Frankie Grande, the older brother of pop princess Ariana Grande, has had quite the career in theater. From acting in musicals like Rock of Ages and Mamma Mia to producing shows like Hamlet and La Bête, the 34-year-old entertainer is a seasoned professional in the industry.
Now, Grande is performing in Cruel Intentions, an off-Broadway adaptation of the 1999 film, with a cavalcade of hit ‘90s songs like “Genie in a Bottle” and “No Scrubs” making up the show’s score. In the show, Grande plays Blaine, an out gay high schooler who helps his friend Sebastian seduce their headmaster’s pious daughter.
The actor said that playing the role has felt almost therapeutic, since he gets to relive his high school experience as though he were out of the closet. “When I was listening to all of these songs that are in the show, I was closeted and I was dating girls,” he said. “So, as Blaine, I decided to say, ‘If I was completely out in high school, what would it look like?'”
Grande talked to Billboard the day after his opening night performance about Cruel Intentions, the growing trend of movies being adapted into Broadway musicals and his favorite songs from the ‘90s.
How’s your day been going?
It’s just begun! I opened last night, so I didn’t go to bed until like 4, and now I’m here!
Yeah, I saw! How did your opening night go?
It was fantastic! It was so great, I had so many people that came and supported me. People from all walks of my life that I hadn’t seen in a while. There was a girl from E.L.F. Cosmetics (I just did a thing there), my producers from Style Code Live, my Mamma Mia family and just more friends from everywhere. It was really neat to have them all come together, just in general, regardless of the show. It was just cool to see everybody. There were fans there as well, really sweet people.
A lot of people have come, actually, and have been really excited and really positive toward the project. I love that so much. And a lot of people that have never seen Broadway will come just because they liked me on X, Y or Z, and now they see this show. Almost every show that I’ve been in has been a jukebox musical of fun-ness. So like, if you don’t know Broadway at all, you can still think it’s the greatest thing when you leave. You’re like, “What? This is amazing, how does this exist?”
Tell me a little bit about the role that you’re playing, Blaine.
The role is a baby role in the movie. Tiny. He has two scenes. It’s much larger in the show, so I really got to spread my wings and fly, kind of do my own take on the character, which was really nice. As a replacement, sometimes you’re asked to do what the previous person was doing, and in my case, I was told, “Make Blaine your own.” And I did, and it’s great!
I was in the closet in high school, so when I was listening to all of these songs that are in the show, I was dating girls. So, as Blaine, I decided to say, “If I was completely out in high school, what would it look like?” And so, it’s almost like therapy in a way! I’m using the role as therapy. But it’s so cool and fun to be able to find all of these amazing moments, to find and draw from personal experience, but to also stay true to the show that I’m in and the character.
What attracted you to this role and to this particular show?
Emma Hunton. [laughs] I’m not kidding! My best friend, Emma Hunton did the role of Cecile in L.A., and she and I were doing my “one-man show” together — which has many people in it — in Telluride for Gay Ski Week. And she left a few days early to go do Cruel Intentions. And the day she left, I got the phone call saying, “Hey, do you want to go do Cruel Intentions?” And I was like, “Emma and I have never done a show together. Yes, I wanna be in it.” Also, when I saw it in L.A., I loved it. I loved the show. I didn’t remember specifics about the show, other than the fact that I left saying “That was fantastic.” So I was like, “Please let me do it!”
Like you said, this is not your first stint in the New York theater scene. How does Cruel Intentions compare to shows like Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages?
I just came from L.A. doing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Rockwell, and I was playing Frank-N-Furter. And it’s very immersive, in the same way that this show is immersive. So I would say that Mamma Mia didn’t necessarily prepare me for this; Rock of Ages kind of did, and then Rocky Horror really did. There’s a lot of audience participation in Rock of Ages and Rocky Horror. So in this, I’ve taken it to this new level.
Last night, for example, I couldn’t find the phone that I’m supposed to go out on stage with, so I grabbed a cell phone off of a woman’s table. I used it in the scene, and then I walked back and returned it to her, all completely in character. That kind of stuff is what I love so much. I love breaking the fourth wall, and being given permission to play with the audience! It’s so fun. My agent came, and I was handing out flyers at the end of the show, like the scene from the movie. And I came so close to him that he actually screamed.
This show is part of a big trend of movies becoming musicals. Shows like Mean Girls, Frozen and The Band’s Visit are all Broadway shows based on films. Why do you think this is really catching on with audiences?
Broadway is trying to be smart. It’s difficult to market and promote a new show that no one has heard of with a not unique title. So when you see Mean Girls, it’s like half of the job is done, because the movie was such a hit! If you can adapt a widely successful movie that has been seen by millions of people, you can fill an 1,100-seat theater every night. That’s the thought process. I did produce on Broadway for a little while, so I still have my little producer cap on with that. [laughs]
But then you have things like The Band’s Visit, which is also based on a movie, but not a widely successful movie at all. But it’s so beautiful that The New York Times raves about it, and then everyone goes to see it. Those kinds of shows, though, are very rare. So this show is part of a very smart trend I think. And also, I am all for bringing theater to people who would not necessarily go to see theater. If you have never seen a Broadway show, and your first show was The Band’s Visit, you would walk out and be like, “What just happened?” Whereas, with something like this, you’d be like, “This is amazing, I want more!”
As you mentioned, this show is a jukebox musical of songs from the ’90s. What are your favorite ’90s songs?
Well, I get to sing “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, and it is genuinely one of my favorite songs. I have such a distinct memory of this song. My best friend Laurie Schnidman and I, in high school, would [do] full choreography to this song while driving. I remember it from so many years ago! So like, it’s totally a staple from my life. Counting Crows was another huge part of my growing up. Like, I learned how to harmonize with the August and Everything After album. I would be singing with Adam Duritz, like a third above on “Rain King,” and that’s how I learned to sing harmonies.
We are missing some Madonna in this show, unfortunately. But Madge is, you know, the queen of all things. “Ray of Light” changed my life. The whole album, but that song specifically, was just so life-changing and incredible for me. And then she went from zero to nine Grammys in one album! Good girl! Jewel was another one for me; I love her music so much, and I think she was communicating to me before I understood what was happening with me. I didn’t know why I was connecting to her music, and now being older and looking back, I’m like, “Oh, sweetie, you were singing my story!” Like I didn’t know why I loved “Foolish Games,” but now I get it.