Blunt best friends are a necessity when it comes to steering clear of problematic exes (who you may or may not still be hung up on), and Bryce Ryness does just that. Well, his character Gabe does, anyway. Ryness currently headlines in First Date, a hilarious new musical starring Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez, which more or less follows the trials and tribulations of dating in a primarily digital age. There’s Google stalking, ex-fiancés, overbearing family members and two unlikely people on a blind date that could quite possibly change their lives forever.
Ryness, formerly know for his role as Woof in the Tony Award-winning revival of Hair, can only be described as a comical genius in not only his portrayal of Gabe, Aaron’s snarky best bud, but also an edgy British guy (who has some raunchy history with Casey) and Gilberto (the Orthodox Jewish man).
During this candid interview Ryness delves into his love of music, his lack of “game” with the ladies and how luck landed him the perfect woman to spend the rest of his life with.
McKenzie Morrell: To start off, can you tell the readers a little bit about your background and how you got started on Broadway?
Bryce Ryness: Sure. I grew up in California and I always sang growing up, like in choirs in high school and stuff like that. And then when I went to college — I went to USC — I sang in an a capella group there and that led to a professional a capella group called Groove 66; I performed at Disney’s California Adventure. And then, about two and a half years after performing at California Adventure, Disney pulled the contract on the group and so I got involved in musical theater because it paid me the same. I pretty much learned on the job, acting and all that kind of stuff. [I] took classes, obviously, once I started working more, and just really fell in love with the art form – singing, and interpreting the song and stuff like that. Then my wife and I moved to New York in 2006, and I auditioned around, and did some regional stuff, and I finally made my Broadway debut in Legally Blonde in January of 2008. After Legally Blonde, I did Hair — the Hair revival of 2009. After Hair ended — rather when I left — I did a series of out of town tryouts with various speaking roles and one of those was Leap of Faith. [I] did the try-out in Los Angeles, and then I transferred back to Broadway, and that was very short-lived, and then back to auditioning, auditioning, auditioning, and doing some out of town stuff, developmental stuff like musicals. Then, First Date came around. I auditioned for it and I got the job and that’s how I have arrived to where I am today.
MM: That’s awesome. I’ve seen the show so and I can confidently say that I really enjoyed it. Now, what’s the best thing about working on First Date?
BR: I love the people. I think the most wonderful part about the experience for me has been every single person from our lead producers to our composer and book writer teams, all of the technicians, really every single person in the building is just wonderful and that’s been a real treat. I have not had a similar experience in the other Broadway shows that I’ve done. And I think that that joy that everyone in the building has about the show that we’re doing and the way that audiences are responding, it’s just such a great vibe in the theater and I think that for me that’s what makes this show so special is that it’s this communal experience where we just share joy and comedy every, single show.
MM: I definitely agree. Now, you play multiple characters in the show. Which one is the most fun to play and do you face challenges switching between them during the performance?
BR: Well, first and foremost, the most fun is the Gabe character, the best friend. Zac [Levi] is just an absolute treat to act opposite. He is a true comedian, a skilled comedic actor, so to be able to kind of toss the ball back and forth with him is like a master class every night about timing and delivery. He’s also a very humble actor, so he gives as much as he takes. It’s a wonderful working environment and experience working with him.
MM: So, now a hypothetical situation: What do you think Gabe and Allison’s interaction was like when Aaron and her were together? Have you concocted a story in your head to make your scenes with Kate Loprest and Zac Levi easier?
BR: Yeah, we kind of talked very, very briefly during the rehearsal process; I think it was like two or three sentences between Bill Berry, the director, myself, Kate Loprest and Zac. So, the kind of running idea with the dynamic in that relationship is that first, Gabe probably hit on Allison, and then Allison didn’t necessarily want anything to do with him, and chose Aaron, played by Zac. So there’s a beautiful, kind of silly, very understated love triangle that’s happening there, which helps enforce some of the scenes because it comes so quickly. And really we don’t have a lot of dialogue between the three of us. It’s a lot of quick zingers and get-in, get-out type scene work, so it’s rapid, but to have that underlying … pushes the scenes to go that one level farther.
MM: I totally agree with that. I picked up on that while I was watching it. Now, how does preparation differ from this role to roles you played in Hair or Legally Blonde?
BR: I think what is interesting about this show particularly is that by playing multiple characters — I played multiple characters in Legally Blonde, but they were more supporting characters — so with this one, the preparation is really just make sure that you’re committing to whatever the character’s objective is, then just kind of let the chips fall where they may. I feel like it’s up to the director and the costume designer to help inform the audience that this is a different character. The Gabe character is different than the Orthodox Jewish man, and through the cunning use of hats, we’re able to accomplish that, so I don’t necessarily need to overplay that I’m this Orthodox Jewish man. I can just put on a hat, and make a funny face and then move on. The preparation also for this show is pretty — I don’t necessarily need a big ramp-up to enter this world because it takes place today, and it takes place with a very common set of circumstances, and my whole life experience that happens in the 12 hours leading up to show can be incorporated into however I’m feeling a particular day; it’s not a period piece. So, I think more preparation is generally necessary with a period piece, where you have to think like, “OK, in Hair, what, the Internet hasn’t been invented yet.” You almost have to hypnotize yourself into remembering that this show takes place not today. But with First Date, preparation is pretty minimal because it takes place here, and it takes place now, and what is funny today is funny today.
MM: First Date is kind of a new breed of Broadway show, seeing as it runs 90 minutes without an intermission. What do you think the benefits and disadvantages are to running a show without breaks?
BR: I think, as we’re experiencing in our production, at this point, for the type of show this is and the story the show is telling, I think it’s all positive. The depth of this story merits 90 minutes worth of time, of the audience’s time. We can tell this story in 90 minutes. I think that there’s a little untapped gem that the writers and creative team have discovered in that — there’s this famous quote: “Brevity is the soul of wit” — and I think that to me as a theater-goer, there’s nothing more obnoxious than a show that just kind of blathers on and on and on in this pretentious, overly-melodramatic way. The show knows what it is. It’s a comedy, it’s fun, it’s tracking this date in real time, so if it went longer than 90 minutes, that’s a really long date. I think it knows what it is, and it knows we can tell this story in 90 minutes. Even more than that, during previews, it was chopped down even more so. I think it was 98 minutes or something like that. We lost a few lines here. We trimmed out a song that was fun but wasn’t necessarily working. And in doing so, we’re telling our story in a quick, concise way that allows the audience to have emotional access without it over-staying its welcome.
MM: I definitely think it’s the perfect portion.
BR: Yeah. Do I think every story should be 90 minutes? No, no, because I don’t think every story that needs to be told, needs to be told in 90 minutes. I mean, can you imagine if Gone With the Wind was told in 90 minutes? I would feel robbed of the experience. Or like, the Lord of the Rings. Can you imagine if they condensed the whole trilogy into 90 minutes? That would rob the audience from the experience of going through those trials with Frodo and so on and so forth. So, I think that with this story, the scope and scale of this story, its sweet spot is 90 minutes.
MM: I totally agree. Now, to get off topic a little bit, I saw that you were auctioning off a song written by you to benefit Operation Smile. Is that something that you’re going to come up with once the winner is chosen? How does that work? Is your band involved?
BR: The band is mostly just me in terms of content, and creating, and putting out content. Every once in a while, I’ll write with a few of the other guys in the band. But I’m the predominant songwriter in the band, so it’s not necessarily connected to my band, but inevitably, when we go to record it, it will be performed and recorded by the band. I love writing songs. I’m just a kind of singer-songwriter guy that writes in kind of more pop and kind of more — well actually way more — toward rock side. And it’s something that I started doing back in 2006, when I was out on tour with Rent, just as a way to stay creative in the midst of a long-running show where I’m saying someone else’s lines every night. It’s a fun way for me to maintain an autonomous and constantly changing creative environment as an artist and as a performing artist. That’s something that’s really important to me, to keep my soul fed and feel like I’m actually creating art, rather than … [replicating] art, which is like [what] a lot of long-running Broadway shows are.
Inevitably, what will happen, I’m assuming, is whoever bids and wins, we’ll sit down and talk and have like a little “Hey what’s going on in your life right now? What are things, what are relationships you’re excited about? Who are people that you like and admire and what kind of things get you really passionate?” Then, [we’ll] write a song based on that experience, and collaborate with them about what the story is that they want to tell, and what moment in their life they want to musicalize right at this moment. It’ll be a pop tune. It won’t be like the “Stars and the Moon” or anything like that. I’m really drawn to and passionate about capturing moments and then writing songs about them. For me, music is this kind of divine language where what can’t be expressed in words — you hear the opening words of “Where the Streets Have No Name” and you can fill an entire book with what that feeling is. Music just captures it. You don’t need to talk; you just need to listen to the music.
MM: Yeah, and I think a lot of people will enjoy that because this is something that has not necessarily been offered in this type of thing, and I think that the experience is going to be really exciting for many people.
BR: I’m also in a place in my songwriting too where I now feel competent enough as a writer that I can take on the challenge of writing for someone else and trying to capture their experience because I’ve written enough songs for myself now that I’m kind of like, “All right, I’m bored with myself now. Let’s write for someone else.”
MM: So, I think everyone is pretty much aware that you’re a happily married man, but in the spirit of first dates, we have to ask what was your cheesiest pickup line?
BR: My cheesiest pickup line? Like growing up?
MM: Yeah, like growing up or—
BR: McKenzie, I had no game. I had no game. I think it was something very literal like, “You want to get dinner sometime?” I just had no game. I was not fly; I was not smooth. I was very practical and very… lame.
MM: Well, obviously you did something right because you landed a good fish there.
BR: Oh, my gosh. I thank God every, single day. When I consider friends of mine who are single who are trying to find a mate or whatever, that I ended up with Meredith is divine orchestration.
MM: Someone was definitely in your corner. So now, we’ve come to learn that the stage door experience at First Date, pretty much culminates a great night at the theater. How has it been meeting fans? Have you got any weird requests or awkward moments? Are you overwhelmed?
BR: No, no. I’ve had a really enjoyable experience. Our stage door experience at Hair was pretty wild, too, just because I think people were really drawn to that show and because that dance party at the end. The barriers were broken because people were coming up on stage and dancing with us, and you could reach out and touch someone, and the distance and the exclusivity of “I’m an actor and I stand over here and audience members go stay over there” with Hair was totally removed by the end of the show. And for the stage door scene, therefore, was very friendly and everybody knows everyone and it was cool. The stage door scene at First Date is similar to that in everyone’s geeked up to be there, and I think also because the show is 90 minutes, people get out, the show starts at 7 and it’s done by like 8:30, 8:35 and people are like, “Oh, I don’t have to catch my bus until like 9:45, so I’ve got an hour, so I’ll get autographs.” It’s fun. So, I haven’t had any really awkward… I haven’t had any “Can you sign my body part?’ That hasn’t happened yet.
I think because the characters in Hair were a little more out there and we were the same characters through the whole show, I think people had a hard time differentiating between “Oh, that’s Bryce who plays Woof, but he’s not actually Woof, he’s an actor who portrays the character.” There were some bizarre interactions at the Hair stage door. But because of the multiple characters that we play at First Date, I think people are hip to the idea that “There’s Bryce. He’s a professional actor. He has a social security number, and he pays his taxes, and he’s getting on the subway just like you.” So we don’t get treated bizarrely or like rock stars or not like human beings at First Date, which is a wonderful relief every time we have stage door because I know I’m going to be treated like a human and a normal person who just did a really cool show that we enjoyed. So yeah, “I’ll sign your playbill and I’m glad you had a good time. That’s awesome. That’s so cool. Please come back and see it again. We love sharing this experience with you.”
MM: Now, has anyone famous come to see the show that you were really excited about?
BR: Let’s see. We’ve had some celebrities come in. Not for me personally. I know Sara Chase is like geeked up with every, single person that comes. I think that my tastes are probably different than most people. The woman who used to be the anchor on E! whose husband was on the Donald Trump show… The normal mainstream kind of reality show people I don’t necessarily get that geeked up about, but one of Zac’s friends is the lead singer of Foster the People, a band that I think is really cool. So, getting the opportunity to meet him was, “You’re a cool musician; I think you’re awesome and this is so fun.” He hit the stage door the same time I did, we walked around the same time and nobody necessarily recognized him because he’s a part of an indie rock band. My tastes are a bit weirder than the normal person.
MM: So we’ve got to ask: Do you have a favorite scene from the show? And that kind of goes hand-in-hand with whether you have a favorite song.
BR: I really like doing “That’s Why You Love Me,” just because it’s so fun in the midst of a pretty slap-sticky, slip on a banana peel-type musical, to play a really lewd character, but play it for comedy’s sake and to have a kind of rock star swagger. I don’t get a chance to do that very much, and so I just really always enjoy it. It’s wonderful working with Kristoffer Cusick. He’s such a great scene partner and partner in crime; I love and enjoy that sequence in the show.
MM: Yeah, that’s a good one. Kate Loprest says you guys call it “Bad Boy Song?”
MM: Here comes some random questions: If you could pick any TV show to guest star on, what would it be?
BR: Wow, that’s a good question. To guest star on, probably Modern Family.
MM: Nice, nice.
BR: I feel like their writing is so good.
MM: I know, they’re pretty good. You’d like to stay in the comedy arena?
BR: Well, at this point, they probably pay really well I mean, who are we kidding?
MM: Go big or go home.
BR: I know, I know.
MM: So what is your favorite date night activity?
BR: Favorite date night activity is going out to dinner and leaving the kids with the babysitter.
MM: What is one word to describe each of your costars?
BR: Oh, OK. Zachary Levi: pro. Krysta Rodriguez: if I had to find a word for her… she’s like… smooth. Sara Chase: quirky. Kate Loprest: bubbly. Kristoffer Cusick: fierce. Blake Hammond: genuine.
MM: And if you could choose between fighting in a zombie apocalypse or being abducted during an alien invasion, which would you choose?
BR: Zombie apocalypse.
FIRST DATE is now playing at the Longacre Theatre, 220W 48th Street, New York, New York.
To see Bryce Ryness and the rest of the cast, or for more information about the show (and to buy tickets) visit FirstDateTheMusical.com.