tone to the way he sings, and he’s just such a great actor and a really great guy. We would do a killer “Pretty Women” (from “Sweeney Todd”), I think.
You’re from L.A., and you went to arts schools, including Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. I imagine you’ve been immersed in the gay community for much of your life. Did you find a lot of gay people gravitating to you at a young age?
Like you said, I went to a wonderful arts camp at Interlochen. I went to a great arts high school in Los Angeles – L.A. County High School for the Arts – and grew up in Los Angeles and with a wonderful arts background, and I got to meet all sorts of people. Many of my friends were gay at these places – at camp, at school.
The wonderful thing I found about the arts and the arts connection was, I had come from a situation where I had a hard time making friends at school and I was bullied, and I finally went to school where everybody had the same inspiration for the arts, everybody had the same passion. It was the first situation where I had felt that everybody was friends with everybody, and everybody felt the most comfortable being themselves at these places. And so, for me, the arts were the first scenario where I found a connective tissue between everybody.
When you look back, did that closeness to the queer community ever make you question your own sexuality?
No, not at all. It wasn’t in any way, shape or form about my own life or my own sexuality – it was about understanding and accepting everybody, and being friends regardless of that. I think that’s also what the straight community needs to understand – that it’s about friendship and alliance. It’s not about questioning yourself or anything like that – it’s about the togetherness of it. I think the wonderful thing about the arts is that I grew up in a community where I felt there was acceptance and friendship regardless of our own personal lives.
And co-starring with Ryan Gosling in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” – that didn’t challenge your heterosexuality?
(Laughs) Listen, if I was gonna be gay, that would’ve been the moment. That was probably my greatest test, and I failed.
You came out as “not gay” on Twitter a couple years ago. How do you feel about people speculating about your sexuality?
Honestly, if I were gay, I would have had no problem saying it from day one. It’s such a thing when people speculate. I would have nothing to hide if that were the case. People have speculated, have wanted to speculate – whatever, fine. I’m not gay, but if I were, I don’t view it as a bad thing. If I were, I’d say, “OK, fine, speculate all you want and let’s talk about it.”
It’s not like you’re in a community where that wouldn’t be accepted.
Exactly. I’ve grown up with gay friends; my parents have had great gay friends. I come from such an open-minded family background. I am so lucky to have the parents that I have and to have grown up with the environment of “accept and be accepted” and “love and be loved,” so when that kind of talk comes up, I think to myself, “All right, I’m happy to say what is and isn’t true,” but at the same time, I don’t see why that’s like, “Ohhhh.” Like that would be an insult. I don’t get that. If that were the case, I would just say it and it would be no big deal. That’s the thing that bugs me more than anything, though – that the mention of it would be considered provocative when, really, in this day and age it shouldn’t be.
Assuming you selected the songs on “Stages” because they have relevance in your own life, which ones mean the most to you?
There are actually a couple of songs that really have nostalgic memories for me. “All I Ask Of You” from “Phantom” was the first song that I ever sang professionally to get a record deal, so when I found myself at Abbey Road, singing that song and with Kelly (Clarkson), it was just like, “Oh, man!” Very rarely do I ever pat myself on the back or give myself a high five – I’m always kind of self-critical and moving forward – but it was one of those moments where I was listening to that orchestra and having memories of the 17-year-old kid in the ill-fitting tuxedo that first sang that song, and I’m like, “You know what, go you. You did it.”
A song like “Bring Him Home” is a song you can’t help but hear and think about what’s going on now in the world, and how many people are hoping and praying the same things today. The wonderful thing I’ve found about these songs is there’s so much relevance and poignancy to them today, regardless of the show that they’re in, and that was a wonderful discovery. One of the things that really dictated what we chose and what we didn’t choose was if they could live independently on their own.
You obviously have theater aspirations. What’s your dream Broadway role?
I’m a Sondheim nut. I like his stuff because it allows for really operatic singing without dancing. I’m a terrible dancer. So, for me, I would love to do something like “Sweeney Todd” or “Sunday in the Park with George.” I was introduced to “Chess” when I was 24 or 25 – I did it for the Actors’ Fund on Broadway – and I’ve always thought that show got a bum rap. Just the music alone can go toe to toe with the great musicals. I think it deserves, at some point, a chance. Maybe a different kind of direction, a different kind of vision, but that would be another dream role.
You’d like to star in it?
Absolutely. I mean, there are a bunch of roles that I think would be fun. It’s really been a timing issue. It would be a dream come true to do something on the Broadway stage. With album and touring life, and when you have a record deal, you have to satisfy commitments. It’s just a matter of taking the time to do it right.
Your girlfriend, Kat Dennings, recently appeared on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
She crushed it!
When’s it your turn to guest judge?
(Laughs) She got me into that show! I mean, RuPaul’s incredible. The influence she’s had on everybody is just amazing, and then you see the competition. The episode that Kat did – I took Shakespeare class, like I was in very heavy Shakespeare instruction when I was young and in theater school, and so watching them put on Shakespeare was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life. It was a wee bit of a train wreck, and I think Ru knew that, but it was really funny to watch.
And yeah, you never know. I would be happy to be a judge on it, but I think I would be so impressed with the fashion that I don’t think I would know how to critique it. I’d be like, “Wow! I could not walk in those heels; congratulations to you! That is amazing! Well done! Ginger Minj – I salute you!”
I like to imagine you doing karaoke. You’re out with friends, and you’re probably drinking. What’s your go-to karaoke number?
I hate to brag, but it’s a really unfair advantage. I kind of crush karaoke. The thing about karaoke is it makes everybody a ham. I’ll go in there, peruse the little binder, and just hang back with the tambourine for a few songs and then go straight into “We Are the Champions” and “I like big butts and I cannot lie… .” It just goes into all out ’80s and ’90s hip-hop and hair metal, and that’s basically a night for me. I remember I was singing “November Rain” and the guy came in to tell us we were out of time, and he heard me singing it. Instead of telling us to leave, he brought us free nachos.
On your list of accomplishments, where does that time in 2002 rank, when People Magazine named you “Sexiest Newcomer”?
Oh, somewhere floating in the middle, I’d say. When you talk about high fives to your younger self, when you read something like that, you think about every girl who rolled their eyes when you’d go up and say hi to them, and then you’re all like, “Good job!” If I could go back and tell that young kid, “You’re gonna be People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest,’ he would’ve had a lot easier of a time.” Those awkward times give you character, though, I think.
And then you think, “If only I knew then what I know now.”
I don’t think you ever wanna peak in high school either. I don’t think you want to have your most confidence when you’re 15 or 16 years old, or you turn into Al Bundy. It’s good to go through the 15-, 16-year-old period where you don’t have your shit together, where you feel like you do need to figure out what your identity is, where you need to figure out where your walls should be and where your confidence needs to lie. If I didn’t have that period where I didn’t fit in and I didn’t make the team, then, truly, I don’t think I would’ve had as much of a desire to really find my true self in my 20s.
Knowing how far you’ve come into yourself, it must be really rewarding to see you’re a source of inspiration for people now, many of them gay. Is there a story you can recall from someone who’s LGBT who was affected by your music?
Oh, it’s every concert. I’ll meet people backstage and it’s always so wonderful for me. When you get to really look somebody in the eye and see that your song has helped somebody through a hard time or kept them from harming themselves or made them not feel so alone, it gives you perspective and it gives you a reason to do what you do. Without fail, during almost every show that I’ve done, I’ve met somebody from the LGBT community backstage that has said that my music in their own life has played a huge part in (helping them) feel a part of this universe and be confident in who they are, and also able to express themselves. I always try to find songs and sing songs that try to express those beliefs and those values, so it’s always very gratifying when somebody shares those stories with me.
You notably sang with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. during President Obama’s Inaugural Opening Ceremony in January 2009. What was it like being a part of such a big moment in LGBT history?
Those steps and that environment were about equal rights in the African-American community 50, 60 years ago, and to be able to represent the LGBT community and one of the great equal rights issues of our times – and share that moment proudly on those steps – was a tremendous honor for me. I was so thrilled that this administration had the wherewithal to understand the importance of it, and to do that musically – it’s one of my favorite things that I have done of all time.