Dear Evan Hansen: Ben Platt on creating his breakout title character
Last year, a gathering of Hamilton cast members and the reunion of the original cast of Rent were two of the marquee draws for the first-ever BroadwayCon in New York City. A year later, and the weekend-long event traded up to a much bigger venue (the Javits Center) and had the theater season’s most emotional and buzzworthy show, Dear Evan Hansen, in its spotlight.
Sunday’s panel included Ben Platt, who stars as the titular Evan Hansen in the musical, was in attendance, alongside songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and other members of the show’s cast and creative team.
Dear Evan Hansen centers on Evan, a lonely teen whose life gets flipped around after he writes a pivotal letter that impacts everyone around him. For Platt, it was important that everyone be able to relate to the character and his inability to connect with others in his life.
“I never wanted to isolate anyone from being able to connect to Evan or being able to see something of themselves in him,” the actor said. “I get questions, like, ‘Is he somebody on the [autism] spectrum?’ ‘Is it a specific kid that you knew that you’re using in your mind?’ And my answer is I’ve taken pieces from all over, from some people that I remember in high school who had a particular difficulty connecting or were particularly lonely. [But] I never wanted to be too specific that you couldn’t find something in him that you could relate to or see yourself in.”
The show is an emotional one that Platt carries through nearly every scene, but the Pitch Perfect star noted that while it deals with heavy topics, it “ends in an redemptive place” and has “a lot of hope.” Later in the panel, when the cast and crew all shared their favorite moments from the production, he named one of the few scenes he isn’t in — getting to watch Laura Dreyfus (who plays Evan’s classmate and crush, Zoe Murphy) perform “Requiem” midway through Act One. “It’s an incredible sort of empowerment,” he said.
Pasek and Paul also took attendees through how the idea for Dear Evan Hansen became a musical before addressing their other current hit — the duo wrote lyrics for current Oscar frontrunner La La Land.
“People sometimes ask us was there a difference between when you were writing for La La Land than when you were writing for Dear Evan Hansen, what’s the difference between writing a [movie] musical or writing a stage show and the exciting thing to say is at least for La La Land there really wasn’t a difference,” Paul said. “It was one of the first times I could remember where a project like that, they didn’t say, ‘We want you to write a pop song that has some theater moments in it,’ or, ‘We want you to write a song that can be on the radio.’ It was really like, ‘We want you to write a song for these characters in this moment that captures what they’re feeling and that progresses the story forward.’
“It was really unapologetically a musical in every sense,” he continued, “And I think that’s really exciting because not only does that say movies that have music in them should be an exciting thing, but also it’s really saying people are coming to see the movie and they’re saying movies that use songs to tell the story, to explore the character — which is what we all love to do — that’s OK, and that’s exciting. And I think it ultimately makes more people come to see a Broadway show. People who maybe never would have gone to see a musical, they see that movie or they see something like it and the next item they’re in New York they come and see a Broadway show.”
Pasek added, “We’re also just so appreciative of [La La Land writer-director] Damien Chazelle, who like [Dear Evan Hansen director] Michael Greif, is so rigorous about character and telling stories through song. So many of the references he would use when we were talking about songwriting, it wasn’t pop songs on the radio. We were listening to Cole Porter songs and Sondheim — that’s where we were drawing inspiration, not just for the songs but the musical moments. So we were really appreciative that the world of musical theater was getting seeped into the discussion and the creative process as well.”
Dear Evan Hansen