Interview: Alex Joseph Grayson Goes From Ellen’s Stardust to Into the Woods and Parade
When you’re a featured player in a musical, one showstopper for your character is a lot. Two showstoppers are practically unheard of. And when you’re originating your first Broadway role, and planning a wedding at the same time, you get a sense of Alex Joseph Grayson’s wild ride of a spring 2023.
Grayson is no rookie, though. The role of Jim Conley — star witness and political pawn of the Leo Frank murder trial in Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade — may be his first full-time character, but he’s understudied in Into the Woods, Girl From the North Country, and A Bronx Tale, and toured in Once on This Island, the show that introduced him to his now-wife, Miki Abraham of Shucked. He brings down the house nightly with two of Brown’s finest numbers, “That’s What He Said” and “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.”
Not bad for a guy who got his theater start so late that he was already in college to become an aeronautical engineer, and was working at Ellen’s Stardust Diner to make ends meet when he got to go Into the Woods. Here, Grayson details his amazing journey.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What’s harder: opening a Broadway show or executing a wedding amid opening a Broadway show?
I think the one where I have to be myself, the wedding.
How did it go?
It was perfect. There were so many things that were out of our control that went well. The weather was perfect. Everybody showed up that was supposed to show up. My wife was beautiful. I was a tear-filled mess for most of the ceremony.
At least you were able to concentrate on the wedding since your shows were already open!
I’m excited now that the show is the only thing on my plate because I’m able to ask more questions and dig into the possibilities. The show is frozen, but there are always those things that are not fully colored in. I’m finding that I’m watching scenes that I’m not even in, which is great for an actor in terms of staying in the moment and staying present to the people around you. It’s elevating the work that I’m doing.
You’ve been part of two big revivals this season; alongside Parade, which you did at City Center, you joined Into the Woods for its Broadway run. What has the year been like for you?
It’s a very privileged place to be and I was not seeking it out. It’s funny; I was unemployed and had to start making some ends meet. I was in a few readings, and got involved in a five-week workshop, which was a gift, and then I started working at Ellen’s Stardust Diner for the first time ever. I was there for a month and then Into the Woods popped up. That show was tough.
It was my third time being an understudy on Broadway. I didn’t know the show at all, and Sondheim is out of my wheelhouse. The learning curve was challenging, as somebody who has to be responsible for four different roles. But it was great. You get to a certain point where the whole show is in your bones, and I got to watch all these people that I admired for so long just do their thing. It was a real gift.
How does the difficulty of the material you had in Into the Woods compare to the work you’re doing in Parade? The hardness is sort of following you.
It is following me. But the thing is, it’s all good music, and when you get through the first pieces of the puzzle, it all clicks into place. They’re written intelligently, so that singers and actors can navigate it.
Parade is one of those shows that is formative for a lot of young musical-theater fans. Is that true of you too?
No. I was not a musical-theater kid at all. I did my first musical in 2009, which was Jesus Christ Superstar, at this community theater that I connected with through the church I went to. I played the guitar and sang at church, and I was referred to the theater because they needed guys who could sing. I did three other shows with that company, but I started college as an aeronautical engineering major. I dropped out of that and I didn’t really know what I was going to do, so I went to trade school and became a nurse’s aide and an EMT, but never rode the ambulance. I just wanted options, and the nursing home thing had less trauma. I stuck with that and started community college, and while I was there, I took an acting class and that was literally it. That was my major.
What was the Ellen’s Stardust Diner experience like?
I love it there. It’s a place that I always feel so good about going back to. They’ve really figured out, first and foremost, how to make money, and on top of that, they provide a great experience for the patrons so they feel like it’s worth tipping and worth paying the gratuity that’s automatically added on all of your meals.
My first professional theater job was on the Disney Cruise Line, and there are a lot of similarities between that operation and the Ellen’s Stardust operation. If you go to one of the restaurants on the ship, it’s very engaging. The dinner feels like performance, and everybody is super talented. Some of the best singers I’ve ever heard are working at Ellen’s. And you make a lot of money as a singing server, because you’re getting tipped for meals, but then you’re also getting tipped for your performances.
How do you get into the mindset to do what you do in Parade every night?
What makes it kind of easy for me is that the story itself is not about me. Within the story, I am a messenger, and within the trial, I’m sort of like a pawn that’s being used for a greater purpose. I don’t have such emotional heavy lifting because I am not at the center of this case. It’s nice that I can step in at different times in my story and allow things to affect me based on the moment. Separating myself afterwards is really the main challenge, so one of the things I do is brush my teeth after the show, which makes me feel like I’m cleaning the muck of the story off me. And also making sure that I’m physically and vocally warm, because these are hard songs. They’re like being in the slam-dunk contest.
We’re a month into the run now, so it’s getting to the point where it’s now in my body. Also, I’m not doing this alone. I worked with my vocal coach on these songs. I go back to my Meisner teacher and use the techniques I’ve been taught to make things feel simpler every time I go onstage. At the end of the day, with all that preparation, it feels like I’m never doing anything alone. I have the support, and I’m having a great time. This whole thing is a real gift.