About the Author:
Since graduating from Boston Conservatory, Josh Grisetti has been a steady presence on the New York theater scene. His off-Broadway credits include Lotto, The Three Musketeers, After The Ball, Candida and Enter Laughing, which earned him a Theatre World Award. Among his regional roles are a turn as Prince Herbert in Spamalot in Las Vegas, as well as plum roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, How to Succeed, Lucky Guy, Camelot, Grease, Follies and Where’s Charley?, among many others. Now he’s taking on an iconic character, filmmaker Mark Cohen, in the off-Broadway revival of Rent. In a moving essay for Broadway.com, Grisetti shares the unlikely path that took him from his small town roots to the world of the theater, and how Rent’s message of love never ceases to amaze him.
I was a sophomore in high school when my Southern Baptist mother gave me a copy of the Rent cast album. I note that she was Southern Baptist so that you might understand that she clearly had no idea what Rent was about when she gave me the album. If she did, she never would have given it to me. From my mother’s perspective, and probably from mine at the time, Broadway musicals ranged comfortably between Anything Goes and The Phantom of the Opera. They were universally palatable, generally fun and certainly not offensive. And for her, this was progressive thinking! My grandmother (her mom) was much more conservative and frowned on almost all forms of theater. She thought any show with chorus girls was vulgar. She would note that even shows like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar denied the resurrection of Christ—further proof that the entire industry was suspiciously heathen.
This is the backdrop of little, geeky, 16-year-old Josh Grisetti listening to the Rent cast album in my rural Virginia hometown. I didn’t really know what AIDS was, I had no idea that gay men actually loved each other (I thought they just had sex), I had no idea that gay women existed at all. So naturally, the story of Rent had a profound effect on me. It was the beginning of my re-thinking everything I knew about vile homosexuals and hardened urbanites. It was, for lack of a better word, enlightening. Years later, I would actually understand how relevant my experience with Rent was. Why Rent won the Pulitzer and scads of other awards. Why it stands out in the theatrer history books as being one of the most relevant musicals of all time. It changed the expectation of what a Broadway musical could be, and what a musical was capable of. In shaping the lives of a new generation of theatrergoers (like myself), it changed the social fabric of the nation, perhaps even the world. In our profession, nothing can be more profound or more powerful than this.
And yet, this has all been somewhat forgotten by most of us in the shadow of time. There is a funny sort of stigma about the show now. Perhaps because of the double-edged “curse” of popularity and overexposure, most theater folk see it as a period piece about the early ’90s (save the eternally devoted “Rent Heads”). In fact, when the off-Broadway production offered me the role of Mark, my initial response was to turn it down. My agent wisely encouraged me to read the script and to think about it properly. So I did. I followed along with my original cast album (two scratched-up CDs I hadn’t listened to in over a decade) and there I was, in my Long Island City apartment, in 2012, in love with Rent all over again. But in an entirely different way.
Suddenly I realized how important these characters and their ideas are to me. I am one of them now. Their city is my city. Their ideals are my ideals. These things that seemed so foreign in my adolescence were now ringing with such familiarity and truth. To top it all off, the music was still brilliant and now had a delicious nostalgic flavor to boot. I told my agent to accept the offer, and I devoured the role of Mark (at least when he wasn’t devouring me).
Sadly, about a month after I joined the cast of Rent, my grandmother, who had such trepidations about the theater, lost her battle with cancer. The last thing she said to me before losing her ability to communicate was on a Saturday morning before a two-show day. She said: “You better eat now, because it takes a lot of energy to do two shows in one day.” This may seem mundane to you, but to me it was a sort of final validation from her that she wasn’t so opposed to my performing in the theater after all…because in the end, my Granny didn’t care about those risqué showgirls nearly as much as she cared about me. In other words, you might say she measured her life in love—above all other things. And because of that, she haunts me at New World Stages as Mark Cohen and the other characters of Rent struggle to discover how to measure their lives night after night.
To bring things full circle, you’ll be delighted to know that my sweet Southern Baptist mother who inadvertently introduced me to Rent saw the production about a month ago, and although she still may not condone all aspects of the “gay lifestyle,” she secretly confided to me that she supports marriage equality. She said: “These people love each other. Who are we to judge and say they aren’t allowed to do that?” So when people insinuate that Rent has lost its relevance, I wonder what utopia they think we’re living in. Audiences need Rent today just as they did 17 years ago, and just as they will 17 years from now. It’s still contributing to social change, shaping people’s hearts and minds. Being reminded to celebrate love—in all its forms—is never irrelevant, never passé, and never unnecessary. I’m proud to be telling this story every night.
Viva la vie Boheme.