NEW YORK - Josh Groban, a polite, boyish-looking, 21-year-old baritone, is an unlikely singing sensation. He sings classically inspired songs and show tunes and hasn’t had a Top 10 hit.
Yet his self-titled debut album has sold nearly 2 million copies, largely on word of mouth, making him one of the year’s biggest success stories.
“It’s just been so fast-moving,” says Mr. Groban, whose first television special, for the “Great Performances” series, has been showing on PBS stations during their December pledge drives. WETA Channel 26 airs the special tonight at 8.
“The most overwhelming thing is that I am so new to this,” he says.
His dreams were of Broadway success. He grew up loving Cirque du Soleil, and his idols include such stage stars as Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mandy Patinkin.
“I was going to go to school and study theater and hopefully someday make it to Broadway,” he says. Those dreams took a detour when, as a high school student, Mr. Groban met Grammy-winning producer David Foster, who has crafted hits for stars including Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.
Mr. Groban, a Los Angeles native, was attending a high school for the performing arts and taking voice lessons from well-known instructor Seth Riggs. Mr. Foster, who was producing an inaugural concert for Gov. Gray Davis, called Mr. Riggs seeking a replacement for Michael Crawford, who was unable to perform. Mr. Riggs sent Mr. Foster a tape of Mr. Groban’s powerful, soaring voice; a few days later, Mr. Groban was performing in front of thousands of people.
“I spend my life listening to tapes, and it’s almost always so disappointing,” Mr. Foster says. “His voice just jumped out like, unbelievably. He was 17, with that voice. It’s so dichotomous, when you look at him and you hear him.”
Mr. Groban didn’t know who Mr. Foster was and didn’t think he would hear any more from him.
“I walked out of there on cloud nine, completely, but never expected to see David again. I just thought, ‘This is an amazing opportunity, but I have to go back to school.’”
That night, however, led to other dream opportunities. Mr. Foster tapped Mr. Groban to fill in for classical tenor Andrea Bocelli during Grammy rehearsals, singing with Celine Dion.
“I did it, and Celine made me feel so at ease. She was helping me with the Italian, and I was shaking, and she put her hand on my wrist so I’d stop shaking,” Mr. Groban recalls.
Although performing for the top names in the industry, he still was unsure whether that would lead to a recording career because of “the kind of music I do, the kind of voice I had.”
“When a record label says you’re signed, that’s like a $4 million commitment,” Mr. Groban says. “I was smart enough to know the music industry didn’t take a lot of risks, so I didn’t get my hopes up.”
He enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied theater, and he kept performing with Mr. Foster, flying to various events when needed.
The university didn’t appreciate his extracurricular activities, however. After a semester, Mr. Groban had to make a choice: concentrate on school or take a leave of absence. When Mr. Foster heard of the situation, he offered Mr. Groban a contract with his 143 Records label, much to Mr. Groban’s relief.
That proved easier than making the CD.
Mr. Groban says record executives initially resisted recording the kind of CD Mr. Foster and Mr. Groban wanted something hard to classify as pop or classical. Mr. Groban sings mostly classically inspired original songs, or obscure ones nothing that would be embraced by radio stations.
“It was a very iffy time for me,” Mr. Groban says. “Here my friends were finishing the year, and I was not doing much for six months, and I was thinking, ‘Oh did I make a mistake?’”
The disc, released in November 2001, turned into a best seller. It got a huge boost when Mr. Groban was featured on an episode of “Ally McBeal” last year creator David E. Kelley wrote a script around Mr. Groban after seeing him perform at yet another extravaganza produced by Mr. Foster.
“It was unreal getting that script for the first time and realizing he’d written a good 80 percent of the show around Ally and this character,” Mr. Groban says.
Other TV appearances “Oprah,” “20/20” and a performance with Charlotte Church for the Olympics all helped build the Groban sensation.
Recently, he was on television again, to sing with Celine Dion the same song they had sung during Grammy rehearsals three years earlier, “The Prayer.” No longer a stand-in, Mr. Groban didn’t need the diva to steady his hand this time.
“To walk out on that stage with her and sing that song again was a complete full circle for me,” he says.