Frankie J. Grande is having trouble remembering the name of the female protagonist in Cruel Intentions. "I'm actually bleaching myself blond as we're doing this interview," he confesses. "So my ability to think is literally being sucked into the bleach."
The name he's looking for is Kathryn Merteuil, but Grande is quicker to recall the name of Lauren Zakrin, the actor playing Kathryn in Cruel Intentions: The Musical, the off-Broadway guilty pleasure at (le) Poisson Rouge. It tells the story Kathryn and her step-brother, Sebastian, two rich sociopaths intent on ruining the lives of others in pursuit of a bet. The show features some of the biggest pop hits of the late '90s, to the delight of the mostly millennial audience. Grande has stepped into the role of Blaine Tuttle for the show's final weeks (it closes April 8).
Brother of one of the most famous pop stars on earth, Grande juggles a busy career as an actor, producer, and social media maven. He gave us the inside scoop about his unique take on his character, his love of Jewel, and his dreams for an Ariana Grande musical on Broadway.
So how has the process of jumping into Cruel Intentions been?
It's been great, but crazy. I had a put-in rehearsal 10 days before I actually went on. I had two days of rehearsal, then I had a put-in, then I had a week of watching the show. Then I went to New Orleans and flew back Sunday morning to go straight into a two-show day. It was so insane.
Have you ever done anything like that?
Never. Honestly, I didn't think I could do it — but I did. I'm in the show now and I survived. I was asleep like an hour after I bowed.
You're playing Blaine, who is a gay teenager. That was an edgy character to have in a movie in 1999. As a young gay man, did Blaine leave an impression on you?
Not really. Maybe I was just too much in the closet to understand what I was watching. He's also only in two scenes in the movie. And he isn't as flamboyant and free as I have become as an adult gay male. I wasn't out in high school. In my interpretation of Blaine, he's very out and proud and free and loving his gay life and living it to the fullest. It's like I'm getting to rewrite my high school experience, but out of the closet, which is really cool.
One of the things I could never figure out about Blaine is why he would want to help Sebastian blackmail Greg, the closeted guy he's sleeping with. What do you think drives him to be so cruel?
In my interpretation, Blaine just wants to be Kathryn. And the reason why he's helping Sebastian is to get close to Kathryn. Since he's in so little of the film, I get to absolutely create my own narrative and interpretation of the character. It's nothing like what Alex Boniello, who I replaced, was doing. It's completely my own.
You get to sing all of these fun songs by the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, but is there a number in the show you wish you got to sing?
"Foolish Games" is my favorite song in the whole show. I'm obsessed with Jewel. I wish I was the one up there belting and crying.
What do you love about Jewel's music?
Jewel and I are friends now. And I speak to her about this often, because I didn't discover her until "Intuition," her pop song. And that's what brought me into her music. I went back and discovered all of her folk. When I started listening to those songs, and the way she put her struggle into music, I just fell in love.
Is there something special about the pop music of the late '90s?
It's very much the soundtrack of our generation. I can't imagine what a jukebox musical of today's music would be like. Obviously, I'm excited for the Ariana Grande musical. I can't wait to be in it.
What would it be called?
Would you be playing yourself?
I would have to play myself. No one else would be allowed to play me.
You wouldn't want to play Ariana?
I mean, I do look like her when I'm in drag, I must say. I'm a beautiful, beautiful woman. I actually really look like my mother. The Grande eyes are very strong. You can spot us a mile away.
Cruel Intentions closes April 8. What's next what's after this?
I'm doing the AIDS/LifeCycle, which is a charity bike ride benefiting the LGBT Center in LA. The route goes from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which is about 545 miles. I've been training really hard for that. I've done several days of 30- to 40-mile bike rides, but this will be 40 to 90 miles several days in a row. You know, we dancers are like machines. When we are in our peak form, we're unchallengeable. The fact that I will be raising money for such a great organization will be fueling me on that bike.