Jonathan Groff, now starring as a hapless flower shop clerk in an Off Broadway revival of “Little Shop of Horrors,” has a tiny confession to make.
“I am really bad with plants,” said the 34-year-old actor, recalling how rapidly the orchids and other flora occasionally sent his way seem to shrivel up and die. “I kill them.”
We were seated under an oak tree that had just tried to bean us with a fast-moving acorn, somewhere inside the New York Botanical Garden. Visiting had been my idea, and I wasn’t quite sure whether it was cheesy or inspired. (Spoiler alert: The musical is about a bloodthirsty plant).
But Mr. Groff was game — he had never been — and although the Bronx gardens were not especially menacing (other than that wayward nut) they did provide an opportunity for some reflection on his unlikely career swerve.
He’s performed in two juggernauts — the animated film “Frozen” (he voiced Kristoff, the rugged ice harvester, and will do so again in “Frozen 2” next month) and the stage musical “Hamilton” (he played King George, scoring his second Tony Award nomination with just nine minutes of stage time). And he stars as an F.B.I. agent in the critically lauded Netflix serial-killer drama “Mindhunter.”
So what is he doing in a 270-seat Hell’s Kitchen theater performing a show that can easily be seen at many a summer camp or community theater, and that, the producers say, will absolutely positively definitely not be transferring to Broadway?
The answer, he says, is mostly that it’s fun. He loves the idea (“It made me so giddy and excited”). He loves the music (“I’m just obsessed by it”). And he’s as surprised as you are (“I can’t believe we’re doing this”).
“We’re just laughing because it feels like we’re doing a professional version of the quintessential high school show,” he said. “We’re all going to back to that initial nerdy impulse of what made us fall in love with musical theater.”
The other key factor: This revival, of a show that first opened Off Off Broadway in 1982, is a passion project for the director Michael Mayer, who played a formative role in his career. Thirteen years ago, Mr. Mayer took a risk by choosing Mr. Groff over actors with more education and experience to star in an experimental Off Broadway musical called “Spring Awakening.”
That show transferred to Broadway and won eight Tonys; it brought Mr. Groff his first Tony nomination and changed his life. “It was everything I ever dreamed of, come true at 21,” Mr. Groff said. “And, like I told Michael, it’s a lifetime of paybacks.”
In May, Mr. Mayer asked Mr. Groff to join him at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of his production of “Rigoletto,” and during intermission, said to him, “I think I found the next project we’re going to work on, because I know something about you that other people don’t.”
A week later, Mr. Mayer called and asked him to play Seymour, a clumsy and nebbishy orphan fascinated by exotic plants and besotted by his co-worker Audrey.
The show, written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, is now in previews at the Westside Theater, where it is scheduled to run through Jan. 19; the production also stars Tammy Blanchard, as the ill-treated and ill-fated Audrey, and the two-time Tony-winner Christian Borle as her sadistic dentist boyfriend.
“Jonathan presents as a beautiful man, competent and terrific and engaged and completely at ease in his own body — the paragon of the golden boy,” Mr. Mayer said. “But I know that there’s this other part of him that is very much like Seymour — he’s got insecurities, and he’s got this childlike passion for things that he can get obsessive about, in the way that Seymour is obsessed with the plant and with Audrey.”
Obsessions? Let’s just say that as a child, Mr. Groff would type out, from memory, scripts of “I Love Lucy” episodes (he also read books about Lucille Ball, a memoir by Desi Arnaz and a book about their company).
“I am a total nerd, and this role is actually closer to who I am as a person than the other parts that I’ve played on Broadway,” Mr. Groff said. “I have a whole side of me that isn’t the projected image,” he added. “I get this — I totally get it — and it feels like a natural fit.”
His physical transformation from hunky to homely has turned out to be surprisingly persuasive, so much so that this production has interpolated a recurring sight gag about the character’s unattractiveness that, by combining absurdity with plausibility, slays the audience (pardon the pun) over and over.
Mr. Groff, dressed by costume designer Tom Broecker in ill-fitting khakis and a vintage blue shirt, appears to cave in on himself during the first act of the show, as if he doesn’t even deserve to stand fully upright. He wears black mad scientist glasses, a beige cap and blue Chuck Taylors, and manages to look boxier and younger than he is in real life.
“The only way he’s not a Seymour is because he’s gorgeous,” Ms. Blanchard said. “But even that goes away — he just seems to shrink into this dorky thing.”
But is “Little Shop” more than a lark?
“It’s about something larger — it’s Faust,” Mr. Groff said. “It’s about greed, and how far you’ll go to get what you want.” But, he added, “the reason it ran for five years Off Broadway, and there’s a movie, and every theater in the world has done it, is because it so doesn’t take itself seriously.”
Visiting the botanical garden prompted memories for Mr. Groff, who said it reminded him of childhood trips to Longwood Gardens in his home state of Pennsylvania. “The smell!” he exulted.
He grew up in Lancaster County, where his father trains horses. He loved musicals, and dreamed of performing (early fantasy roles: Maria in “The Sound of Music” and Eliza in “My Fair Lady”). As a little boy, he dressed as Mary Poppins and Cinderella and Alice and Dorothy, as well as Peter Pan, before discovering the joys of Robin Hood.
He moved to New York instead of going to college, and after waiting tables and an early Broadway debacle (as an understudy in the short-lived “In My Life”) landed “Spring Awakening.” That show, he said, “was my college experience, in a lot of ways,” broadening his understanding of musical theater and increasing his appetite for risk.
He had known he was gay from an early age, and had been living with a boyfriend since he was 19; he came out to his parents shortly after leaving that show, at 23: “I said, ‘I’m gay, but I’m not going to be in a parade or anything.’”
By 2014, he was starring in the HBO series “Looking,” about a group of gay friends in San Francisco — and appeared as a grand marshal of New York City’s gay pride march.
“I started to just become way more comfortable,” he said. “When I came out it was sort of like, ‘If I could change it I would, but sorry, this is how I am,’ and then it took those years to feel like this is a part of me that I love and I would never want to change.”
He said coming out has had a generally positive impact on his career — he has been landing roles both gay and straight, and “ultimately the payoff has just been that I’ve been able to be more and more myself.”
And he’s happy. For the last year and a half he’s been dating Corey Baker, a choreographer from New Zealand he met while teaching at a musical theater summer school there. He lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, but also recently purchased a house adjoining his father’s horse farm, because he has a fantasy of eventually transforming the property.
“My ultimate dream is to turn it into a kind of artists’ colony for my friends to go make work,” he said.
Mr. Groff shuns social media — he said he doesn’t think his life is that interesting — and bikes around the city. He has no interest in clothing. He showed up for our photo shoot with three T-shirts — white, gray and black — proud that he had heeded a publicist’s advice to bring options.
Although he’s never quite sure what’s next career-wise, he likes the work he has.
“Mindhunter” was an unexpected pleasure — “I’m not naturally drawn to true crime,” he said — but he wanted to work with the director David Fincher, and has enjoyed the immersion in a new world, as well as the time filming in Pittsburgh, which allowed him weekends with his family.
Up next: “Frozen 2.” He won’t say much about what to expect, other than that Kristoff now gets his own song, and that the character is “ready to take it to the next step” with Princess Anna.
As we were wrapping up our conversation, I asked Mr. Groff about an article I had seen in a Pennsylvania paper, noting that he had been spotted in the audience for a community theater production of “Evita.”
Mr. Groff said he loves seeing theater where he grew up, and had been further inspired by the actor Michael Cerveris, who while filming “Mindhunter” had soaked up shows in Pittsburgh. So yes, he was at “Evita” with his 4-year-old niece, and he also made time to see “Mamma Mia!” at a theater where he had performed.
As we hopped into a golf cart to find our way out of the garden, he wanted to show me one more thing. He pulled out his phone, loaded with pictures of the cramped backstage at “Little Shop,” and swiped to a video in which he was running lines with that niece, who has been learning about the show in preparation for attending opening night.
“She’s apparently been telling the kids at her day care that she eats blood, and she’s obsessed with the plant’s eyes,” he said. “But I think she sort of gets that we’re playing pretend.”
Michael Paulson is the theater reporter. He previously covered religion, and was part of the Boston Globe team whose coverage of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. @MichaelPaulson
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