BWW Interview: Josh Grisetti, the SOMETHING ROTTEN Star Encounters the Deity
When a writer is interviewing a person involved in the performing arts, many unusual details are revealed about that individual: some talk about their hobbies or significant others, one well-known performer talked at great length about the jewelry he's designing. Yet another admitted that he has a passion for carving pumpkins. Josh Grisetti, one of the current stars of the musical SOMETHING ROTTEN, revealed that he's actually met God. Yes, God! In fact he's chronicled the experience in a book titled God in my Head, which has recently been published.
Grisetti, whose Broadway debut in THE SIMON PLAYS was delayed when the production shuttered while his segment of it was going into technical rehearsals, is no Bible thumping preacher. Not at all. He's an actor. He's always been an actor. He can pinpoint the exact time when he knew he wanted to be a performer, "My mother has this funny thing hanging on her wall at home. It was something I'd filled out when I was in kindergarten. Under the question 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' I wrote, 'I want to be a funny man.'" Later in life, after seeing the movie ANNIE, Grisetti was impressed with the performances of Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters and--especially--Tim Curry as Rooster Hannigan. "I saw that and said to myself, 'I can do that,' and I was barely a teenager at the time."
Speaking by phone on a warm summer afternoon, Grisetti continues, "Going to the movies and seeing all the bad guys and the funny guys, I found I was always relating to the character roles. Then I remember seeing a touring production of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in Virginia and found myself drawn to the characters of the theater owners and wanted to play those roles when I got older. What kid does that? Kids are usually drawn to the Phantom or Raoul. Not me, I was looking at Andre, I had no interest in playing a boring leading man, even then."
When reminded that the romantic leading men usually get the best ballads to sing, Grisetti laughs and adds, "Sometimes. One of the things I like about my career so far is that I've gotten to be a funny character guy but, because I can sing, they write nice little melodies to surprise people. Audiences don't expect to find a character actor who sings. Well, this one does." Grisetti's singing skills are very evident in SOMETHING ROTTEN. In this production he shows how exemplary his vocalizing is and the audience responds enthusiastically.
Josh Grisetti finally got to make his Broadway debut in the musical IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU, which starred Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris. In it, he made one of the most unique entrances in Broadway history. Seated in a box seat, and surrounded by paying audience members, his cellphone rang during the performance and he began chatting with an onstage character. For a brief moment, audience members thought this was one heck of a rude person, and some were actually preparing to get him removed from the theater until they realized he was part of the show.
"That entrance was written into the piece," he explains. "It was there when they did it out-of-town, long before I was involved with the project. It really was a fantastic entrance and the show seemed to come to life at that moment. That character was sort of the intrusion into the story; he sets the plot into motion."
The actor continues: "When we first started previews, I would take my place in the box seat about 10 minutes before curtain, so I would be sitting there while the audience was still coming into the theater. I wanted to chat with the people seated around me and have them feel that I was just an ordinary guy, so it would be a complete surprise to them when I stood up and started singing. Practically speaking, though, there were pictures of me outside the theater and in the playbill. If they were seated close enough to me, they could see I had a microphone hidden in my hair and a cable running down my neck, so they started asking if I was part of the show. Eventually, I just came in when the turn-off-your-cellphone-speech was happening. It didn't give anyone time to notice who I was."
Now he's part of the zany cast in SOMETHING ROTTEN, which had been running some time before Grisetti joined the cast. "I rehearsed with the associate director and the dance captain. If I was doing a group scene, there would be only one or two other people playing all the other parts while I was learning the show. I had two weeks to learn it all. At the end of those two weeks we did what's called a put-in rehearsal with the whole company, then I went into performance. All of this is pretty standard for a replacement cast." Interestingly enough, Grisetti felt that after those two week he was ready for a live audience, and after a few performances, he was able to gauge their reactions to his dialogue and physical comedy; he felt he was off and running, making the part his own.
As staged by Casey Nicholaw, SOMETHING ROTTEN moves at a whirlwind pace. Dialogue flies, actors run, sets slide, costumes change onstage and dancers twirl. With so much movement of stage, have there been any mishaps?
"Oh, absolutely," Grisetti remarks. "Mostly with the set, though. I've never done a show that has automated sets where there haven't been one or multiple breakdowns of the automation. In SOMETHING ROTTEN, we have several pieces that move independently of people. We've had a few nights when things went wrong: where the sets just stop moving or get stuck on something. We've never had to stop the show, but we did have to get creative with acting around set pieces that are in the wrong scene. I've been in other shows where everything comes to a complete stop. Luckily nothing like that has happened here."
Grisetti seems to be fearless when facing audiences, critics and recalcitrant stage machinery, but that's not the case when it comes to dentists. He has a greater than normal dread of them, and in one instance over medicated himself in preparation for a routine dentist's visit. That resulted in the actor having the experience that he chronicles in his compelling book, God in my Head. The volume details his experiences of having a face-to-face encounter with the Supreme Being. Of course the entire situation may very well have been a hallucination resulting from being so over medicated, and Grisetti is the first to admit that. However, so much of it runs parallel to traditional religious beliefs that it is certainly worth reading, and Grisetti proves to be a gifted storyteller in the process. What prompted him to set this down in book form?
"Someone gave me a copy of a similar kind of book. It was about a child who had a near-death experience and they gave it to me because they knew I had drifted from my Conservative Christian upbringing and they thought the book would be a gentle push back toward religion," he said. "They also knew that I was an analytical person who liked facts and evidence. They thought that that book would be a good 'proof' to offer me about Heaven and God. It had to be real, because this kid had experienced it, and his father wrote a book about it. I read it (Heaven is for Real, by Todd Burpo) and had the opposite reaction. I felt it was very non-objective. I just saw 'psychology' written all over it, but no one ever mentioned that in the actual text. It just didn't impress me the way my friends hoped it would."
"I figured that if Todd Burpo could write a book like that about his son's experiences, then why couldn't I write a book about mine?" Grisetti explains. "I had never thought to write down my experiences or give it to anyone else because I felt this whole thing was just for me. I wrote it for the sole purpose of offering a different perspective on these kinds of mystic experiences."
The actor continues, "It doesn't matter about the details of what I saw or what I was told in the vision. What's important is dissecting it and looking at it from all possible angles before making a decision about what you want to believe. I just think that it's a more practical way at looking at these sorts of stories, and I'd never seen a book that offered those sorts of options."
Much of Grisetti's book it written in great detail: the descriptions, the dialogue and the so-called revelations. Allowing for a certain degree of artistic license, it makes the reader wonder how vividly the author was able to recall his experience. Grisetti pauses a moment and says, "the only way to explain it is that when you have a really dramatic life event, whether it's a car crash, a divorce or the death of a loved one, your brain remembers all the details. You clearly recall every detail of those minutes and hours, which your brain would normally not catalogue. For me, this whole experience was so important--in the moment, and in all the years that followed--I remember a surprising amount of detail."
Grisetti hastens to add, "The other side is: if there really was a Deity involved, then there's a supernatural answer you can put on it. I was meant to remember it all, so I did."
Looking back on ancient mystics who have had visions of angels, Christ or the Virgin Mary, one finds that a goodly number of them entered some form of religious life after their encounters, yet Josh Grisetti is starring in a big, splashy Broadway musical and shows no signs of taking any vows of silence. Has this meeting with God changed him in any way?
"Well, at the time of the experience I was an agnostic," he recalls. "I call it a somewhat jaded sort of agnostic. I was bitterly agnostic and didn't WANT to believe in God. None of it made any sense to me. I remember telling my friends at the time that I believed in a 'chaos theory,' because I felt like the universe was spinning out of control--and randomly. Anything that happened in it really didn't matter. That's where I was before all this happened."
He continues, "The biggest thing that changed for me was that I walked away with a complete reversal of my feelings. I have a completely different view. Yes, I do believe in a Higher Power. I believe that the universe is AWARE and spinning toward something positive: not random and chaotic. That's a major shift for me." No, the whole situation hasn't turned Grisetti into a rabid church-goer, but he does have deep spiritual beliefs.
The book has caused quite a varied reaction from the reading public. "It's run the complete gamut," Grisetti says. "Some people write to me and tell me it makes their spiritual lives make sense for the first time. Others tell me they don't agree with all of it, but it makes them ask more questions than they were willing to ask before. Yet others have told me it's the work of Satan and I should burn every copy."
Regardless, God in my Head is a well-written book and contains ample doses of humor. Read it for yourself and make up your own mind about its veracity, then bring it to the St. James Theater when you see Something Rotten and have the author autograph it at the stage door after the show. Better still, get a few copies and give them as Christmas gifts. While you're at it, give them tickets to Something Rotten as well. The show is running through January 1st and it would make an excellent holiday treat.