“Well-seasoned and rare,” clever words sung during Blake Hammond‘s solo number in First Date, the new musical playing at the Longacre Theatre in New York City, rings true when it comes to his performance. Hammond owns the stage as a waiter, who orders up a plate of love for himself, while offering whimsical advice to the show’s main characters Aaron (Zachary Levi) and Casey (Krysta Rodriguez). The two meet at a chic bar for a blind date and quickly realize that they don’t have much in common. Told in real-time, you’re front and center to all the relationship dos and don’ts of dating in 2013.
Hammond, who is no stranger to the stage, held roles in productions such as Elf, Sister Act, Hairspray and The Lion King, among many others, chatted with me about his big break on Broadway, what alcoholic beverage he would be, and what he would do if he won a million dollars. Sit back, relax and enjoy a behind the scenes look at this 90-minute laugh fest!
McKenzie Morrell: Why do you think that people have really taken a liking to this show? And what gives it that hit factor?
Blake Hammond: Well, first of all, I think people like it because it’s really funny. So few scripts come out today that just make you laugh, and this one makes you laugh. It’s very very funny, but at the same time I think that everybody related to it because we’ve all been on dates like that, you know? Or more people go on dates where it’s a little nerve-wracking and you don’t know what’s going on and how to behave and you’re not quite yourself. I think of couples enjoying the evening will be like, “We did that” or “Remember that time….” It’s funny that people from [age] 14 to people in their 80s seem to be loving it, so it’s kind of amazing.
MM: It truly is! So, let’s get back to the basics for a quick second: when did you get your first big break on Broadway and what was that experience like?
BH: I lived in Chicago, Ill. for most of my 20s and did theater there. I’m a character actor. And I kind of realized specifically that I was too young for the New York scene because I wasn’t old enough to play the parts that I was right for. And so I was in Chicago for a long time. And then, I ended up doing the national company of Joseph with Donny Osmond for about two and a half years out of Chicago. I got cast out of Chicago and it gave me the chance to sort of save my money and come to New York and give it a shot. And I was here for not too long, and I got my first off-Broadway show, which was When Pigs Fly, and the casting director from the public theater saw me in that show and brought me in for On The Town. And that was like my first broadway show. And it sort of blossomed from there. It’s been a great, fun ride! I’ve been able to do Broadway and quite a few national tours.
MM: You have a very impressive Broadway résumé. I mean, you’ve been in shows such as Sister Act, Hairspray, Billy Elliot and just so much more. Are there any major differences working on First Date compared to all of the other shows you’ve been in?
BH: Absolutely. First of all, it’s very rare to do a musical with seven people. Usually, like Hairspray, Billy Elliott, Sister Act, Lion King are gigantic casts; you’ve got 35 to 40 people in those casts, and so this is nice to go to work and there’s just seven of us. We’re all very featured; we’re all very utilized. So many shows have people who don’t really say anything and they’re important in the ensemble but their purpose is to be the understudy and that’s it. That’s a big difference. Plus, I think this is the most — dare I say — modern of the shows I’ve been in. In the sense that it’s really something of today and it’s not based on a film. It’s not based on a book. It’s just someone’s idea of, “Wouldn’t this be fun a show about a first date?” And then they wrote it, which is very unusual in today’s market. Almost everything is based on something.
MM: You play four characters in the show. Do you have a favorite one to play? And are any of them more challenging to tackle than the others?
BH: Well, obviously, the one I like to play is the waiter, probably because he’s the bigger of the roles but he actually has a nice line in the show. He sort of facilitates helping them get together throughout the evening. There’s a point in the evening where they’re about to go home and the waiter has this really fun number that comes out of nowhere and sort of brings them back together that forces them to see each other again and go, “OK. Let’s just have dinner.” It’s really a fun song, so I enjoy that role the best.
MM: If you had to pick one character excluding your own, which one would be your favorite and why?
BH: The character that tickles me the most, that makes me giggle the most, is Gabe, who is the lead character’s best friend. He’s played by Bryce [Ryness] and he’s kind of a know-it-all guy who doesn’t know anything and he just makes me wanna giggle. He has some great lines.
MM: If you had to describe each of your castmates in one word, what would they be?
BH: Oh, wow, OK. That’s tough, McKenzie. I’m gonna say, Zac [Levi] is very driven. Krysta [Rodriguez]: spunky. Sara Chase: complicated. Kristoffer Cusick: sexy. [Laughs.] Bryce Ryness: hilarious. And Kate Loprest: stunning.
MM: Some great descriptions there! Now, do you have a favorite song off of the cast album?
BH: For some reason, I love the opening song “The One.” I think that’s a fun song. It just sticks in my head. So, I love “The One.” And I also enjoy listening to … Krysta has a beautiful ballad called “Safer” and that’s a great song.
MM: Doing so many performances a week must be tiring. Do you have any hobbies that keep you grounded and relaxed when you have your days off from the show?
BH: Well, I try to relax a lot. I know that sounds kind of strange, but we’re doing eight shows a week and the energy level is so high and you’re using a lot. There’s a lot of adrenaline in what we do, and you have to get up, get your body ready like it’s a ball game or something. Stretching, and warming up and getting your body ready. So, I kind of relax. I like to read. And I love films, but I live outside of Manhattan, so I have a nice, huge yard with lots of trees and plants. That really sort of sustains me in a way that I can’t honestly describe. It’s so different than living around the asphalt. I need the trees. I like the plants. It sort of calms me. [Laughs.]
MM: How has your experience been meeting the fans at the stage door? Has it been overwhelming?
BH: It’s pretty exciting that so many people stay after every show to meet us. I think that a lot of us can thank Zac and Krysta for that. They have huge followings from TV. But also, I’m always amazed, and sort of touched, when I meet people at the stage door that want me to sign things that they’ve brought from home that are other things I’ve been in, or photos that they have of me from another time that they want me to sign. They actually thought about bringing this with them. It sort of always floors me. And you know as much as I love the fans and enjoy people going to the show, that isn’t why I do it. That isn’t why I got into this business. It’s certainly a good byproduct, but I just love going to work.
MM: If you had to choose a musical to be the soundtrack to your life, what would it be?
BH: The soundtrack to my life? Oh, well, I’m going to choose Hairspray for a number of reasons. It’s one of my favorite shows of all time. It’s so well written. The music is so much fun. But it’s also about people that are different embracing their differences and being able to let that not stop them from doing whatever they want in the world. It also has songs about difference races and difference sizes of people and all of them embracing who they are, so I love that idea.
MM: If you couldn’t act, what would you do?
BH: I probably would have done something with music. I love music, so I think I would have had to have that in my life — being in some kind of choral capacity as a choral leader or something like that. That’s what I would have done. I think I would have had to have music in my life somehow. [Laughs.] I’ve been doing this for about 30 years now, in musical theater, and I have to say what a joy it is to go to work every day and hear live music and musicians every day of your life.
MM: You have just won a million dollars, what is the first thing that you would buy?
BH: The first thing that I would buy is, I would pay off of my house. As an actor, it would be wonderful to not have to worry about ever having to pay rent again. [Laughs.]
MM: So what is your favorite date night movie?
BH: My favorite date night movie — I love 50 First Dates with Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler.
MM: What’s the last Broadway show you saw?
BH: The last one I saw was Pippin.
MM: Online dating, love it or hate it?
BH: That’s a tough one. I’m going to go ahead and say love it because I think it’s a great tool to have. Kind of a double-edged sword.
MM: If you were an alcoholic beverage, what would you be?
BH: Absolutely a vodka martini with a twist.
MM: What is your go-to bail out line if a date is going badly?
BH: “I have to get up early tomorrow. I have an audition.”
MM: Why should people go see First Date?
BH: I’m going to say this plain and simply: it’s because you’re going to have a great time. I really think that’s why people should go. It’s relatable. It’s today. With everything that’s going on in the world today, it’s so nice to go to a place for an hour and a half and just laugh. I think you will do that. You’ll go away just laughing and saying, “Man, I had fun tonight.”
FIRST DATE is now playing at the Longacre Theatre, 220W 48th Street, New York, New York.
To see Blake Hammond and the rest of the cast, or for more information about the show (and to buy tickets) visit FirstDateTheMusical.com.