In the musical comedy, OPENING NIGHT, Topher Grace plays Nick, who at one point was an up-and-coming Broadway star, but after his musical closed after one night, he turned his back on the stage and became a production manager of a musical appropriately titled, One Hit Wonderland. Produced by Grace, directed by music video auteur and first-time filmmaker Isaac Rentz and written by Gerry De Leon and Greg Lisi, Opening Night follows Nick, his relationship with the eccentric cast and crew of the musical, his struggle to get over his ex Chloe (Alona Tal) and his love-hate relationship with the theater world.
Grace, who is best known for his role in the wildly popular That ’70s Show, isn’t a stranger to the theater world. He landed his first theater role in an Off Broadway play titled Lonely I’m Not written by Paul Weitz, who Grace worked with in In Good Company. He admits that starring in a play wasn’t a dream of his, but Weitz coerced him to do it and in the end, he was glad he did.
“I wound up having such an amazing time working with Paul and thought he was such a great writer,” says Grace. “A lot of actors have a phase where they are able to do a lot of theater. I skipped all that, so this was a new discovery for me at 24 — or however old I was when I was doing it. Then I thought, ‘Oh man, the drama.’ It’s so live and great on stage, but then there’s all this drama backstage. It’s live. This isn’t like film where you shoot with someone for one day, then they go home. Everyone’s together, and it was such a crazy, great, energetic experience. Opening Night is not what my experience was like, but it kind of feels like that.”
Grace ended up working with Rentz on a music video and thought it would be a good idea to work together and with his personal experience in the theater world and Rentz’s knack for visuals, they eventually created Opening Night, which premiered at the L.A. Film Festival (read the review here). We had a the opportunity to speak with Grace about what went into making the film, jukebox musicals and his love for ensemble comedies.
Where did the premise of the One Hit Wonderland musical come from?
The writers deserve a lot of credit. Me and Isaac were part of developing it, but they did a terrific job with the script. Isaac came up with some great ideas. He came up with the one hit wonder concept, which would actually be a thing on Broadway. I guess we had just seen Rock of Ages and the only theme that connects the songs is that they were all from the ’80s. We thought we would have the celebrity star, like Constantine from American Idol, — the guy who was in Rock of Ages at the time. When we read the script, we thought that there’s so many delicious character roles. For me, my favorite thing to do is be in an ensemble. Whether it’s drama or comedy, it’s my favorite thing. You form some great team or something.
Speaking of the cast, it includes a very eclectic mix of comedy, theater and dramatic actors. When you and Isaac were developing the film, did you have a wishlist of actors that you wanted?
We got a lot of our first choices. Taye has been in every musical, from Rent to Chicago to Wicked — and he’s in every film adaptation of a musical. He’s so charismatic and great. I think another person we went to is Rob Riggle. If you had read the script, you would have said, “Oh man, that should be Rob Riggle. Who else could it be?!” It was great. Everyone wanted to come play. I’d never had more fun than making this film.
How was it like to work with J.C. Chasez?
He hadn’t been in a lot of movies, so he was already kind of nervous, then to be playing some version of yourself. When we got in the recording studio, he was in charge. He’s the guy, because he knew what to do.
To be honest, I don’t just love ensemble comedies. I love all ensemble films. I remember the first film I did ever was an ensemble. It was Traffic. That was a very different tone, but you have the same feeling that you have in a comedy like this. Then there’s something like Cast Away — that movie is my nightmare. There’s no one to kick the ball to, you know what I mean? When you’re in something like this, there’s that great run in the middle where I have a thing with Taye and Taye has a thing with Leslie, then I have a thing with J.C., and he starts singing.
You mentioned that you starred in an Off Broadway play but are you a big musical theater fan?
In terms of the development, I was the person in charge of being an ambassador for people who don’t like musicals. That ran concurrent with my character. I never understand why people start singing randomly — even when we were on set. It’s always really awkward for me. I appreciate all the great musicals, but there’s always a moment when someone starts singing at the beginning of a musical where you kind of cringe and say, “Well this isn’t what happens in real life.” (laughs)
Is there a soundtrack of Opening Night? Because everyone would die for a soundtrack of one-hit wonders.
I hope so, man. We’ll see how it does. Isaac went for broke to get some of those songs — like that Bad Touch mashup with I Know What Boys Like? What I love is that the movie is not a musical when it begins, and it is a full blown musical at the end. That is kind of my character’s journey, which is the same thing that’s lame about singing is the thing that’s great about singing. You know what I mean? I remember being at high school dances just going, “I don’t want to dance” — another spoiler alert, I wasn’t that popular in high school. When you’re the only guy who’s like, “What’s the point of dancing?” If you don’t understand, then you don’t understand. I think the same is true of these musicals. If you don’t embrace it, then you can’t feel the love. I love what it says in that perspective.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer