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BWW Interview: Simon Lipkin Talks FIRST DATE: THE MUSICAL at Crazy Coqs

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The actor discusses this specially filmed, virtual production

BWW Interview: Simon Lipkin Talks FIRST DATE: THE MUSICAL at Crazy CoqsAustin Winberg's musical First Date was first seen on Broadway in 2013. It's a classic American story of two mismatched singletons in New York - Aaron and Casey - who end up on a blind date, and all the complications that come with that.

Featuring a contemporary rock score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, First Date ran for five months on Broadway and hasn't been seen on these shores in a professional capacity until now. Starring Simon Lipkin and Samantha Barks in the lead roles (with support from Oscar Conlon-Morrey, Danielle Steers and Nicholas McClean), Lambert Jackson Productions is bringing us this revival to us for three nights in October.

We chatted to Simon Lipkin, fresh from a week filming the musical at Crazy Coqs, to find out more about this lesser-known musical, the filming process...and why his first love will always be comedy.

Lambert Jackson Productions has been pretty busy recently, producing lots of brilliant content for us all during lockdown - how did you get involved with them and this opportunity?

I got a call from the agent and when they asked if I'd be interested in doing it, I hadn't actually heard of First Date. I didn't know the show at all, but I'm a big Zachary Levi fan - who played this role originally - so I thought, well, if he did it, I'm sure it's going to be a decent role. So I read the script, listened to the score and thought 'This could be great'. I know we should probably start by talking about the brilliant songs, as it's a musical, but what struck me is that it's a really solid script. It's really funny and so well-written. It essentially reads like a two-hander play, so to get the chance to do that with Sam was a great opportunity and proper joy.

Had you worked with Samantha before?

You know what, I always say no when I'm asked, because I forget about the job we did together. We did Honeymoon in Vegas at the Palladium, so we've known each other ages and always said it would be fun to work together.

You mentioned that the script is funny, and you're well known for playing very comedic roles throughout your career. Have you found a lot of comedy to play off, and was that part of the appeal?

I love comedy so much. There's a real science to it. Sometimes comedy gets pushed aside and dismissed a bit, but there's a real craft to it. Aaron, the role I play, is funny because he's never had to date before. And he's a nerd who's into Quantum Leap - he's that guy. Whereas Sam's character Casey appears on the surface to be the opposite - very confident, edgy and artistic, who's used to the dating scene.

And what's beautiful about the show is how it starts with them playing these roles and then as they get to know each other, their differences level out and we get deeper below the surface of what's really going on. So yes, it's funny but it's also really honest. It's almost a voyeuristic look at what's going on inside someone's mind when trying to meet someone - it's all about the beautiful awkwardness of it!

We've also got three amazing actors around us - Oscar, Nick and Danielle - who all play several characters, and almost become incarnations of the thoughts of Aaron and Casey. They do some brilliant character work.

Almost like a Greek Chorus!

Yeah...a chorus of Only Fools And Horses, Wicked, and SIX. That's a chorus everyone wants to see, right?!

You filmed at Crazy Coqs over the space of a week. What was it like filming a musical in situ with no audience?

We've made like a hybrid of a musical movie that's sort of crossed over. Our director Dean Johnson has been really clever - rather than making something that could feel like a weird low-budget movie, we've filmed on a set, but we break the fourth wall, so that songs can be played down the lens in a theatrical way.

I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but we went to different places and filmed things in different ways to come up with something unique. What's really cool is that in this crazy time, when we're all trying to figure out what entertainment - and especially theatre - can look like right now, Lambert Jackson, Dean and Crazy Coqs have taken an exciting forward step in what this kind of medium of theatre could be.

Speaking of singing through the fourth wall, let's talk about the score. You're no stranger to a rock score from your days in Rock of Ages, so did this come naturally to you or was it a bit of an adjustment?

Firstly, I am petrified of singing. It scares me! It's just not my thing - there are so many good singers out there and I am not one of them! I just basically do an impression of someone singing. But the score is a really great cross between a classic American musical and the pop-rock genre. Sam's solo, "Safer", is so beautiful. There are some comedy songs in there, and I get to rock out in a song at the end.

For someone who feels that singing isn't their strength, you've done a lot of musicals in your career!

Tell me about it! I can sort of hold a tune, but that's it. It's why I've never done a solo concert - I can't think of anything worse than putting people through hearing me sing for an hour. I'd rather just do a series of comedic monologues or something. I've worked with people who are much more technical - I mean, Sam is an example of that. And your Oli Tompsetts, your Jodie Jacobs - I'd listen to them sing until the cows come home. Danielle, who is in the show, has this beautiful rich alto voice that pours out of her - it's just gorgeous. And then you've got me who just sticks to the speak/sing patter songs, or rock songs where you can just growl and make noises!

Were there ever any plans to run this production with an audience?

I don't think so. At some point, we have to accept what is viable from a business perspective. And doing it as an online thing means that so many more people can see it, and it will have a longer life. So I think that's quite exciting.

Strategically, virtual productions have value because they can be more accessible and sometimes even reach global audiences - and that's often underestimated. Do you think it's a positive thing for us to start valuing online theatre in it's own right rather than replacement?

Exactly that - I think that this piece has been designed to be viewed and consumed in this way. It's not a compromise or trying to be something it's not. Which means it's exploring new ground really, and that was half the reason I wanted to do it.

So, when First Date is broadcast next week, will you be watching it?

Maybe! I'm not good at watching myself - I don't know anyone who is. I'll just watch it and think "Oh, you absolute bridge troll". Especially sitting next to Sam Barks, who looks like she's been expertly carved and there's me sitting there like a slightly rotund Jewish mess. Some over-eyebrowed disappointment to my mother, embedded on the screen. So, yeah... I will watch it, but I won't be happy about it!

How did working on this effect you, given the past few months? Did you find that it gave you a renewed sense of purpose?

The week was so tiring, because we had to learn and shoot an entire musical in a week. Having not worked since March, it was an exhausting week. And at the end of it I thought, "I would do that all day, every day". To work, and be in a room with people where we're acting and coming up with ideas, and laughing - it was genuinely like medicine for your head and your heart. Sam and I were saying between takes how lucky we were to even be allowed to do it, and how much fun it was. All we can hope is that those people out there who tune in can feel the same joy that we felt performing it.

First Date: The Musical is running 22-24 October, and you can buy tickets here

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