Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Three Evan Hansens


I’m still obsessed with the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. Triple obsessed. Gay obsessed.


Ben Platt originated the role of Evan Hansen on Broadway in 2016. In fact, Platt played Evan in the show’s earliest staged reading in May 2014, and continued in each subsequent reading, workshop, and off-Broadway production. Along the way he won Obie, Drama League, and Tony awards. That’s Platt singing on the Broadway original cast album. For many fans, Ben Platt will always be the “real” Evan Hansen.

As I mentioned in my original post about Dear Evan Hansen, the play deals frankly with mental illness. I appreciated how the play didn’t get distracted with details about which characters might be diagnosed as anxious, depressed, or some other specific disorder. Instead, the playwright respectfully presents people in deep distress, regardless of its root causes.

Before the play opened, a New York Times profile discussed Platt’s role in developing Evan’s character:

In the show, Mr. Platt delivers a master class in the physicalization of adolescent discomfort. He twitches his eyes and his mouth, tugs on his sleeve, scratches a wrist, picks at a nail, grabs his back pockets, fidgets with a pencil. His voice is halting and soft, punctuated with doubt. 

According to Platt, “I thought back to a lot of kids in my high school who I think of as more socially awkward, or anxious, or worried about how they’re being perceived.”

Every actor brings something different to a role. As a connoisseur of anxiety and alienation, I can attest that Platt perfectly captures the tics and pangs of social anxiety.


Taylor Trensch took over as Evan on Broadway in January 2018.  

Replacing the original lead in a Broadway musical can be a dicey proposition. Many shows don’t even try to survive a star’s departure. (Yes, Yogi, I saw Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria). Other musicals try to get away with the temporary gimmick of casting an expensive Hollywood star.

A mega-successful Broadway cash cow need to pace itself for the long haul. One approach is to bring in an unfamous but supremely talented performer, and hope for the best. For example, the brilliant Megan Hilty took over for Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda in the Broadway production of Wicked

Similarly, both official Dear Evan Hansen videos as well as YouTube bootlegs demonstrate that Trensch is an excellent singer and actor. As the New York Times observed in its re-review, the result is a less overpowering and more balanced play. 

Trensch also brings a different approach to Evan’s alienation. As one of my theater buds put it, “he’s definitely on the Asperger’s spectrum.”


The producers of a Broadway phenomenon’s first national touring cast face a similar casting challenge. Do you lure an alumnus from New York?  Bring in a celebrity? Or find a newcomer brimming with raw talent?  

After some obsessive YouTube stalking, it’s clear that Ben Levi Ross, the Evan Hansen on tour, brings a lot of power to the role. In contrast with Platt and Trensch, Ross portrays Evan’s alienation from the perspective of a skinny nerd outsider. Or maybe it’s just the Jewish name and clunky glasses.

One of the key differences between the Broadway and touring experience is the variety of venues. Instead of settling into a permanent home, the actors need to be prepared for all kinds of spaces. I recently saw Dear Evan Hansen in Seattle’s vast Paramount Theater, which sold out all 2,807 seats. That’s almost three times as many as Broadway’s Music Box Theater. Frankly it could have been anyone down there in the striped shirt and arm cast. But he definitely had an amazing voice.


The only gay references in Dear Evan Hansen come in Eleanor’s current favorite song, “Sincerely Me.” 

As the play begins, we learn that Evan Hansen’s therapist suggested Evan use journal writing to help him work through his issues. Evan’s assignment is to write affirming letters to himself, which begin “Dear Evan Hansen….” Connor picks up one of Evan’s letters from the printer at school. The letter is found in his pocket after Connor kills himself, resulting in the confusion and temptation that propels the drama.

Desperate to comfort Connor Murphy’s grieving mother, Evan conspires with a geeky classmate to forge emails documenting a faux friendship between Evan and Connor. As they type, the actor who played Connor in the opening scenes returns from the grave to exuberantly sing along.

Evan and Connor’s imaginary friendship develops through the song “Sincerely Me.” The boys get a little carried away. The geeky friend throws in a little innuendo. Hence the panicky gay reference:

CONNOR
DEAR EVAN HANSEN: 
THANKS FOR EV’RY NOTE YOU SEND 

EVAN
DEAR CONNOR MURPHY:
I’M JUST GLAD TO BE YOUR FRIEND 

EVAN/CONNOR
OUR FRIENDSHIP GOES BEYOND YOUR AV’RAGE KIND OF BOND 

EVAN
BUT NOT BECAUSE WE’RE GAY 

CONNOR
NO, NOT BECAUSE WE’RE GAY 

EVAN/CONNOR
WE’RE CLOSE, BUT NOT THAT WAY 
THE ONLY MAN
THAT I LOVE
IS MY DAD 

Songwriters: Benj Pasek / Justin Paul
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd


After finally leaving the cast of Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Platt spent last year writing songs and working on an album that comes out next month. 

So far Platt has released a couple of songs. He used the occasion of his second video, “Ease My Mind,” to come out of the closet in People magazine. 

Apparently the songs on the upcoming album explore Platt’s experiences with gay love. He hasn't revealed enough material yet to determine whether we’re in the same relationship territory as Adele, Taylor Swift, or Alanis Morrisette.

The hunky eye candy in Platt’s video is fellow out Broadway performer Charlie Carver. He’s the youngest of the openly gay actors who recently appeared in a high profile revival of The Boys in the Band, along with Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Andrew Rannells.


One of my favorite songs from Dear Evan Hansen is “Only Us.” 

The play begins with Evan nursing a secret crush on Zoe Murphy. They finally get to know each after her brother Connor kills himself. Zoe and Evan sing “Only Us” as they try to carve out space for their fragile relationship.

As I mentioned in an earlier fanboy blog post, Trensch and Ross are not just openly gay, they’re also an adorable couple. Soon after wrapping up his Broadway run as Evan, Trensch met up with Ross on the road with the Dear Evan Hansen tourWhile in Seattle this month they found time to record and film a video of “Only Us.” Here’s a YouTube link to their charming same-sex Valentine Day’s duet. 


What are the odds that the first three actors to play an iconic straight role would all happen to be openly gay?

For one thing, the odds are a lot higher than they used to be. More people everywhere, including actors, are open about their sexual orientation. They’re also comfortable with coming out at a younger age. Platt, Trensch, and Ross are part of the most the most LGBT-affirming generation ever. According to some surveys, up to 20 percent of millennials identify as members of the LGBTQ community.

Percentage of Americans responding affirmatively to the question 
"Do you personally identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?"

Nevertheless, as I wrote last year in “Tuning Your Gaydar,” it’s notoriously difficult to collect reliable demographic information about sexual orientation. So let’s use a conservative estimate, such as assuming 4 percent of American men in their 20s identify as gay. That’s 1 in 25. If we pick from a random sample before we started casting three Evans, here’s how to crunch the probability numbers:


That’s similar to the odds that a random American speaks Cherokee. Or that you’ll be murdered. 


As Barbie notoriously observed, “Math is hard.” 

Actually I think Barbie meant arithmetic is hard. (Fortunately our phones all come with calculators.) Mathematics is amazing. It’s also complicated.

In this case, before getting carried away with our probability computations, we need to consider what else our trio of gay 20somethings might have in common, other than being the first three actors to play Evan Hansen. Do we really have a representative sample of all 20something American males? Was their selection by the producers truly independent of each other?

I’m not ready to publish my statistical analysis yet. But I bet it says something about Broadway musicals and the people who love them.



More responses to Dear Evan Hansen:

   "Dear Evan Hansen" (1/29/19)
   "The Shelf Life of Metaphor" (1/31/19)
   "Another Dear Evan Hansen Update" (2/3/19)


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