Broadway star visits UK theater

By Amanda Powell | @KyKernel

[email protected]

Jonathan Groff, who played Jesse St. James on the TV series “Glee,” visited UK on March 8 and enjoyed a performance of Act One of the theater department’s spring musical, “Spring Awakening.”

Groff is an old friend of Lyndy Franklin and Jeromy Smith, the directors of the show.

Groff is known for his role as Melchior, the male lead in “Spring Awakening,” on Broadway.

Following the UK Department of Theatre’s performance, Groff said he got emotional because he’s never been able to come to a school and witness students working on the show.

“I was a total wreck. Pretty much from the minute it began I started openly weeping,” Groff said. “It’s always emotional to hear the music again and the words again, but to be here with this cast that’s doing it at UK, there’s something very special about this group and special about the kids that are doing these parts. They’re just nailing it.”

Groff, who grew up in Lancaster, Pa., first met Franklin while working on “Ragtime” at the Fulton Opera House. Six months later, Franklin moved to New York and Groff decided to go with her so they could room together. Franklin soon started dating Smith, and he eventually moved in as well.

Groff originally planned to go to college, but his senior year of high school he landed a spot in the non-union national tour for “The Sound of Music.”

“It was like a bus-and-truck tour, and we actually played in Lexington for the Opera House. It was one of my favorite venues because it’s such a beautiful theater,” Groff said.

Groff deferred his admission to college to go on tour, and when it was over he moved to New York.

He auditioned for “Spring Awakening” while living in the Big Apple and was given the role of Melchior. The show was off-Broadway for a few months, but then made it to Broadway during the same season Franklin was in “A Chorus Line.”

Groff said it was amazing just being on Broadway the same season as Franklin, but to add to the excitement, both their shows were nominated for Tony Awards.

“I was nominated for my role in ‘Spring Awakening’ and at the Tonys the opening number was one from ‘A Chorus Line.’ I sat down in the audience with my mom, who was my date, and I looked up and she (Franklin) was standing directly in front of me waiting for the big number to start,” Groff said. “I couldn’t believe that she was there. It was truly one of the most amazing moments I’ve had in my life because we shared so much together and then to have that moment was pretty surreal.”

Even with his success, the UK cast members Groff worked with said he was still humble.

Michael Sheehy, who will play the role of Melchior, said, “It’s absolutely amazing to meet someone like Jonathan. He is such a kind, generous, giving person, and he’s so willing to work with us, especially to work with me. At no point did he make me feel nervous. He was excited to help me find the character, and it’s just been a blessing and the best experience.”

If Groff could give the students he worked with any advice it would be to seek the joy in performing.

“There’s a certain euphoria that you feel performing theater in high school, and I’m sure in college as well, that is very quick to evaporate when you move to New York,” Groff said. “It becomes about competition and it becomes about the business, so finding ways to connect to that initial joy and to that initial excitement is something that’s important to never let go of.”

Right now, Groff said he is striving for longevity in his career. His goal is to be working in theater, film and television. He wants to look for work that will challenge him so he can continue to grow as an artist.

The cast members said they look up to him and hope to follow in his footsteps.

“He’s just a wealth of knowledge. It’s an incredible opportunity to have someone here who has created where we are now, essentially,” said Peter LaPrade, who will play Moritz. “If we can do every performance like Jonathan Groff is watching, we’ll be in good shape. I really wanted to show him that we’re deserving of the work we’re doing.”

Groff had only good things to say about the cast and thinks they will surprise everyone with the show.

“I think it’s going to blow people away when they come and see it,” Groff said. “It’s not like college kids putting on ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Music Man,’ which is great, obviously, but what’s really special about this show is young people singing about being young people, and it’s rare that you get to experience that as an audience member.”