Josh Groban, Idina Menzel offer night of joy, remembrance in Pittsburgh
Music’s role as a welcoming and safe place, and its powers of healing, underscored Josh Groban’s return to his adopted city, Pittsburgh, last night with his friend, Tony Award-winning actress, singer and songwriter Idina Menzel.
The result on a cold evening was a wonderfully warm three hours of artistry filled with strong, energetic performances, humor and deeply touching moments at PPG Paints Arena.
It’s a shame that so few, an audience estimated at only about 8,000, chose be part of the experience.
Never far from the surface of both artists sets (an hour for Menzel, best known for her work in “Frozen,” “Wicked” and “Rent,” among other projects) and 100 minutes for Groban) was the horrific tragedy that had taken place just six miles away in Squirrel Hill at the Tree of Life synagogue three weeks ago when a gunman killed 11 congregants on Oct. 27.
It was not far from Carnegie-Mellon University, where Groban, a Los Angeles resident, once was building his confidence as a theater arts major.
A powerful moment
One of the most powerful moments came near the end of Menzel’s opening program.
In a long-sleeved Pittsburgh “Stronger Than Hate” shirt, which she wore for her entire set, Menzel moved to the edge of center stage and sat talking to the audience.
“I’m a Jewish girl from Long Island thinking about your community,” she said. “I don’t think the fire officials would like it if I lit a candle tonight. But I don’t think the rabbis would mind if we used cell phones to be those candles.”
Asking fans to hold up their glowing cell phones to “cover light over darkness,” she added, “We choose love over bigotry. All the people in this city have come together to combat that hate. We use music to heal and put all that love out there. Light those ‘candles’ for those we love and miss.”
Then she sang Jonathan Larson’s beautifully bittersweet words from “No Day But Today” in “Rent” —
“There’s only us, there’s only this
Forget regret, or life is yours to miss
No other path, no other way
No day but today …
There’s only now, there’s only here
Give in to love or live in fear
No other path, No other way No day but today.”
When the audience erupted in applause at song’s end, she said, “It’s you. It’s you guys. You’re amazing sending the love out.”
The crowd was in to her performance from the moment she took the stage, backed by an outstanding band.
She delivered, of course, the obligatory “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” a sensuous rendering of Modern English’s “I Melt with You” and a number of songs from her Broadway shows, including “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked.”
A woman in the seats shouted “That girl can sing!” and she truly can.
She spoke of the importance of landing a role in “Rent” (“It changed my life”) to her career and the impact on the cast of the early death of Larson, its creator.
Leading in to the Squirrel Hill tragedy, she reminded that “Rent’s” message was “all about tolerance, love and community.”
After intermission, Groban took the stage sporting a charmingly disheveled look that one fan later characterized as demonstrating the artist was comfortable with himself.
Groban, himself, joked about his appearance, suggesting that he looked like a “Russian-Jewish Chia Pet.”
He admitted he was enamored with his ability, at 37, to finally grow a beard.
“It’s a nice place to keep coins and snacks,” he reasoned.
Hair mussed, wearing a cranberry jacket, dark pants, professorial glasses and thick beard, he may not have won a photo spread in GQ magazine, but he immediately won the hearts of those in attendance.
Some entertainers are reluctant to offer what they might consider “too many” songs from a new album, but Groban presented at least seven numbers from his latest “Bridges” over his 18-song set.
It was well-received and deservedly so.
New album concentration
“Bigger than us,” “Won’t Look Back” (a tribute to his parents’ 50 years together), “Granted” (his advocacy for school arts’ programs); “She’s Always a Woman to Me” (his own tasty take on Billy Joel’s classic); “River” (an inspiring look at dealing with depression and anxiety) and, in a homage to Paul Simon, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” his final encore.
“I first learned this song to honor Paul Simon, who has given us a wonderful book of our country, of who we are, in his songs,” he said.
“It’s no coincidence that this song is on my ‘Bridges” album. We need to bring ourselves back to who we are.”
He accompanied himself on piano while singing it.
The aforementioned “Granted,” which he wrote to encourage young artists, offers this plea: “If you have a dream, go chase it. If you feel hope, don’t waste it. If you find love, embrace it. And never take a single breath for granted.”
He enjoyed massive instrumental and vocal support, with a first-class orchestra (the Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra), choir and band backing him.
The production employed large screen visual backdrops effectively.
Menzel returned to duet with Groban on a few numbers, including a lullaby and an absolutely lovely rendition of the tender Academy Award winning Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglovásong song, “Falling Slowly.”
That was performed from a surprise second stage at the opposite end of the arena.
Praising Menzel’s talent, Groban added, “I love the human being she is, displaying empathy and the universal qualities we all need.”
A message delivered
Groban said he was trying “not to get political” because “music is an escape from that.”
“But we need to treat people with dignity and respect and especially not traumatize children by taking them away from their families while we figure it out,” he added to strong applause.
Introducing his “Awake” (”So keep me awake for every moment”) he referenced the early days of his career going by in a blur because he did not take time to savor them.
“Now I stop and appreciate the moment,” he said.
A rush of memories
Each time he comes to Pittsburgh, he said, he is greeted with a rush of memories. “I’m so glad to be back in this town. Carnegie Mellon University humbled me. It is an amazing program,” he said.
“I took a huge risk leaving to pursue recording. CMU is a dream facility. This city is really special to me. I feel love from this city that has given so much to me.”
He closed the regular set with his mega hit, “You Raise Me Up,” a choir singing behind him.
“I was in the back seat of a taxi in Dublin when I first heard it. It took me around the world,” he said.
Returning for his encores, he told his fans, “I’m grieving with you.”
“It’s a devastating time of grief for a city known for its compassion,” he said.
He dedicated his two encore songs, “To Where You Are,” which contains the lines, “I feel you all around me, your memory’s so clear,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue.
“The first song is a song of grieving,” he explained. “People say it got them through tough times. And the second is a song of hope.”
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.