He lived a gritty, driven life, he hurt people along the way and people hurt him


When he was first asked if he’d want to play Bobby Darin in an upcoming production in the long-running “Lyrics & Lyricists” series at the 92nd Street Y, Jonathan Groff wasn’t sure how to respond.

Mr. Groff, who became a Broadway star at 21 in the 2006 production of “Spring Awakening,” knew little about the entertainer and songwriter who, in a tragically brief career, was one of the biggest pop stars and most accomplished performers of the late 1950s and early 60s.

“My only reference point was seeing the movie with Kevin Spacey,” Mr. Groff explained during a recent interview, referring to the 2004 biopic “Beyond the Sea,” which earned lukewarm reviews and flopped at the box office, even well before accusations of sexual misconduct abruptly derailed Mr. Spacey’s career. (Mr. Spacey’s lugubrious performance of Darin’s “The Curtain Falls” at the end of last year’s Tony Awards did little to help that singer’s faded reputation.)

But the morning after Ted Chapin, the new “Lyrics & Lyricists” producer, mentioned Darin’s name to him over a post-theater dinner, Mr. Groff was hooked.

“I went on YouTube,” said Mr. Groff, speaking before an early rehearsal at the Y, where “The Bobby Darin Story” will kick off the new “Lyrics” season from Jan. 20 to 22. “I watched all these TV performances, from the beginning to the end of his career, and I was blown away by his versatility. The rock & roll and the standards, the dancing, the folk songs. The duets with George Burns and Judy Garland. His life was insane.”

Mr. Groff — also known for his cheekily effete, Tony-nominated performance of King George III in “Hamilton,” and TV roles in “Glee,” “Looking” and “Mindhunter” — was discussing his new “obsession” with the show’s director Alex Timbers, the music director Andy Einhorn and Mr. Chapin.

Mr. Timbers said he was intrigued by the chance to reconsider the performer’s career. “It’s interesting to ask if Bobby Darin’s legacy has been negatively impacted by the fact you couldn’t put him in a box,” said Mr. Timbers. “He was always chasing the next wave in music. In one of our first conversations, we were talking about people like Madonna, how she was ahead of the whole EDM thing with ‘Ray of Light.’ Or U2, when they released ‘Pop.’ ”

If Darin’s singing could seem slicker and less distinctive than that of his more celebrated contemporaries, his range was indeed expansive, encompassing rock (“Splish Splash”), lush and jazzy pop (“Dream Lover,” “Beyond The Sea”) and show tunes and songbook staples (“Mack the Knife,” most famously).

He also ventured into film acting, founded a record label and music publishing company, and, as his political awareness grew, crafted “Simple Song of Freedom,” a pacifist anthem for the Vietnam era.

Darin pursued goals like he was running out of time — “like he had a stopwatch on his life,” noted Mr. Timbers. And with good reason: childhood bouts with rheumatic fever had left the performer’s heart severely weakened; he would die at 37. He nonetheless proceeded at a breakneck pace: marrying movie sweetheart Sandra Dee; collecting an Oscar nomination; holding court at the Copacabana and in Las Vegas; campaigning for Bobby Kennedy before returning to nightclubs.

“It’s an extraordinary trajectory for a guy who was told he’d be dead by the age of 15,” said Mr. Timbers.

While Darin was prolific in the studio, evidence suggests his live performances could be looser, and swing harder. In the “Mack the Knife” captured on “Darin At the Copa,” his voice sounds grittier than on the hit single, and his syncopation is more playful.

As with so many great performers,” said Mr. Einhorn, “there was clearly something about being in the room with him, this great kinetic energy. That’s often where you discovered what he could really bring to the music.”

While in Australia in 2016, Mr. Chapin caught the jukebox outing “Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical” and began to think that Darin’s work might an attractive subject for the “Lyrics” series. “There was so much about his story I didn’t know,” he said.

Though “Lyrics” shows have focused more on writers known for their work in theater — the new season will include tributes to Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Lynn Ahrens — Mr. Chapin said he thought, “Well, Bobby Darin did write his own songs, so there is that aspect to it.”

After getting the blessing of the “Dream Lover” producers (who hold worldwide rights to Darin’s story, via his estate), Mr. Chapin assembled his team and hunkered down. Getting rights to the songs Darin had written, of which there are 160 titles, proved tougher than expected: “I could get my hands on only 25 of them. One piece I actually bought on eBay for $35.”

Like previous installments of the “Lyrics” series, “The Bobby Darin Story” will not be a book musical. (Nor are the creators banking on a fuller production.) But there will be something of a narrative line, written by Mr. Chapin, as well as other performers joining Mr. Groff to tell thestory of Darin’s roller coaster life, which included a “midlife meltdown,” in Mr. Chapin’s words, precipitated by the late-in-life discovery that the woman he thought was his older sister was actually his mother.

“There aren’t characters speaking dialogue, having conversations on stage,” Mr. Timbers said. “It will show emotion through music, and narration. That section toward the end of Darin’s life, this sort of downward spiral, could have been tricky in musical theater, where it can become less exhilarating when you don’t have a protagonist making choices, taking positive action. But Ted has been able to focus on the coolest, juiciest stuff about Bobby Darin.”

Mr. Groff’s own research has included “Dream Lovers,” an unsparing account of Darin and Ms. Dee’s lives together written by their son, Dodd Darin.

“There’s this quote that basically says that after all the things Bobby Darin did, in the end, he felt most powerful and most alive and most himself performing in a nightclub setting,” Mr. Groff said.

Mr. Timbers added: “He lived a gritty, driven life. He hurt people along the way and people hurt him.

“It would be easy to do a hagiography, a scrubbed-clean look at the meteoric rise of a pop sensation who bottoms out in midcareer and then has a resurgence. But I think this will be more ornery and strange and idiosyncratic. As befits Bobby Darin.”

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