Four days before Ben Platt’s birthday, he’s come to meet me at Hell’s Kitchen Park on Tenth Avenue. He’s about to turn 23—but it’s “17 if anybody asks,” he says slyly.
That’s because as of November 14 he zipped up his backpack, grabbed his notebook and headed back to high school—the one within Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, where he plays Evan in Dear Evan Hansen, the story of a teen ridden with anxiety who has always felt invisible.
Platt, himself, is far from invisible. All eyes are on him as he originates his first Broadway role in a completely new musical—one that’s not based on a book or a film; one that stems from the minds of Tony-nominated songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book writer Steven Levenson. And the role is tailor-made for the actor filling his shoes.
On this particular day, Platt is dressed much like his character—clean-shaven, blue polo, sneakers—as he straddles a wooden bench to chat about the parallels between Evan Hansen and Ben Platt. Excluding the outfit, they seem quite different. Platt is charismatic and walks with his head held high, but on the inside, he feels what Evan does.
“The only real adversity—thus far, knock on wood—that I’ve really had in life, personally, is anxiety,” he confesses. “I’ve dealt with it in different ways. I’ve dabbled in medication and therapy and a lot of things that Evan tries, so that was a really nice window into him to begin with because that’s a part of him that I think is the most relatable to people. [The character], very easily, can feel inauthentic and ‘surface-y’ because if you just say, ‘This is an anxious kid,’ there are physical manifestations of that—he bites his nails, and he doesn’t look people in the eye for very long. But because I at least know where to draw from, it can end up feeling realer.”
The performance that he carefully crafted has earned him raves for the world-premiere production in Washington, D.C., and the subsequent Off-Broadway mounting at Second Stage Theatre—a Drama League Award and now a Tony nomination. His Evan Hansen is awkward, timid, shy and self-conscious, until family and friends fall into his lap—by way of a teenage suicide, a confessional letter and an explosive white lie.
Platt’s high school experience was a bit different. He went to Harvard-Westlake, a co-ed preparatory school in Los Angeles, and loved the theatre department. It was the stage that calmed his nerves and where he’d eventually find a permanent home. By 20, having already filmed the hit movie Pitch Perfect, about a collegiate a cappella group, he debuted on Broadway in The Book of Mormon.
“When I started to live on my own for the first time after high school when I was doing Pitch Perfect and Book of Mormon,” he says, “[my anxiety] kind of spiked in a general sense. … I think what’s helped me the most, at least to this point, is taking things day by day and putting things into really literal perspective. … When I can hold onto something really logical and specific, it kind of takes my fear away.
“I also have a lot of hypochondriacal anxiety: Every time I had a muscle pain in my side, [I’d think], ‘Well, I have a tumor, and I have cancer, and I should go to four doctors and get all these tests.’ That’s something that’s not fun because it occupies my mind at times when I have so many better things to be thinking about… and one thing I really love about doing this show is that when I’m doing this part, for some reason, that all quiets down. Because I care so much about the project, I don’t really have energy to spend anywhere else, so I find that when I leave the theatre and go home, I don’t lay awake thinking about all the different things that may be wrong with my body or all the different dangerous places I might be going. I just have a quiet mind, which I really appreciate.”
But the buzz around town (including talk of the far-off awards season) is far from quiet about the highly anticipated new musical and Platt’s portrayal of the central character.
“It’s motivating, for sure,” he says, “and I want to live up to people’s expectations. … It’s something that I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid, and to even be in the conversation is a dream, especially this young. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.
“The moment when I felt like I really was starting to be respected and accepted in the theatre community, which is what I always hoped for, was after D.C. when people first got to see Evan. … I felt like a player in this community that I always wanted to be a player in. I hope to keep doing good on that promise and earning my spot.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.