Our First Date with Krysta Rodriguez
Updated: Mar 10
Krysta Rodriguez stars in the new Broadway musical “First Date.”
Our First Date with
by Jay S. Jacobs
It's something we've all experienced: the awkward fix-up. Two people who don't know each other making uncomfortable small talk, trying to get to know each other, just because someone felt they might be a good fit.
They say that the best art comes from the simplest places. The new Broadway musical First Date takes the audience on one of these blind dates, giving us a hysterical look at romance in the age of Google search and other social mores.
Aaron is an uptight business exec who is still smarting from an extremely bad breakup of a long-term relationship. Casey is a serial first dater who has become so jaded to being set up with the wrong guy that she tends to go in assuming it won't work out, therefore she may as well have a little fun toying with the dude. The musical takes a comical look at all the hazards of modern courtship: friends, family, food choices, cell phones, religion, bail-out calls, exes, gay friends, the "just friends" speech and the internet outing all of your biggest secrets.
Aaron is the Broadway debut of TV star Zachary Levi of Chuck fame. Casey is played by Krysta Rodriguez, who spent the last year in the role of Ana on the second season of NBC's Broadway-centric drama Smash.
However, Rodriguez doesn't just play a Broadway diva on TV. She has been living the role for years, playing roles in such acclaimed musicals as Spring Awakening, In the Heights and The Boyfriend. She is best known for her 2010 Broadway run as Wednesday Addams in the musical The Addams Family, a part which won her a Broadway.com Audience Award for Favorite Breakthrough Performance.
A couple of weeks after First Date premiered on Broadway, Rodriguez took the time to sit and discuss her latest play and her career.
I almost interviewed you last year. NBC wanted me to talk to you about Smash, but at the time I hadn't seen your character at all. By the time I got to know you, unfortunately it was not getting pushed as hard.
Yes. It's all about the timing. (laughs)
What was it about First Date that intrigued you?
Having come off of Smash, I wasn't sure whether I was going to try to do more television or do more theater. I was sort of letting things come. To be honest, it was going to take a lot to get me back to eight shows a week, because I had gotten comfortable with the television schedule. I was just looking at projects. Other Broadway shows had come along. I was looking at TV stuff. This one came across my desk unassumingly. I had never heard of it. It was already coming to Broadway, which was strange, because I didn't know anything about it. I wasn't really thinking about it that much. Then I read it.
Within the first two pages I thought this was something different. I've read a lot of scripts for musicals. I've been in a lot of musicals. It turns out, I think the thing that is really different about it is that it was written by a television writer. I really gravitated towards that. It was the combination of both of my worlds at the moment. After reading it, I thought it was really funny. I really related to the character, even though she's nothing like me in a lot of ways. I related to her struggle for finding the one. I thought this is actually really cute and it could be really amazing. Auditioned for it and fell in love with the creative team. Then they gave me the part. So it all worked out.
Having an awkward first date is such a universal experience, are you surprised it took so long to do a show that completely revolves around it?
Yeah, I am. It is such a simple concept. That's the thing that people come away believing. It's just a simple thing. We take one theme and ride it out for 90 minutes. It's very cinematic in that way and not as much musical, but I think that we make it work in a really interesting way. I had a friend come see the show. He sat in the audience and he was, "I wonder where they are going to go? Are we going to track their whole relationship?" He goes, "No, it's called First Date. Oh my God, we're not leaving this restaurant. How are they going to do that?" (laughs) I think that's a thing for people, too. We just stay at the same place. We literally just take you on a date and see where it goes.
The play is Zachary Levi's first Broadway production. What has he been like to work with?
Oh, he's amazing. He's so wonderful. They took a gamble that we would have chemistry. I had done some chemistry auditions with some other actors. But then they offered it to him. He and I talked about it – whether he should do it or not. He decided to do it, but in the nick of time, it was about two weeks before we started rehearsals. There was really no opportunity to know if he and I were going to work right together. They started rehearsals, just the two of us, a few days before the rest of the cast came in. To let us have our shot at it first. Within the first five minutes, we were like: "Oh, this is great." This is more than anyone could ask for as far as chemistry and the things that are important to us about the work. Our work ethic is very similar. We both just rolled up our sleeves and dug into the script and had a blast making these characters ours. Now we spend all of our time together. (laughs) It's very lucky that we get along as well as we do.
Your character was sort of a serial first dater. Have you had any really bad first dates that helped you get into her mindset?
You know, this is always the question that people ask, because, obviously, it's the theme of the show. I really don't have any terrible first dates, because I don't really go on first dates. If I were going to go on a date with someone, it's because I've known them for a while and I've vetted them a little bit. Made sure they're not going to be a disaster. I certainly can see how it can go so awry. I've never done the Match.com scene, but I assume that this date is based on what you would find if you were just walking into an unknown situation. Trying to navigate all the awkwardness. I don't really have those experiences, which I'm grateful for. I tell you, if I had to go through what Casey is going through, I don't know if I would survive. I'm not as strong as she is.
As pointed out in the show, modern romance has so many new added complications, bail-out calls, Google searches, etc. Do you find it amazing that anyone really finds romance these days?
Yes. I mean one of the opening lines of our show in the song is "It's a miracle two people get together." How? With all of the stuff that's getting in the way, all of the stuff that's seemingly helping us and giving us so many more options. I think that's the problem with modern relationships these days. You don't live in a small town where there's four people and you pick one of them and you live there your whole life. You literally have the world at your fingertips. Trying to get somebody to pick the one person and settle down with them has become the greatest challenge of our generation, I think. (laughs)
Casey is obviously a lot more worldly than Aaron is. Do you think that makes him more or less interesting to her?
It's more interesting to her in a way that is not positive. She sees the weakness and preys on it immediately. Because she enjoys messing with people. She enjoys being in control. She sees any sign that she can manipulate and sabotage this date, because that's what she does, her defense mechanism. She relishes it. What's great is that about 60 minutes in, she has to stop doing that, because he keeps passing all the tests. She has to kind of: Okay, I've stuck it out long enough with this guy and he's taken all of my bait and thrown it back at me. Now what?
Do you think in the long run that Casey and Aaron have a shot at anything long term?
(laughs) We didn't collectively decide on it. I have a joke that... you've seen the show?
Yes, I did.
Okay. Publication-wise, I don't know if this is a good idea, but I always have this joke that at the end of the show, Grandma Ida comes back and is like, "She's still not Jewish!" (laughs) That one thing hasn't quite changed. Maybe I'll change my mind about structured stability and maybe he'll become a little less uptight, but we're still going to have to have two officiants at our wedding. (laughs again) I always think about that. So, I don't know. I think in a modern society where religion is less of a dividing factor, they could probably make it work. But it's still an unresolved issue, in my mind.
When you were growing up, what was the first musical that you saw and thought: Wow, that's what I want to do with my life?
Oh, Annie. Yeah. It was Annie. I was five. My mom took me to see it. We were in the second row. I was just aghast at what was happening. (laughs) I couldn't believe that there was a girl sort of my age singing with a dog. It just seemed like the perfect life. Then I got into musicals. A few years later I saw Phantom of the Opera, which was a huge moment. We had a CD player in our car. Nobody had a CD player in their car at that time. The only CD we had was Phantom of the Opera. Still, to this day, every time I smell a new car smell I think of Phantom of the Opera. That's how I was introduced to it. (laughs again)
My mom and I used to play the CD over and over and over again. Try to sing the high notes and hold out the long Michael Crawford note. Which was so random because my parents really had no interest in theater at all. Neither of them are really musical or creative in that way. They are both office job workers. It was just a very surprising thing that my mom even wanted to introduce me to that, and that I latched onto it so wholeheartedly. It really wasn't until I was about twelve that I realized that it was a career. I was like, Oh, my God, don't get in my way.
Who were some of the actors who also inspired you?
I had a trip to New York when I was like thirteen. We were there for eight days. We saw eight shows. That was the pivotal trip where I realized what it was that I'd be doing. It all solidified as a career situation. The first show that I saw was The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I loved. It was so fun and so different to me, who had grown up with Beauty and the Beast and all that. And here the Beast is – Terrence Mann – onstage in Scarlet Pimpernel. I met him afterwards and we took a picture. What was really interesting to me, and this is different I think than most people, is that he was such an idol to me. He signed autographs. He took pictures. Then he turned the corner and nobody cared. I thought: That's what I want to do. The work is important and not the person. Yes, the person is important, but it's not a celebrity status thing. This is what they actually do for a living. I really responded to that. What's great about that story is that fifteen years later, Terrence and I were both in Addams Family together. So I got to work with him.
Also I saw Bebe Neuwirth in Chicago that trip and got a picture with her, too, then ended up working with her in Addams Family musical as well. So that was a seminal experience. That trip also I went and saw Miss Saigon. The woman that played Kim, I asked her a question and she ended up talking with me. We ended up talking for 20 minutes outside the stage door. She was like, "I have to meet my friends, but I want to keep talking with you. Want to walk with me?" I was like, okay! So we walked down the street and she told me about stuff and gave me advice and everything.
I thought these people are so great. These actors are real. They are down to earth. They want to give back. They are not ego based. Of course, I know a little bit more now (laughs) but back then it just felt like your children's theater, but on a bigger scale. That's what really drew me to it. Really, the personal experiences with actors was what made me want to do it, even more than the performance aspect of it. Although I did really love Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie. I saw Susan Egan in Cabaret and it blew my mind. Those performances were also a big deal to me, but those personal connections were what made me want to join the community, which is even a bigger part of being on Broadway.
As you just mentioned your breakout was playing Wednesday in The Addams Family. How did that role come about?
I got the role the same way I get a lot of things in my career. (chuckles) By not getting it the first time. I had auditioned for the workshop of it and had gone through rigorous auditions. Our directors were very experimental. They were very different than the way you would think for a big blockbuster musical. Put me through a lot of intense auditions. Singing six different songs. They were like, "Sing something funny." I was looking through my book and I said, "Well, I have 'Leaving on a Jet Plane,' but that's not funny." The director said, "Yeah it is. Come out here and sing it like you've just killed your lover and you're still holding the bloody knife and you are in love with his dead corpse." (laughs) So, I'm like, okay! Just rolling with it. You just sort of go. He also didn't want me to blink the whole time. He thought it would be interesting to see how long Wednesday couldn't blink. Those sorts of things you don't usually find those in an audition.
I went through the ringer and then found out that I didn't get it. They wanted me to be in the ensemble. I did the ensemble at the workshop and learned the show. Figured out what it all was. A few months later they auditioned again. I went through another six auditions and chemistry tests and all of that stuff. They finally gave it to me for the two-week workshop. The two-week workshop was essentially my two-week audition because they were deciding who they wanted to play the part. By the end of that, they offered me the Chicago run and the Broadway run. That was really exciting, to know that it wasn't a fluke. I really put the work in for that. It was great.
I spent a lot of my career before that understudying. So it was really nice and kind of freeing to have a part that wasn't going away at the end of the week. That I could cut my teeth and fail if necessary. I'm sort of a type-A perfectionist in a lot of ways. When you play a part as many times as I played Wednesday, you have to let that go. Because some days, it's just not going to be as good as other days. (laughs again) Some days your voice is tired and you're not going to hit that note as well. Some days the audience is not going to be as responsive. You just have to throw it up at the wall and see what happens. It's sort of freeing and sort of terrifying at the same time. But knowing that no one is taking it away from you, that you get more than three shots, is a much more relaxing experience.
It's interesting, because while they are very different kinds of shows, The Addams Family and First Date share a strong comic streak. Do you enjoy working in comedy?
Oh, yeah. Yes. I really do. It wasn't something that came to me... I wouldn't say later in life... but early in my career, where I was wanting to play the ingénues, because that's what you see when you grow up. The Disney princesses and all of that. Then I was in a kid's theater auditioning for Cinderella. Of course I wanted to be Cinderella and out of nowhere, really, the director cast me as a stepsister. I thought, that's weird. (laughs) You know, you're sort of insulted in a way a little bit. Like, really? I'm the ugly stepsister? Okay. All right. Let's go with this. See where you're going with this. But I really owe a lot to him, because he saw something in me that he thought I could be funny.
I remember not being really sure what to do. Then having a day where we all just try it on and play around with stuff and fail and just having the best time. I thought I'm a character actress. This was the first time this had really dawned on me. I should be really thinking about that. Those roles are so much more fun. It just clicked for me in that way. That was early. I was probably fifteen, sixteen, still doing shows in my hometown. When I moved to New York, I had to convince everybody else too. Which is what I always tell people who ask for advice. Look at who you are. Just be you. Sometimes they want that. Sometimes they don't. There is nothing else. You just have to show them what you do best and then let the chips fall where they may.
I was really lucky to understand that was what I wanted to do and that's where I wanted to go early on. So as much as people tried to put me into the ingénue thing, it didn't work. (laughs) I had to wait for the role to be written, which was Wednesday. To get that chance to show where I lie comedically and vocally and all that. Once that happened, it opened up doors for other things. I think my role on Smash was very much where I fit: kind of sidekick-y, kind of sassy. What's great about First Date is that the sidekick is the lead. Normally you have some really beautiful, very unflawed ingénue playing the lead (laughs again) and then some sassy girl that jumps in every once in a while. To their credit, they allowed a very flawed and very complicated character to carry the whole show and trusted that the audience would get on board with her. And I think they do.
How did that role in Smash come about? And what was it like to make the leap from stage to television?
It was insane. It should never be this uncomplicated. Like I told you, my life is normally very like: I don't get it. Then I try again. I get back in. I don't get this, but I get this other thing that is better for me. But this thing was like, no way. I was living in LA. I was auditioning for a lot of TV stuff. I was testing for pilots like crazy. I was really in that zone. Then I ended up having to move back to New York for a personal reason. I quickly had to move back to New York and I got there and maybe a month later I got the part in script match. I thought okay, it says actual series regular. Everyone else of my friends were playing three-line roles because there are so many actors in New York that can do this show. I'm thinking it's kind of a long shot.
I walk in and Josh Safran, who is the new show runner, says, "Hey, I wrote your episode of Gossip Girl." Which was like six years ago. (laughs) I was on an episode of Gossip Girl. I was like: Oh my God, that's so creepy. Because, you know, you don't really know the writers when you get a guest spot. I believe actually he was probably even living in LA, so you just don't even see them. I thought, well, that's great. I said thanks for writing my make out scene, because I got to make out with Chace Crawford. (laughs harder) He was like, "No problem." We talked about that for a little bit and as I was setting up my music he said, "You know, I know you from Joe Iconis." He's a musical theater writer who I do a lot of concerts with. He ended up writing a lot of songs for Smash. He wrote "Broadway, Here I Come" on Smash, which was the over-arching theme of Hit List (a fictional musical within the series). And "Goodbye Song," which was another we did on the show.
[Safran] says, "Yeah, I've seen you." It was like: Why does a TV guy know anything about me? As far as theater. I really appreciated Josh because he really knew the world. We had a great conversation about that. I had an audition. I walked away and I thought, well, I'm probably not going to get it, but at least the show runner of Smash knows who I am. Three days later they called and offered it to me. It was my only audition. It was fourth of July morning, nobody was working, I woke up that morning and thought: okay, well, my mortgage is due. That's a good thought to think. Before I even opened my eyes, I rolled over and there were twelve missed calls from my agent. (chuckles) I thought this could either be really good or really bad. I thought maybe they want me to test. Maybe I'll fly out to LA and meet all the producers for Smash. They were like, "No, they're just going to give it to you. You start work on Monday."
It was equally thrilling and nerve-wracking, because normally for me you've gone through so many auditions that you know that you've proven yourself. But I thought: Do they really want [me]? Do they really know? Do they know what they are getting themselves into with me? (laughs hard) Did I really show them enough that they made that much of a decision this quickly? Are they going to change their minds? I don't even know what's happening. I'd never been on television before in this capacity. They really took a gamble on me and Andy [Mientus, who played Kyle]. We were new and I think that was the goal. It was really fun for us.
While Smash was obviously very Broadway-centric, doing a TV show is a very different beast than working on stage. What do you like best about each format?
I really do like both formats. There are pros and cons to each of them. You get the weekends off on television. (laughs) That's like the biggest pro. On Broadway you work much harder on the weekends. You get one day off. I love the idea of putting my character through different situations, which you don't really get to do on Broadway. I love the idea of testing them. You put them under the fire and see how they react.
The role of Ana had some big changes over the season.
She did. She did.
She went from supportive roommate to possible competition to big star of the production to being passed over for something that had nothing to do with you.
Were you getting whiplash towards the end of the season?
Yes! Yes, very much so. As much as Ana was surprised, Krysta was also surprised. (chuckles) Things were not mapped out to us. We just got the scripts and saw what happened. Things changed, too. We were told some things sometimes and things were changed as people gave their feedback or whatnot. We also shot most of the season before we premiered. We were on our 15th episode out of 17 by the time the premiere happened. So the whiplash really came then. Once we got feedback and went, "Okay, wrapping everything up..." And it was like, oh, okay. (laughs) We don't know where we're going.
Another fun thing about it was you performed much of the show within the show. Was it fun to do the Hit List things?
And do you think it could have made it off-Broadway?
You know, I don't know. Only because it was so huge. We'd kind of joke about it. How would anybody be able to do these costume changes and use my big aerial number? How would that work? It can. If you've seen Pippin, they are doing it over there. I think it could work. It could be great. I think actually doing it would be a disservice. People are always asking me at the stage door, "They should do Hit List: The Musical." Everyone has seen fragments of a musical that they have already written in their head. There is no way we could write one that would please everybody. I think it exists perfectly as it is.
But, like I mentioned, Joe Iconis is one of my greatest friends and somebody that I think is one of the most talented musical theater writers that we have, who hasn't actually had a produced Broadway musical. To be able to sing his songs... I sang "Broadway, Here I Come" at a concert four years ago before I moved to LA. Then four years later I was on a TV show singing it. It was very emotional for me. So performing Hit List was really cool.
The numbers that I got to do on Hit List as the Diva were amazing. I always joke around that I ended up with them because I'm the only one stupid enough to get in that harness. (laughs) Just like: "No one else was going to do that." "Yeah, right! Let's put the new girl up there." So I've gotten to do a lot of cool stuff. I got a lot of beautiful footage. My parents had the time of their lives hosting Smash parties. It just did exactly what it was supposed to do. It was very fun.
I was disappointed that NBC just seemed to throw in the towel on Smash so early into the season. Were you surprised that after the big push they made at the beginning of the season that they didn't keep promoting it and dumped it on Saturday night?