Josh Groban can still remember the sight of a VHS copy of "Sunday in the Park With George" on a shelf in his parents' home when he was growing up in Los Angeles.
"This was the version with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, and I'd always see it and think, 'That's a funny cover — weird orange color, half painting and half jeans and boots,'" says the Grammy-nominated singer and actor famous for his big voice and his multiplatinum pop-classical records. "One day I asked my parents, 'What is this?' and they said, 'It's a musical. Do you want to watch it?'"
Thus was born a Stephen Sondheim fan.
In the years since, Groban, now 40, has returned often to the work of the brilliant and beloved composer and lyricist, who died Friday at age 91 after redefining the Broadway musical with shows including "Sunday in the Park," "Company," "Follies," "Passion" and "Merrily We Roll Along."
For his 2015 album, "Stages," Groban mashed up "Children Will Listen" (from "Into the Woods") and "Not While I'm Around" (from "Sweeney Todd"). And last year, not long after making his Broadway debut in the Tony-winning "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," he took part in a virtual 90th-birthday tribute to Sondheim that won rave reviews.
Groban wrote Saturday on Instagram about his admiration for the late icon; I called him later to hear a bit more.
Q: "Sunday in the Park," which is about the French painter Georges Seurat, handles some pretty adult themes: creative inspiration, professional ambition, sexual frustration. Did you understand at age 8 or 9 what was going on in the show?
A: Steve had such a way of explaining those things in his music so that everybody could understand. Some of the lyrics were beyond me, but just the chords — the way it was structured and the idea that he could literally paint a picture of this man — I suddenly found myself understanding Seurat through that score. And then by understanding him, perhaps I could gain an understanding of the larger creative process. That's what Steve did so beautifully: He awakened your curiosity without you even knowing it.
Q: Did you sense early on that his music was different from other composers'?