"I look back at it now… I had never…"
Over the phone, Josh Grisetti pauses and laughs, looking for words — it was one of those laughs where you shake your head and think to yourself, "This kind of stuff only happens in the movies." He was on his way to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where he makes his Broadway debut in It Shoulda Been You. But, he was reminiscing about a time five-and-a-half years back, in his twenties, when he was to debut as the star of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound.
However, that show closed 17 days before its first preview.
How could that even be possible? Neil Simon's Broadway Bound was to run in repertory with Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Nederlander Theatre, but when Brighton Beach opened to weak ticket sales, Broadway Bound was halted before it even began. Both shows closed Nov. 1, 2009. And, Grisetti — only part of the Broadway Bound cast — never made it to the Great White Way. "When I got that phone call, the disbelief of it — I literally fell down to my knees and just wept, in sheer shock and utter mourning for the loss of what was a dream coming true that was cut out right from underneath me," he openly admits. "It was devastating. It really was. And, I had romanticized it and put so much — I don't know what you call it — sentimentality behind it about everything that it meant for me to be starring in a play on Broadway as my Broadway debut, and then to have it all taken away… It was a shock to my system and to my soul."
Not only had the show's marquee gone up and the Playbill been printed, the actor was in tech for Broadway Bound. He was less than three weeks from his first performance on Broadway, and all the work — with a cast including Laurie Metcalf, Santino Fontana and Jessica Hecht — was near completion.
Most of the cast doubled in Brighton Beach Memoirs, so aside from actor Allan Miller (previously seen on Broadway in Romulus, Have I Got a Girl For You! and Brooklyn Boy), Grisetti was the only cast member with the double bill to not grace the stage.
"There's only one thing that would be worse — and I've gone over this in my head many times, so I can say it," he shares. "The only thing that would be worse is if Broadway Bound would have continued just fine and become a big hit, but they had replaced me like two weeks before we opened because I was doing a bad job. That would have been worse! But that's the only scenario that I think could be worse than getting that close to your Broadway debut and then having it not happen. But it makes me feel like I've definitely been through the fire and come out a much stronger person."
Grisetti says that it took a good six months of mourning, thinking and soul searching before he could get back to pounding the pavement.
"When I was in school, you would hear people give master classes a lot and say this old expression about theatre, which is, 'If you can do anything else, you should go do it.'"
So, he began to think about his options — what else he could do and how far away from New York could he get — before realizing, "Okay, these things happen, and I happened to be caught in the crosshairs." He says, "That was just bad timing, and it's not a reflection of what is ultimately normal in the business. Most shows, even flops, last longer than say…tech rehearsals!"
Plus, he admits that, growing up, he was "terrible at everything else." Sports and smarts were out of the question as a child, but when he saw his sister perform in community theatre, things clicked.
"It was a need for attention," he says, "and a need to fit in somewhere and to do something where people actually said, 'Hey, you're not bad at that!,' which is something I had not heard in any other place in my life, so that's where it started."
So, Grisetti got his head back into the game. Although he's faced some of the same struggles in the world of television (his ABC series "The Knights of Prosperity" was canceled midway through its first season), he continued to work in the business. He starred as Mark Cohen in the Off-Broadway revival of Rent at New World Stages and joined the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher for its Off-Broadway return, among other projects.
"Because I've been around in the theatre community for a decade now, for whatever reason, [It Shoulda Been You] doesn't feel like a Broadway debut as much as it feels like it's just me working again," he says. "It's hard to explain. I had a friend, who just graduated college last spring, and she just went into Les Miz as a replacement, and I could see this sort of youthful excitement…for just coming right out of the gate and achieving this childhood dream of being on Broadway… As I watched it, that was actually a little sad for me because I was like, 'I don't get to have that!' My story and my journey just took a completely different path, so I never got to have that really sentimental, overly romantic version of a Broadway debut. Instead, I got the hard-actors path to get to it, if that makes sense. And, it's still unique and really fulfilling and rewarding in its own way; it's just completely different."
In the new Broadway wedding comedy It Shoulda Been You, Grisetti plays Marty Kaufman, the bride's ex-boyfriend who crashes the wedding. His first performance was last week on March 17, but he feels that his Broadway journey won't be complete until he hits his April 14 opening night.
"Although we've opened for previews now, and I can say, 'Yeah, I've been on Broadway now,' I feel like it's still not official till opening night," says Grisetti. "Until April 14, I'm still not quite counting the chickens before the eggs have hatched. I would say the biggest thing I'm looking forward to is the sigh of relief on April 14, when I can say, 'Yes, I have opened on Broadway.'"
Attending his opening night will be his mother, father, aunt, uncle, wife, two close friends and his agents.
His advice to other actors who have experienced similar highs and lows: "Be prepared to persevere and to not compare yourself to the people around you because there are going to be people who book a Broadway show right out of college, and then there are going to be people who will struggle for 15 years before booking anything that makes them money in the business. Just know that you could fall anywhere in that spectrum, and it doesn't have anything to do with your talent necessarily. So much of it is about timing — talent and timing — so if you go into it with that expectation, I think you're going to set yourself up for a more relaxing ride." Looking back on his false start, he says, "It really deepened my resolve for doing what I set out to do when I was young, which was become an actor. And, it really solidified that if I could make it through that experience and still want to remain in this business pursuing this dream, there's nothing else that could possibly stop me. I've seen the worst of it.
"I hate to get so heady about it, but [performing is] a little existential because you're discovering things about yourself through every role you play… There aren't many more profound things in life than figuring out who you are, so if theatre is a way that I can do that — and kind of the only way I have found to do that so far — I don't think that it's any wonder that I'm addicted to it and at a place where I can't really leave it. It would take a very profound thing to get me to leave at this point."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)