Joshua Grosso with company in Les Mis

Les Mis tour brings CMU grad Joshua Grosso back to Pittsburgh

Fri, Nov 22, 2019

Written by: Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; lead photo of Joshua Grosso as Marius by Matthew Murphy

After more than two years on tour with Les Misérables, Joshua Grosso is not always sure where he’s been, but this week, he knows for sure where he’s headed: back to Pittsburgh.

Theater fans were introduced to the 2016 Carnegie Mellon graduate back in 2012, when he was on a Broadway stage, with TV cameras rolling, as he won the best actor Jimmy Award. That year’s Jimmys — the national honors for excellence in high school musical theater — wound up as the PBS documentary Broadway or Bust.

Grosso was representing the Broadway Star of the Future Awards in Tampa, Fla., at the Jimmys, but instead of Broadway, his next stop was four years of study in Pittsburgh, plus starring roles as Usnavi in Pittsburgh CLO’s In the Heights and Front Porch Theatricals’ Light in the Piazza — he sang "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" in Italian to wow the Jimmys judges, then did the same for Pittsburgh audiences in Light.

Grosso’s longest-running role, however, is as Marius, a young romantic who joins the French student uprising of 1832 and falls in love with the ward of escaped prisoner 24601 — Victor Hugo’s famous bread thief, Jean Valjean.

The 25th anniversary Les Mis tour includes new staging and reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Les Misérables author Victor Hugo. The New York Times calls this Les Mis tour an unquestionably spectacular production,” and The London Times dubbed the show “a five star hit.”

Helping to make that happen is Grosso, who had never seen Les Misérables onstage — he had seen the Hugh Jackman movie — when he auditioned.

Two years later, he hasn’t counted how many cities he has visited as Marius.

“I have no idea where I’ve been, how many states I’ve been in,” he said in a November 20 phone conversation. “It’s funny, because Monday, our travel day, we were on a bus and somebody asked me, ‘Where’d you guys just come from?’ And we had just left East Lansing [Mich.] like two hours before, and I really didn’t remember. The rest of the bus shouted it out to me.”

He was speaking from Columbus, Ohio, the stop before spending a week at the Benedum Center, eight shows November 26 - December 1.

Grosso does recall one particular night, midway through his first year on tour, very clearly.

“I fractured my foot on the barricade,” he said. “When Gavroche is just about to go over the wall, my feet gave out from under me, and I twisted my foot and put all my weight on it, and had a hairline fracture. I tried walking on it, and it was pretty painful. I had to chuckle to myself — it was five days before my birthday, we were in Detroit — and I was thinking, ‘This cannot be happening!’

There were 30 minutes left, and of course, the show must go on. At that point, Marius is pretty banged up anyway, so the sight of him leaning on a cane seemed natural to the audience. There have been other mishaps, one much funnier than this, but we’ll save that for last. Here’s more of my wide-ranging conversation with Joshua Grosso.

Question: First of all, what is on your list of Pittsburgh things to do?

Answer: “I have to visit the old watering holes and hopefully go back to school to see what’s changed and what hasn’t. I have to go to Pamela’s diner, revisit Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. A couple of buddies of mine, we used to go to Burgatory at the Waterfront. I’m trying to find time to do all that stuff.

Q: Is it hard to be out and about when you’re on tour?

A: “For the first few months — the first year — it was a challenge because it was my first professional job. You add a show like Les Mis, when you’re onstage for three hours, and on top of that, you travel … I was terrified. I was so scared. So our first few cities were Providence, Hartford and Chicago, and I don’t even know what those cities look like because I was so terrified of breathing in any other air, or even speaking outside of the show.

“Those first few months, I was pretty much a hermit. But now, after a couple of years, you just get used to it. So I can afford myself a day to go out and look at things.”

Q: From the Jimmys, we’ve seen actors go straight into productions, such as Tony nominee Eva Noblezada in Miss Saigon and Andrew Barth Feldman in Dear Evan Hansen. Did it ever occur to you to get an agent and stay in New York, or were you always going to go to college?

A: “I was never in a rush. I’m still never really in a rush. I knew, personally, I wasn’t ready. I was not about to treat a however-million-dollar production — as wonderful as that would have been — to first learn and apply the basics of acting. I think it’s a beautiful thing and it’s really cool that those awards have become an avenue to move ahead and shine through … but at the same time, I never fault anybody for wanting an education, in whatever that would be. “Even now, on the days when I can’t rely on raw emotion -- [for example, when] I’m recovering from bronchitis, and my head hurts, and I have a pain in my hip — it’s hard to click into whatever headspace you are supposed to be in as a character, so from there, that’s when you apply technique, and you learn technique through studies.

“As valuable as it is to have real-life experience and as valuable as those opportunities are, especially in this occupation, I’d say it’s equally valuable just to learn. And the moment you stop learning, is truly the moment where you have plateaued.

“Long story short, I was never in a rush.”

Q: How significant was it for you to have opportunities with companies near CMU, such as Pittsburgh CLO and Front Porch Theatricals?

A: “I love those two projects. It’s funny in a way. I didn’t do more because I was so scared. I never even really thought about doing any regional stuff while I was in school. But then part of me was just like, ‘If this is what you’re going to end up doing, at least go and have an audition.’ I was so nervous, and I had all these [doubtful] voices in my head, but I went to the Front Porch audition, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences I had in my early career. And I love the show, which is why I went to audition for it. And with PCLO, I didn’t want to audition because, to be honest, I never wanted to be rejected and then go to school. I was OK where I was. A lot of it was fear. But then the opportunity rolled around and I had to tell myself, ‘All right. Let’s do it.’ And luckily, both were really fun audition processes. I haven’t done much, but of the things I have done, those have been super, super valuable to me.”

Joshua Grosso, left, as Fabrizio Naccarelli and Lindsay Bayer as Clara Johnson in Front Porch Theatricals production of The Light in the Piazza.

 

Joshua Grosso, left, as Fabrizio Naccarelli and Lindsay Bayer as Clara Johnson in Front Porch Theatricals production of The Light in the Piazza. (Martha Smith/Front Porch Theatricals)

 

Q: Any stories to share about those Pittsburgh shows …

A: In terms of Front Porch, it was my introduction to [the late Leon Zionts] and [director] Stephen Santa, who I adore. A lot of my other classmates had done previous productions from there, so I heard it was a very reputable place — which is partly why I was so nervous.

“When I went in, what I didn’t tell them was, I had done the show in high school. So when they said, ‘Wow, you’re really comfortable with the Italian,’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it just comes naturally to me.’

“With PCLO, there was a whole bunch of people from the Jimmys who were familiar with me from the Jimmys, like Van Kaplan and Kiesha [Lalama]. So I come in to the audition room, there’s Van and it had been four years — from me being a kid, to being a little older kid. But that was like a deja vu moment.

“The funniest experience was when I finally learned I got the part in In the Heights. I didn’t know who my Vanessa was. So, I also was auditioning for Hamilton at that point [as one does], at a dance call. And then right before the dance call, I get word that Stephanie Klemons is my Vanessa. Well, it turned out, I was being auditioned for Hamilton by Stephanie, so it was kind of a whole bunch of emotions — it was very weird.”

Q: So fast-forward to Les Misérables. Marius seems to me to be in your wheelhouse …

A: “Yeah, my baby face.”

Q: What was the audition process like?

A: I knew it was one of the biggest musicals in the world, so I was pleasantly surprised when I actually was able to use my degree for more than three minutes there. For 10 minutes, 15 minutes, we were just working and acting and talking about the song [‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’]. It was a fun experience, so I was already thankful for that, no matter the outcome.

“You know, I had never seen the show, so I went in with a fresh mind. … I tackled it as, ‘Empty Chairs’ is just him singing about his dead friends, and not like, this is Marius in Les Mis singing about the revolution. … In this case, I think my ignorance calmed my anxiety and fears.”

Q: Did any of the tour veterans give you any advice?

A: Someone told me to pack everything that you would basically need, now take half of that stuff away. You’d be surprised, but you never have enough room. And yeah, that was so right. One of the biggest people was, and he just led by example, was our Valjean, Nick Cartell. I would just watch him, and others, but I never went up asked anything. I’m not really that type of person, I’m someone who observes and then tries to adapt and do the right thing. But everybody here was supportive from the get-go.

Q: Because it’s such a big show, with turntables and a big cast, any onstage mishaps to report?

A: Oh, all the time! The one that I tell the most is, during the wedding sequence, I’m supposed to just cross downstage to Cosette. The lights are on us, we’re in our wedding outfits, I cross downstage, I turn, I take off her veil, and there’s this look of horror on her face. And it turns out, for the first two minutes of the number, my flap is down. We don’t have zippers, we have these big flaps that you have to button, because if you don’t, it will hang down and it’s like a presentation — of you in your underwear.

“So yeah, we have mishaps all the time. And if anyone asks, we just say, ‘Oh we changed the blocking on that one. Yes. Yes we did.’"

Les Mis plays at the Benedum Center through November 26-December 1.

Sharon Eberson is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette theater critic. Follow her on the Post-Gazette website and on Twitter at @SEberson_pg.

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