By RAVEN SNOOK
Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
Though much of the buzz about the new musical First Date has centered on the Broadway debut of TV star Zachary Levi, there's another small-screen player marking a career milestone of sorts. Krysta Rodriguez, best known for her stint as scorned actress Ana Vargas on the second season of Smash, has almost a decade of NYC stage work under her belt. However, her performance as Casey, a jaded and jokey New Yorker who reluctantly goes on a blind date, marks only the second time the California-born triple threat has originated a role on Broadway, and it's her first bona fide lead.
Not that she's griping. Rodriguez credits her many years as a swing as helping to hone her versatility. "I've gotten to do a lot of stuff," she says. "Especially my Broadway debut in Good Vibrations: I was just 19, and I understudied nine roles, two of which were principals. I was always sort of playing these parts without any rehearsal." After covering or replacing others in A Chorus Line, Spring Awakening and In the Heights, Rodriguez finally originated her first character on the Great White Way in 2010: love-struck proto-goth teen Wednesday in The Addams Family.
But her journey with First Date has been quite different. "With Addams Family, I did the workshops and the out-of-town tryouts before we came to New York," she explains. "First Date came out of nowhere---I didn't have years to settle into the part," which, in a way, harkens back to her swing days.
"I was on a trip in California when I got an email about auditioning," Rodriguez remembers. "I thought, how is this show going to Broadway? I've never even heard of it. But then I started reading the character description for Casey and I was like, 'Is this role really as perfect for me as it sounds?'"
Rodriguez likes that Casey has all the idiosyncratic traits of a character part but is the main role. "I know what it's like to be the second choice or the sister or the sidekick," she says. "And there's a part of me that loves that niche since they're usually funny and flawed. My character in First Date is like that, only she's the romantic lead. She doesn't just come on and say a snarky comment every once in a while and then disappear."
While Rodriguez says that she's a much more heart-on-her-sleeve type of person than Casey, she understands where the character is coming from. "We all know people who use humor as a defense mechanism but underneath they're vulnerable. Casey tries to build up walls, but she wants to let people in. You go on a journey with her and you see her start to crack."
Like Levi, everyone on the First Date creative team is a Broadway neophyte: book writer Austin Winsberg, songwriters Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, and director Bill Berry (though he is the producing director of Seattle 5th Avenue Theatre, where First Date premiered in 2012). But Rodriguez thinks that in some ways, their greenness works to the show's advantage. "The writing is noticeably different from other musicals I've been involved with," she says. "It's quick and cinematic. Austin comes from a TV background, and it's written a bit like a comedy that just sort of stops for the songs, which are for the most part happening in our heads."
Television, coincidentally, played a big part in Rodriguez being cast in First Date. Winsberg knew Smash showrunner Joshua Safran since they had both worked on Gossip Girl together. So after Rodriguez auditioned, guess who Winsberg contacted? "Austin texted Josh and they had dinner and talked about me," she says, laughing. "There was this triangle going on with the three of us, and I didn't even know it." Safran had nothing but good things to say about Rodriguez, and his endorsement helped her land the job. "I auditioned on Monday and got the part on Wednesday," she says. "It's the fastest I've ever gotten a part. It's a cool follow-up to playing a musical theatre actor on TV. I feel like I'm doing a sitcom on Broadway in a weird way."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Joan Marcus