Undercover Brother

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

If, by some chance, you should ever need to relieve yourself at Nick Jonas’s apartment, try holding it in. The 19-year-old singer-songwriter-sibling recently moved into a temporary pad in Chelsea, where he converted his high-ceilinged, deep-reverbed bathroom into an ad hoc studio complete with guitars, microphones, and a towel-swaddled bass amp. The sound is expansive and uncluttered; the layout less so. “I’m going to suggest people use the bathroom downstairs,” Jonas jokes. “One wrong step and you’re electrocuted.”

It’s a wind-ruined Thursday morning, and Jonas and I are having breakfast at Eisenberg’s, a sandwich shop just a few blocks from his DIY recording space. Jonas is slender yet broad-shouldered, dressed in a black-plaid winter jacket, jeans, and a scarf; the curlicue shrubbery that once loomed over his forehead has been cut short and slicked back. Perhaps the most notable thing about Jonas’s appearance, however, is that he’s alone—no wailing wall of fans waiting outside, no bodyguards doing advance work. Compare this to just a few years ago, when the Disney-rock trio Jonas Brothers (which includes Kevin, 24, and Joe, 22) could show up at a midtown movie premiere and elicit a block-long tween-shriek that sounded like cicadas being sucked into a jet engine. “Back then, I don’t know if I could have come in here and had as peaceful an experience,” he says.

Peaceful, though not entirely carefree. Once he’s finished eating, Jonas will head to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where this week he’ll make his debut as window washer turned corporate striver J. Pierre­pont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, taking over the lead from Daniel Radcliffe. (Glee’s Darren Criss headlined for three weeks in between.) To those who know Jonas only as one third of the Jonas Brothers, Nick’s stage bow might look like an attempt to escape his own teen-wizard past.

But in fact, Jonas got his start on Broadway. He was only 6 years old when, at his mother’s hair-salon appointment, a woman overheard him singing and suggested he get a manager. Jonas eventually landed a role in A Christmas Carol, in which he portrayed a young Scrooge and served as an understudy for Tiny Tim. But since the actors playing Tiny Tim almost never got sick—kid stars, apparently, aren’t too big on Method—Jonas never actually rehearsed the part. As a result, the one time he was asked to don the crutches, he wound up forgetting his song, instead staring blankly at the audience. “It was a sort of out-of-body experience,” says Jonas. “That was the one really bad show I had. Later, I learned to just make up anything.”

Jonas would go on to perform in shows like The Sound of Music and Les ­Misérables. Because he and his siblings were mostly home-schooled, hanging out with other theater kids was a crucial part of his nonfamilial social life, though it’s a time he remembers as “more flashes than real memories”: packed auditions, intimidating conductors, awed strolls around Times Square.

Jonas left theater when he was 11, in part because he’d hit a growth spurt, the kiss of death for a child actor (Jonas remembers some parents cajoling their kids to drink coffee, hoping to stunt their height). Shortly afterward, a demo he’d recorded wound up in the hands of a rec­ord exec, leading to a solo deal and, finally, the formation of Jonas Brothers. Beginning in 2006, the group released four studio albums full of sleek but sincere guitar pop, the best of which—2008’s A Little Bit Longer—sounded like a less tortured, barely legal Jimmy Eat World. But 2009’s Lines, Vines, and Trying Times failed to convert the band into a mainstream-radio act, and a tepidly received 3-D movie—not to mention the rise of Justin Bieber—seemed to tarnish the group’s luster.

In person, Jonas is perpetually polite—he uses the word “blessed” frequently and earnestly—but he bristles gently when recalling the period after Trying Times. “For a while, I think a lot of people were saying, ‘This is done,’” says Jonas. “But then we had our biggest touring year ever.” Still, he concedes, “[After] four rec­ords in four years, we definitely needed to step away for a minute.”

Around the release of Trying Times, the press portrayed Nick as something of an Onus Jonas—the one most obsessed with songcraft and the band’s live sound. And though he points out that all the brothers contributed equally, he’s had the busiest hiatus, recording a soul-inflected solo album with his group the Administration and working as a producer-­songwriter for hire (one of his collaborators, 27-year-old Australian singer Delta Goodrem, is now his girlfriend). And he’s been using his Chelsea setup to work out new songs, some of which may wind up on a new Jonas Brothers record he and his brood hope to record later this year.

Jonas in How to Succeed.Photo: Chris Callis

But How to Succeed is Jonas’s most high-visibility solo venture to date, and certainly the riskiest. Years ago, the notion that a veteran boy-bander could have an extracurricular career was ridiculous; in the land o’ Timberlake, though, teen stars are occasionally allowed to age gracefully, provided they can win over grown-ups. How to Succeed will give ­Jonas a chance to showcase his talents in front of an older crowd, albeit in a role that’s imposing not only physically—­Jonas will appear in nine numbers—but also historically: Both Robert Morse (1962) and Matthew Broderick (1995) won Tonys for their respective Finches, and Radcliffe’s stint effectively recast him as a song-and-dance man. When turning to Jonas, director-choreographer Rob Ashford was looking for an actor who has “that real go-get-’em energy and enough smarts to be able to play the underlying precocious nature of Finch,” Ashford says. “Nick was keen to take it on. He’s so centered and focused. ”

Before rehearsals began, Ashford and Jonas met to discuss how Jonas might find his own inner Finch; as it turned out, he didn’t have to look too far. “Finch has got to figure out how to integrate himself into this well-oiled machine,” Jonas says, “and that’s a lot like what I’m doing, coming into this company.”

One of Jonas’s biggest concerns in joining How to Succeed was the sheer amount of choreography to learn, and a day after our breakfast, he’s at the Hirschfeld, practicing “Grand Old Ivy,” a song that finds him being hoisted into the air and then carried overhead by nearly a dozen dancers. Slowed down for rehearsal, the number looks a bit like an awkward underwater crowd-surf, and for the first few tries, as he flips and slides over the throng, Jonas maintains an unreadable, action-figure-neutral stare. But by the last run-through, he cracks a midair smile, a contented cog in a grand, ever-moving machine.

Undercover Brother