In 2013, Actors Theatre of Louisville performed the Todd Almond-penned musical “Girlfriend,” which included songs from the 1991 Matthew Sweet album of the same name. There were a handful of dedicated Actors patrons and Matthew Sweet fans the first night or two of the show’s run, but within a few days, word spread about the inspiring, groundbreaking and breathtaking love story, causing tickets to sell like hotcakes.
It’s been six years since “Girlfriend” debuted in Louisville, and now, Pandora Productions is bringing it back to the stage starting Friday, March 8.
The story is set in a small Nebraska town in 1993 and has but two characters — Mike and Will. Both have just graduated from high school, and though they weren’t friends while there — Mike is a jock, Will is a nerd — they spend the summer getting to know each other as friends and, to Mike’s surprise and curiosity, something a little more.
As the love story unfolds, the soundtrack of the iconic “Girlfriend” album perfectly captures the ups and downs of a budding relationship.
And the fact that it’s a relationship between two men adds a whole other layer of complexity — from fear of being found out to fear of discovering who you truly are and all the passion, hate, acceptance, tolerance and intolerance that goes along with it.
For one Louisvillian in that audience in 2013, the play stirred up many feelings and rang true on so many levels, it ended up changing his life forever. That person is Remy Sisk — actor, writer, advocate and artistic director of Acting Against Cancer — and as fate would have it, Sisk will be playing the role of Mike in the Pandora production of “Girlfriend.”
Sisk was 21 when he first saw the play and recalls that night.
“I knew nothing about the show and was totally bowled over when I saw it,” he says. “Not only was it an absolutely beautiful, authentic and accessible love story, but it was all of that between two men. I was so deeply moved by the show that I began to confront my own sexuality, which I wasn’t hiding — I just hadn’t really considered it maybe as much as I should have.”
He was immediately drawn to the character of Mike, because at the start of the play, Mike believed he was one thing, and by the end, he had gone through a personal transformation.
“Mike never really thought he could be gay, so when that reality is sort of indirectly dangled in front of him, there are so many emotions: fear, trepidation, anxiety and then also excitement, wonder and teen giddiness,” explains Sisk.
“In that character,” he adds, “I saw so, so much of myself. His fear of being someone he didn’t think he was and others don’t expect him to be was something I felt at my core watching Curt Hansen act that role, and then seeing how his story progressed prompted me to come out myself while the show was still running.”
Sisk went back near the end of the run to catch “Girlfriend” one last time, and he saw the play through a new lens — that of acceptance.
“Just as (Mike) begins to accept himself as he was, I was doing the same thing,” he says. “It was one of the greatest metaphorical and literal sighs of relief I’ve ever experienced — again, not from revealing something that was hidden but from giving myself the permission to be who I am.”
So when Sisk heard Pandora was bringing the show back to Louisville this season, he had a flood of emotions. He knew he wanted to audition for the role of Mike, his dream role, but what if he didn’t get it? The play doesn’t come around often, and at 27, Sisk’s days of playing a teenager are nearing an end.
So he went for it, giving the audition his all, and left feeling like even if he didn’t get the part, he enjoyed reliving the words and songs for a brief 60 minutes.
Turns out Sisk did get the part, chosen by Pandora’s producing artistic director Michael J. Drury, among others, and the role of Will went to the actor Michael Detmer.
Drury, who will direct the show, tells Insider “Girlfriend” has been on his short list for the last several years, but it either wasn’t available or wasn’t a good fit for the rest of the season.
Like Sisk, he saw it first at Actors Theatre in 2013, and like most in the LGBTQ community, he fell in love with it, he says.
“The actors were amazing, the direction — musical direction and production — was stunning. I determined then that it had to be on the Pandora stage at some point,” explains Drury, who says the play might work even better on the smaller Henry Clay stage.
“The show is so sweet and simple really that I think audiences will enjoy the immediacy of our space. The farthest away anyone will be from the actors is eight rows. That’s up close and personal.”
Sisk has enjoyed working with Drury on the production and has learned a tremendous amount so far.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever feel the same amount of gratitude to a producer or director as I do for Michael for trusting me with this role,” says Sisk. “He knew what the show meant to me and gave me the chance of a lifetime to play Mike. And it has been everything I ever could have hoped for.”
Even in rehearsals, the chemistry and magic of the play are on point, according to Sisk, who has been friends with Detmer before this play. He also relives that crucial moment in 2013 every time he sings the lyrics to some of the songs — one in particular.
“Early in the show, I sing the song ‘Winona,’ which features the refrain of I’m alone in the world — it is such a difficult moment for me on stage, because the lyrics of that song were exactly what I felt when I saw ‘Girlfriend’ the first time,” says Sisk. “I wasn’t sure who I was, but I knew I wasn’t the whole version of myself. When I sing that song, I feel like I am Mike, because I was Mike.”
He believes what makes “Girlfriend” so appealing is its depiction of young love — something most everyone can relate to no matter what side of the rainbow they fall on.
“It’s simple, it’s sweet, it’s true and it’s real,” says Sisk. “It is such an honest portrait of first love that I think anyone can relate to the emotions one or both of these characters are dealing with over the course of the show and consequently really feel for these guys, because at its core, it is just an ineffably beautiful, accessible love story and one so very genuine that it truly is irresistible.”
Drury agrees with the universal appeal of “Girlfriend.”
“Everyone has fallen in love for the first time. We recognize ourselves in these boys,” he says. “The humor arises frequently in our recognition of our own awkwardness on our first date or our first kiss or the excitement and terror the first time we became more intimate. I am moved by my own memories of that time in my life, and I think everyone who sees it will be as well.”
“Girlfriend” runs March 8-23 at the Henry Clay Theatre, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $20 in advance or $22 at the door.