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Ben Platt and Laura Dreyfuss of "Dear Evan Hansen." (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Ben Platt and Laura Dreyfuss of "Dear Evan Hansen." (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Ben Platt Goes from Nerd to Leading Man in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

He’s happily played underdogs and second bananas, but in a new musical from Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, the ‘Pitch Perfect’ star at last has a role with range—and not just vocally speaking.

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Ben Platt is ready to take on a different kind of role. While he’s loved playing the magic-obsessed misfit Benji Applebaum in Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 and the awkward outsider Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, both on Broadway and in Chicago, he’s ready for a bit of a change. Enter Evan Hansen.

That’s the title role built for Platt by songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose new musical Dear Evan Hansen plays at Arena Stage July 10–Aug. 23. When Pasek and Paul first met Platt at an audition for their musical Dogfight, he was too young for that show, but they thought he’d be right for another project they had brewing with playwright Steven Levenson, about a student who finds himself at the center of a high school scandal.

Though Hansen is, like other Platt roles, an outsider, he’s “more of a real person who makes real choices that aren’t always perfect,” Platt explained in a recent interview. “Evan is an outcast in his own right and a strange kid. But the difference is that he’s a little bit morally ambiguous compared to the characters I’ve played, like Elder Cunningham and Benji Applebaum. He goes through the whole spectrum of anger and being upset and being jealous and being hurt and lying—he’s a real fully formed human.”

Director Michael Greif, who helms Dear Evan Hansen, also recalls being impressed by a young Platt at an audition. “He came in for Next to Normal, and he seemed like he was 14 at the time—he probably was,” the director recalled. Though he wasn’t right for that project then, Greif said, “There was a recognition that, ‘Oh, this kid is really talented.’”

Now that the rest of the world has come to the same realization, and Platt’s film career has exploded—he stars in the upcoming Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep, and is in the midst of shooting a new Ang Lee film—why come back to the theatre for an untested tuner?

“I’ve been doing musicals since I was 6 years old, and they have been a really irreplaceable presence in my life—and where I really found a lot of my identity,” Platt said. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is to contribute to the future of [the form] and to keep it going and to help it stay relevant.

“What’s exciting for me about coming in and doing this show is being able to use all the tools in my box, if you will, and to do something that feels like I’m really using everything that’s at my disposal,” he added. “Whereas Benji was only one small facet of myself. I’m excited to get back to something that uses the whole range.”

Platt spoke at more length about his involvement in Dear Evan Hansen.

Was the Dogfight audition the first time you met Benj and Justin?
Yes. I worshipped them in high school. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the musical theatre voices of our generation, so I idolized them to a certain extent. I used to sing Edges in high school at my solo nights, and I would follow them on YouTube. If you go to YouTube, you’ll easily find me and some friends singing from Edges at our senior solo night. So there’s proof. Benj is a good Jewish boy like myself, so we connected on that front. They have a really original and different voice for the future of musical theatre, and they make me really excited about it. So to be part of their vision for it, I’m pinching myself. It’s a dream come true.

Since Evan was created with you in mind, do you relate to him at all?
I definitely relate to him. Vocally, it’s very much molded to me in terms of my range and the style that I like to sing in—a fusion of musical theatre and pop. In terms of the character itself, I tend to play outcasts and these nerdy guys who are the underdogs and more character-y roles. And this is sort of the next progression of that. The fact that someone so grounded and real was written with me in mind is all you can ask for as an actor.

Ben Platt and Hailee Steinfeld in "Pitch Perfect 2." (Photo by Richard Cartwright/Universal Studios)
Ben Platt and Hailee Steinfeld in “Pitch Perfect 2.” (Photo by Richard Cartwright/Universal Studios)

Were you like Evan in high school?
Luckily for me, I went to a wonderful high school called Harvard-Westlake, where it was a very cool thing to be a theatre nerd and to be into the arts. I found my niche much more than Evan does. Evan really has a tough time finding where he belongs. Fortunately that’s not the part of him that I can relate to. But I can relate to feeling of being different. Growing up, I was not like the average boy. I wasn’t really into sports, and I wasn’t into the things that you’re supposed to be into. I liked to listen to old cast albums and direct shows in my backyard. I can definitely relate to just the constant yearning of wanting to feel like you belong and like you’re accepted. No matter how much you try to love yourself, it’s difficult to feel validated if it’s not being reciprocated by the people around you.

What were the shows or musical influences that affected you at a formative age?
My favorite musical of all time is Sunday in the Park with George. I used to watch the DVD of the original cast over and over again. As a kid I think I was fascinated mostly with the recreation of the painting, and growing up, I started to appreciate how genius the lyrics are in that show. I would live my life by the lyrics in that show. Growing up, my idol was Gavin Creel, because the first Broadway show I ever saw in New York was Thoroughly Modern Millie. He showed me around backstage afterwards, and I was just like, “I need to be this guy.” He was also one of the pioneers of this more modern pop sound and still maintaining a theatre feel; I was always a big fan of that. We never got to do it Book of Mormon together, but to both be in the same show at the same time was a very special thing for me. I still idolize him to this day.

Syesha Mercado and Ben Platt in "The Book of Mormon." (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Syesha Mercado and Ben Platt in “The Book of Mormon.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

In Evan Hansen, something goes “viral” that shouldn’t have necessarily gone viral. Do you ever worry about what you put out on social media?
It’s always scary, especially with all the Pitch Perfect stuff. I keep gaining followers, and it’s becoming a bigger thing. When I first started on Twitter, I was in high school, and it was just my Twitter. I would say funny things and talk to my friends, and now it’s this big platform where I need to say politically correct things and promote things. It’s scary because anything you post on there or on Instagram is in the world forever. You can never take it back, so you have to be really careful, and you have to take things in stride and not take comments and criticisms too seriously. Just be confident in what you want to share.

You’ve achieved so much success at such a young age. What advice would you give young performers who want to achieve what you have?
Be as prepared as possible, so that when the opportunity comes along and when the right time happens, you’re ready for it. You never know when it’s going to be or what it’s going to be. Pitch Perfect was this random audition that I heard about through the grapevine. The fact that I went in and gave it my all ended up being the biggest thing that ever happened to me. So you just have to be at the ready for whatever comes your way.

The second thing would be, there’s no way to succeed if you’re not going to stay true to who you are and know what your strengths are. I love theatre because theatre is very supportive of being who you are, and in Hollywood, sometimes there’s a pressure to be in some sort of box or be one way or look one way or sound one way. The people that really succeed are the ones that do what they do the best and stick with what they do, and you can’t be afraid of what it is you know.

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