Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt admits to being anxious. He frequently worries about the past and also about what's to come, but there's one place where his anxiety tends to subside.
"Being on stage, for me, is kind of the antidote to that," Platt says. "That's the place where my mind is the most quiet."
Platt drew on his own anxiety to play Evan Hansen, a socially insecure high-school senior who lies about having been close friends with a classmate who dies by suicide. Platt originated the role and went on to win a Tony for his performance in the original Broadway production. Now, he's starring in a new film adaptation of the musical.
Platt acknowledges that the musical, which deals with teen suicide and deception, has an inherent tension between being inspirational and something much darker.
"That's why it sometimes is somewhat polarizing because it does require that level of discomfort and that gray area," he says. "[There's] that kind of nuance of things being healing and redemptive and meaningful, but also morally ambiguous and difficult and wrong and predicated on a lie."
On how the Broadway success of Dear Evan Hansen added pressure and made him feel closer to his character who is also very anxious
The experience, while it was incredibly gratifying and fulfilling, was very isolating as well and kind of a lonely one, because of the nature of the role and how kind of monkish my lifestyle needed to be to support the role. Especially when we were doing press during the day and performances on television and things like that, it required that any moment that I had to myself was spent resting and recharging and saving up physical, mental and emotional energy to continue to recreate the show eight times a week.
So, in my own kind of mental world and in my own mind, I certainly continued to feel connected more and more to Evan in terms of the anxiety and the worry about others and what others might think and what others might be saying. And you know, those things come along with the territory of something that gets that kind of attention.
On being 27 years old at the time of filming Dear Evan Hansen, playing a teenager
I think my first thing I did was release the feeling of having to be 100% a realistic teenager because ultimately I was 27 years old when we made the film. And this is a very specific situation in terms of a character that I was lucky to create and develop, and that the studio and the director asked me to be the one to sort of shepherd that performance on screen, and I can only do so much. So I wanted to first kind of release myself from doing things that are impossible to do and just focus on really giving a great performance. I think anything that I did physically was really for my own emotional satisfaction to feel separate, for myself, to feel transformed and separate from Ben Platt and just be able to inhabit somebody different. So those things, the more obvious ones, were that I grew my hair out and allowed it to become as Jewish and curly as possible. I shaved my face multiple times a day. I shaved my arms. I lost about 15 pounds. I feel that I did everything that my adult body would allow me to do.
On falling in love with Noah Galvin, the actor who took over his Evan Hansen role on Broadway
We've known each other long before the Evan Hansen experience. We were friends in the theater community and through doing some comedy together and having a lot of mutual friends and already had quite a foundation of friendship before the Evan Hansen thing happened. Obviously, his being cast and replacing me was very separate from me knowing him. He just was the right person for the job and the creative team was in love with him, and I was thankful that I was getting to see this legacy [go] to somebody that I loved and trusted. It's just kind of one small aspect of our many years of friendship-now-turned romance and partnership. ...
For many years as a young person, I sort of avoided the idea of being with another artist or another actor, because you hear all these stories about how difficult it can be to have differing levels of success or to find support for each other or to have room for each other, things like that. ... I think [Noah] has a really special ability to be entirely selfless, and can take up all of the air in the room and be the center and be as funny and as brilliant as anyone you've ever seen, but then also has the ability to just be fully in my corner and to support me, and I can only hope that I can do the same for him. And I think that the Evan Hansen experience was sort of a little microcosm of what was to come in that regard.
On watching Dear Evan Hansen for the first time as an audience member
Luckily it was, again, Noah [Galvin], who I loved and trusted and who I think is so talented. And so in terms of seeing the actual character, that was a wonderful experience. It's like revisiting an ex or going back to a place that was as wonderful as it was, there was a lot of trauma associated with it, too, given the kind of emotional angst that I had to kind of go to each night. And so watching it, regardless of my emotional state in the moment, when I get to those moments in the show, I naturally become emotional and go back to those kind of mental spaces. And so it's never an easy thing to watch. The film is a similar experience, in terms of I can appreciate and be proud of the piece and of my performance, but it's never kind of an easy, breezy thing to watch.
On co-starring opposite Beanie Feldstein in the upcoming Richard Linklater film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which will be filmed over the course of 18 years — and thinking about where he'll be in his 40s
I spend a lot of time worrying about what's to come and what has happened already and not as much as I should being where I am. So yes, I think it's made me think about: Will this [project] be the one kind of holdover at that stage in my life that I'm still doing, or will I still be working all the time? Or will I be, God willing, still singing my own music, and maybe, just doing that? And this [project] is what I pop into or will I be on stage for the rest of my life, which would be wonderful too? Will I, God willing, be with Noah? And will we have children?
I think I'd love to hopefully, theoretically, be, at some point, a bit more of a behind-the-scenes kind of a person. I'd love to continue to write and to hopefully maybe direct theater someday. And, you know, get to do things that are creative, maybe even teach musical theater to young people just to stay connected to the art and to the thing that makes me the happiest, even past the point of maybe feeling up to doing it myself. But for now, I'm grateful to be doing it myself.
Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Ben Platt stars in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." He originated the role in workshop productions of the show and then won a Tony for his performance as Evan Hansen in the original Broadway production. He started his film career in the movie "Pitch Perfect" as Benji, the nerdy kid who desperately wants to join a school a cappella group. In the 2019 Netflix comedy series "The Politician," Platt starred as a high school kid who plots every move in his life to achieve his ambition of becoming president of the United States. He now stars in an episode of the new anthology series "The Premise," and he has a new album called "Reverie."
In "Dear Evan Hansen," Platt plays a high school senior who has terrible social anxiety. He has a hard time talking to people. He's fidgety and hunched over but longs to be seen and to have friends. He's on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, and his psychiatrist has given him the exercise of writing encouraging letters to himself. The movie opens with him writing one of those letters.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAR EVAN HANSEN")
BEN PLATT: (As Evan Hansen) Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be an amazing day. And here's why - because today all you have to do is just be yourself but also confident. That's important. And interesting, easy to talk to, approachable - but mostly, just be yourself. You know, that's No. 1, obviously. Be yourself but, like, a confident version of yourself, like, approachable and interesting and not weird or anxious or depressed. But you're not weird or anxious or depressed. I don't even know why you're bringing it up. You can't be scared to talk to other people. You said you could be better. You said this year would be different. You're overthinking it. Do you like having no friends? All you have to do is just be yourself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW")
PLATT: (As Evan Hansen, singing) I've learned to slam on the brake before I even turn the key, before I make a mistake, before I lead with the worst of me. Give them no reason to stare - no slipping up if you slip away. So I got nothing to share. No, I got nothing to say. Step out, step out of the sun if you keep getting burned. Step out, step out of the sun because you've learned, because you've learned. On the outside always looking in, will I ever be more than I've always been? - 'cause I'm tap, tap, tapping on the glass. I'm waving through a window. I try to speak, but nobody can hear. So I wait around for an answer to appear while I'm watch, watch, watching people pass. I'm waving through a window.
GROSS: In one of the letters Evan Hansen writes to himself, he confesses his fear that no one will ever notice him. He wishes things could be different and that he could be different. The letter is intercepted by another student, Connor, who refuses to give it back. Connor is infamous for being a weird, angry loner and has bullied Evan before. Soon after Connor dies by suicide, Connor's parents find the dear Evan Hansen letter in Connor's pocket and assume it was written by Connor to Evan confessing Connor's own insecurities. The parents meet with Evan to learn more about their son from Evan, who they think knew Connor best. Evan wants to tell them the truth, but they don't let him interrupt their incorrect interpretation, so Evan goes along with it and reluctantly keeps getting deeper and deeper into the lie.
Ben Platt, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so happy I got to see the movie because I didn't get to see the show. And I really enjoyed the film. So thank you so much for coming on our show.
PLATT: Thank you for having me. I'm a big fan of the show. I'm very pleased to be here.
GROSS: So many young people deeply identified with Evan Hansen and his anxieties, his loneliness, his feelings of being shut out and not good enough. But when you were playing Evan Hansen on Broadway, as more and more people were identifying with the character, your life was changing and making you not only seen but famous, a star on Broadway. And you're getting interviewed and performing on TV. You got a Tony. And I'd imagine that, in some ways, you were getting further and further away from the character as more and more fans were confusing the character with you 'cause I'm sure it was a boost to your confidence to have the show go so well and to be so applauded for it in reviews and awards and all that.
PLATT: Absolutely. I mean, I think - although on some level and in some regard, I did feel closer and closer to him in the sense that I - as I've already mentioned, of course, in any interview within the first five minutes, I'm a very anxious person. And so I think that the growing notoriety that you mentioned and the kind of larger magnifying glass that the show brought to me and to the performance definitely added to that anxiety and that pressure. And I think that that's something that Evan certainly operates with. And so I think that element of it made me feel a bit closer to him.
And additionally, the experience, while it was, you know, incredibly gratifying and fulfilling, was very isolating as well and kind of a lonely one because of just the nature of the role and how kind of monkish my lifestyle needed to be to support the role. And especially when we were doing, as you mentioned, press during the day and performances on television and things like that, it required that any, you know, moment that I had to myself was spent, you know, resting and recharging and saving up physical, mental and emotional energy to continue to recreate the show eight times a week.
And so in my own mind, I certainly continued to feel connected more and more to Evan in terms of the anxiety and the worry about, you know, others and what others might think and what others might be saying. And, you know, those things come along with the territory of something that gets that kind of attention.
GROSS: So was your anxiety similar to his? I mean, do you have stage anxiety?
PLATT: No. I think that's, for me, the place that I am the least anxious. That's the place where my mind is the most quiet. I think that's part of the reason that, since I was very, very young, I've wanted to do this. I think it's, like, a really special kind of reprieve to me because when you're - I mean, any kind of performance on film as well, but particularly for live performance on stage, it just requires that your whole being be incredibly present.
And I think a lot of my anxiety comes from the inability to be present and feeling stuck in worries about the past or what's to come rather than being where I am. And so being on stage for me is kind of the antidote to that because there's no option but to be present where you are. So I would say that's my least anxious, but I'm much more afraid of, you know, social situations or, you know, flying, traveling. There's - other things are triggers more so than Evan's stage fright.
GROSS: So I want to play another song from the movie adaptation of "Dear Evan Hansen." And just to set it up, Connor dies by suicide. And when he was alive, everyone thought of him as a crazy, combustible kid, someone to avoid. He had no friends. His sister thought he never even noticed her, and she found him threatening. His parents hardly knew him because he was so remote. And when he dies, there's a memorial for him in the high school 'cause he's become a lot more popular in death (laughter) than he was in life. And the student organizing it tries to recruit your character, Evan Hansen, because she believes you and Connor were best friends.
And you're - you know, Evan doesn't want to do it because he knows it's a lie. But he caves in. And when it's his turn to speak, he's shaking at the mic. His voice is barely audible or comprehensible. He knocks over the mic. It falls to the ground. He falls, too. He gets up. And then he sings a song about Connor. And remember; he didn't really know Connor very well. He knew him from two brief, uncomfortable incidents. And so what he's singing about is really more about his own anxieties which he's projecting onto Connor. So this song is called "You Will Be Found."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WILL BE FOUND")
PLATT: (As Evan Hansen, singing) Have you ever felt like nobody was there? Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere? Have you ever felt like you could disappear, like you could fall and no one would hear? Well, let that lonely feeling wash away. Maybe there's a reason to believe you'll be OK 'cause when you don't feel strong enough to stand, you can reach, reach out your hand. And, oh, someone will come running. And I know they'll take you home. Even when the dark comes crashing through, when you need a friend to carry you. And when you're broken on the ground, you will be found. So let the sun come streaming in 'cause you'll reach up, and you'll rise again. Lift your head and look around. You will be found.
GROSS: That's Ben Platt from the new movie adaptation of "Dear Evan Hansen." Taken out of context, that song sounds so inspirational. And that's how it's interpreted by all the students at the memorial. And videos of you at the memorial go viral. But the song is really both the truth 'cause it's Evan Hansen's truth, but it's a lie because, A, it's not about Connor, but, B, Evan Hansen has never felt found. He has no hope that he will really be found.
GROSS: You know? And I like that tension between seemingly inspirational but actually far from it.
PLATT: Absolutely. I mean, I think that's what's fascinating about the piece in general. And that's why it sometimes is somewhat polarizing because it does require that level of discomfort and that gray area and that kind of nuance of things being healing and redemptive and meaningful but also morally ambiguous and difficult and wrong and predicated on a lie. And I think as much as he is singing about, you know, all these things that he's finally found in this belonging that he finally has, I think he's also on some level singing about - you know, that at some point or another, everyone will be found out and everyone's truth will be revealed. And that is - you know, that includes him.
GROSS: You're a few years older now than you were when you originated the role. What did you do to look as young as possible?
PLATT: (Laughter) I think my first thing I did was release the feeling of, you know, having to be 100% a realistic teenager because, ultimately, I was 27 years old when we made the film. And this is a very specific situation, in terms of a character that I was lucky to create and develop, and that the studio and the director asked me to, you know, be the one to sort of shepherd that performance on screen. And I can only do so much.
So I wanted to first kind of release myself of, you know, doing things that are impossible to do and just focus on really giving a great performance. And I think anything that I did physically was really for my own emotional satisfaction, to feel separate from myself, to feel transformed and separate from Ben Platt and just be able to, you know, inhabit somebody different. So those things - the more obvious ones were that I grew my hair out and, you know, allowed it to become as Jewish and curly as possible.
PLATT: I shaved my face multiple times a day. I shaved my arms. I lost about 15 pounds. So, yeah, I feel that I did everything that my adult body would allow me to do.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Platt. He stars in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." He originated the role on Broadway and won a Tony in 2017 for his performance. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KRISTINE BLOND SONG, "LOVE SHY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ben Platt. He stars in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway show "Dear Evan Hansen." He won a Tony in 2017 for his performance in the starring role of the original Broadway production. He also has a new album called "Reverie" of original songs. And you can see him in the new anthology series "The Premise" in the episode called "Social Justice Sex Tape."
You know, in the show, as Evan Hansen, you're hunched over. You're fidgety. Your body is so tight with tension. How did the posture that you had to stay in eight performances a week (laughter) on Broadway - how did that affect your back and your voice?
PLATT: It definitely was a challenge to shake that off. And I think definitely I've inherited some of it. I think my family already has sort of less-than-perfect posture in the genes. My - you know, my dad's parents were both a little bit hunched. And, you know, I - my whole family could use a reminder or one of those shirts that buzzes when you're not sitting upright.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. I've heard of that.
PLATT: So I think leaning into that eight times a week was not the best for me. I was really, you know, lucky and privileged in that I had a great physical therapist named Natalie Kinghorn, who's just an absolute genius, who would work on me twice a week as I was doing the run to sort of try to reset me a little bit and undo some of the work of Evan for those 2 1/2 hours each day.
I think in terms of the voice, you know, I have a wonderful, brilliant vocal teacher named Liz Caplan, who - I refuse to sing anywhere in public without warming up with her. And she is just really gifted and did a lot of work with me to kind of put the notes into my body in the correct posture in the healthiest way possible and then allow the Evan posture and sort of physicalization to be on top of that and to kind of become a sort of added layer rather than trying to learn how to sing from an unhealthy place. So just the nitty-gritty detail of getting to work with her throughout the entire process helped me to just maintain a sustainable vocal life while also, you know, living in this very - as you said, very tense, very sort of rounded character.
GROSS: So this is really kind of funny - when you left "Dear Evan Hansen" on Broadway, somebody took over the role, Noah Galvin. And now you're partners.
PLATT: Yes, we are.
GROSS: That's just crazy. So can you describe, like, how that happened, you know, like, how - 'cause so many people would be a little insecure or jealous about the person replacing them. Like, maybe they have a different take on it. Like, maybe they'll be great. Or maybe they'll show me something I didn't know about the role that I should've known. I mean, there's so many ways you can be competitive and insecure as opposed to falling in love with the person.
PLATT: Totally. Well, first of all, I will say that I did get to see him. And through my tears of experiencing the show for the first time, he was wonderful. But basically, you know, we've known each other long before the "Evan Hansen" experience. We were friends in the theater community and through doing some comedy together and having a lot of mutual friends and already had quite a foundation of friendship before the "Evan Hansen" thing happened. And, obviously, his being cast and replacing me was very separate from me knowing him. He just was the right person for the job. And, you know, the creative team was in love with him. And I was thankful that I was, you know, getting to cede this legacy to somebody that I loved and trusted. And it's just kind of one small aspect of our many years of friendship now turned, you know, romance and partnership.
For many years, as a young person, you know, I sort of avoided the idea of being with another artist or another actor because, you know, you hear all these stories about how difficult it can be and how difficult it may be to have, you know, differing levels of success or to find support for each other or to, you know, have room for each other, things like that. And I think while that's certainly a valid argument, I think it was one among many kind of preconceived notions that I had that were not very useful to me and trying to find a partner, which I was not very successful at until meaning Noah.
And so I think he has a really special ability to, you know, be entirely selfless and, you know, can take up all of the air in the room and be the center and, you know, be as funny and as brilliant as anyone you've ever seen but then also has the ability to just be fully, you know, in my corner and to support me. And I can only hope that I can do the same for him. And I think that the "Evan Hansen" experience was sort of a little microcosm of what was to come in that regard.
GROSS: Were you able to enjoy watching the show, watching through somebody else on the role that you originated?
PLATT: Yes and no. I mean, I think luckily, it was, again, Noah, who I loved and trusted and who I think is so talented. And so I - in terms of seeing the actual character that was, you know, a wonderful experience. I think for me, it was more - it's like, you know - it's like revisiting an ex or going back to a place that was - as wonderful as it was, you know, there was a lot of trauma associated with it, too, given the kind of emotional angst that I had to kind of go to each night. And so watching it, regardless of my emotional state in the moment, when I get to those moments in the show, I naturally become emotional and go back to those kind of mental spaces. And so it's never an easy thing to watch. You know, film is a similar experience in terms of I can appreciate and be proud of the piece and of my performance. But it's also - it's never a kind of an easy, breezy thing to watch, so yes and no.
GROSS: What row were you in?
PLATT: Oh, goodness. I was at the very back of the orchestra, whatever the very last row is before the little, like, sort of aisleway, which...
GROSS: The I-don't-want-to-be-seen place (laughter)
PLATT: Exactly. And I was - luckily, I shuffled in...
GROSS: You can walk in at the last minute and walk out.
GROSS: Right (laughter).
PLATT: Exactly. And I had my best friend, one of my best friends, Max Sheldon, with me, and he squeezed my hand the whole time. And it was a nice Band-Aid rip-off moment.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Platt. He stars in the new film adaptation of the Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." He originated the role on Broadway and won a 2017 Tony. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I COULD TELL HER")
PLATT: (As Evan Hansen, singing) He said there's nothing like your smile. It's of subtle and perfect and real. He said he never knew how wonderful that smile could make someone feel. And he knew whenever you get bored, you scribble stars on the cuffs of your jeans. And he noticed that you still fill out the quizzes that they put in those teen magazines. But he kept it all inside his head. What he saw he left unsaid. And though he wanted to, he couldn't talk to you. He couldn't find the way, but he would always say if I could tell her, tell her everything I see, if I could tell her how she's everything to me. But we're a million worlds apart. And I don't know how I would even start if I could tell her, if I could tell her.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ben Platt. He stars in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen" about a high school senior with profound social anxiety and insecurity who has no friends until he kind of accidentally ends up telling a lie, a lie that gets bigger and bigger and that makes him seem inspirational. He originated the role on Broadway, won a 2017 Tony for it. He started his film career in "Pitch Perfect" as Benji, the nerdy kid who wants to get into the acapella group. He starred in the Netflix series "The Politician" and stars in the "Social Justice Sex Tape" episode of the new anthology series "The Premise." He also has a new album called "Reverie." He started acting when he was a child.
You started performing when you were, like, 6 years old. I think your first role was the prince in "Cinderella." Do I have that right?
PLATT: That's correct. Yeah. My - I went to this youth program called the Adderley School for the Performing Arts that all three of my older siblings had done before me. And as soon as I was old enough to join the youngest class, I - my parents put me in. And I - so yeah, "Cinderella" was the first role. And I was bit quite forcibly and immediately by the bug.
GROSS: So did you have any clue, then, that you were gay (laughter)?
PLATT: I think - did you ever see "Fun Home," that wonderful Alison Bechdel...
GROSS: Yes. Yes. I love that.
PLATT: So the song "Ring Of Keys" in the show is all about, like, this experience of identifying with queer people before you're even old enough for it to be sort of a sexualized discovery. And I do really identify with that. I think I was around, you know, queer people by virtue of being in the theater. And, you know, I knew a lot of gay men. And, I think, before I had any, you know, sense of, you know, any kind of attraction or sexuality or anything like that, I think I just identified on a more human level with them. And I think I felt like I saw myself in them and that that seemed like the kind of person that I might become.
So I think, yes, on some level, I was always aware. And then, of course, once I was through puberty and old enough to understand - or at least in the midst of puberty - understand what that really meant, that's when I was like, oh, of course. That's what this is.
GROSS: Were you at age 6 feeling any kind of disconnect between being, like, the heterosexual prince who awakens - oh, no. Wait. It's "Cinderella," not "Sleeping Beauty." Right.
PLATT: Yes, just chases after her and puts - not that - I mean, not that much disconnect because he does try shoes on a bunch of women. And he also - I was wearing a sequined sort of...
PLATT: ...Sort of a sparkly vest that I loved wearing. So no, I think I was just thrilled to be in a cute outfit and singing songs.
GROSS: Right. And then you were in a production of the "Music Man" at the Hollywood Bowl when you were how old?
PLATT: I was 9. Yeah. That was my first professional gig.
GROSS: That's pretty big, 9-years-old. And you were Winthrop, who's the - like, the kid who stutters and gets to sing "Gary, Indiana." Were you nervous being in such, like, a big and important venue? I mean, that's not a school stage or summer camp.
PLATT: Yes and no. I mean, the opportunity came out of the fact that my - the casting director from the bowl approached Janet Adderley, who ran my youth theater program, and said that they were going to do "Music Man" at the bowl. They were going to start doing this tradition of doing a musical every summer. And of course, "Music Man" has lots of kids in it. They needed a band and Amaryllis and Winthrop. And did she have any kids that she wanted to send in? And so much to my good fortune, she asked my parents if they would let me go in. And I think I was nervous about it, but mostly just excited that I could add another show period to my calendar, like, to the roster of activities that I had to do. So the idea of getting to do my Adderley show and then also doing another musical, regardless of what it was, was, like, thrilling.
And so I think, probably, there was a moment of adjustment of how large that house is and, obviously, on what a large scale it is. But I think I just got so much joy from singing and performing and also being taken seriously. Like, to be in a situation where there are adults and this is people's jobs and, you know, everybody is as kind of die-hard passionate about it as I felt, I think I just felt, like, kind of in heaven. So I think mostly it was just an exciting shift as opposed to, like, a scary one.
GROSS: It strikes me that, like, well, Broadway, but also, like, the theater community in high school, you know, like, the theater kids, that that would be two of the most comfortable places to be if you're gay because, like, so many people on Broadway are gay. Like, if Broadway was homophobic, that would be kind of ridiculous. I mean...
GROSS: ...I'm sure some people are. But really, though, it's got to be a relatively comfortable place, and maybe ditto in - you know, among theater kids in high school. So did those seem like comfortable places?
PLATT: Absolutely. I mean, I think, in terms of the scale of the gay experience, I had a huge amount of privilege in the sense that I was in a liberal bubble. And my parents were very accepting. And I had known and worked with gay people my whole life. And I had other gay people in my school. And as you said, my theater program was very open about those things - and, you know, certainly felt accepted and did not face the kind of adversity that so many young queer people have to face. That is truly just revolting, that it's still happening. But, I think, regardless of that, you know, any queer experience - which I think is also shifting in the right direction, which is very encouraging.
But I think any sort of young queer experience, there will be aspects of society or, you know, institutions or things that are in place that just don't feel made for you or that don't feel, you know, that they've been created with you in mind, you know? For me what comes to mind is, you know, summer camp, which I loved going to summer camp. And I loved my Jewish summer camp. And I know that, you know, even in the recent years they've done more work to kind of service, you know, queer kids and kids that are, you know, non-binary or trans, trans youth.
But I think, you know, going to something that is so binary like that, where, you know, you're spending so much time with, you know, your male counterparts, and so much emphasis is put on separation, you know, while you're a young person who's queer, connecting pretty much only with girls - all my friends were girls. And so, you know, the inability to, you know, be part of that community and to feel like sort of an outlier in the sort of male side of things, I think, was my kind of version of that outsider experience of being a queer person. But again, I couldn't have been luckier in terms of the hand that I was dealt in that regard. And to your question, yes, theater, more so than any industry, I think, has always been not only welcoming to queer people, but essentially, you know, built and run by queer people. And it's - they're, like, the lifeblood of the whole thing.
GROSS: You mentioned Jewish summer camp. Is that where you were Sky Masterson in a Hebrew version - Hebrew-language version of "Guys And Dolls"?
PLATT: (Laughter) That is - yes, that's correct. When you're in the oldest age group, you're allowed to be in the musical, finally. And of course, it was "Guys And Dolls" my year. So I was Sky Masterson in Hebrew.
GROSS: Could you possibly sing a few bars of, maybe, "Luck Be A Lady" in Hebrew?
PLATT: Yes, I can.
GROSS: Oh, good.
PLATT: (Singing in Hebrew).
GROSS: That's great. Did you know Hebrew? Or were you just kind of doing it phonetically?
PLATT: I knew some. I went to Jewish day school through middle school and was bar mitzvah'd. And so I knew the pronunciation and how to read and write. Obviously, I needed some help with the meaning of things. But yeah, that's kind of - that was the height of my Hebrew. I think my - I've lost a lot of that skill now. I can probably make my way through a very, you know, generic conversation. But I certainly don't know what many of the words I just sang mean.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So you come from a showbiz family. Your father, Marc Platt, has produced, you know, musicals on stage and screen as well as dramas. So did you have a very showbizzy (ph) mitzvah?
PLATT: I did, but that was purely of my own desire and my own making. I really wanted a musical theater-themed bar mitzvah, of course, because it was my passion and the only thing that I cared to obsess over. And so each table was a different musical, and I was at the "Wicked" table, naturally. All of the little table cards were tickets, you know, for the show. And I performed "Walk Like A Man" as Frankie Valli, and my brothers and father were the other Four Seasons. And so we were in, you know, matching...
GROSS: Oh, that's great 'cause the bar mitzvah is when you officially become a man (laughter).
PLATT: Exactly, exactly. My dad would be so proud that you got that thematic element. So yeah. It definitely was as theatery (ph) as they come. And then my family has a beautiful tradition of performing songs for each other at events. So if it's a - you know, it's a wedding, then you, you know, perform a rewritten song about the couple or, if it's a bar mitzvah, a rewritten song about the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. And, you know, my immediate family will do this. Then my group of first cousins will sing a song. My aunts and uncles will sing a song. It's a really wonderful tradition.
And so for my bar mitzvah, my parents and siblings sang a medley from "Company" which is a, you know, wonderful Stephen Sondheim musical. And my - you know, my dad rewrote, you know, "Company" to be about Benjamin. And if you know the show, it starts with all these, you know, pet names for the character of Bobby. But in my case, it was Benny, Benny, Bubi, Benny, Baby. And they sang, you know, a kind of a full medley of rewritten songs from that. And that, I think, was one of the greatest gifts I've received of any kind - is that song, and I keep the lyrics with me still. And my dad is very proud of the lyricism in that particular song.
GROSS: So I think this would be a good time to take another short break. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Platt, and he stars in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." He originated the role on Broadway and won a Tony in 2017 for his performance. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CURE SONG, "IN BETWEEN DAYS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ben Platt. He stars in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway show "Dear Evan Hansen." He won a Tony in 2017 for his performance in the starring role of the original Broadway production. He also has a new album called "Reverie." And you can see him in the new anthology series "The Premise" in the episode called "Social Justice Sex Tape."
I think you got to see a lot of Broadway shows when you were growing up because your father, Marc Platt, is a producer who's done shows including the musicals - he did the films "La La Land" and the film adaptation of "Into The Woods." He produced those and, on Broadway, I think, "Wicked" and "The Band's Visit" among other shows.
PLATT: Yes - "Wicked," "Band's Visit," "War Paint," "If/Then."
GROSS: Oh, "If/Then," yeah. So did you fly back and forth from the West Coast to New York to see Broadway shows a lot?
PLATT: As much as we could. You know, my parents were also very careful to not interrupt our kind of school schedule and our kind of - the sort of stability of our lives in LA. So we weren't necessarily, like, flip-flopping as much as I maybe would have loved as a person who just wanted to be on Broadway and be in New York. So I didn't see my first actual sort of Broadway show in terms of a production literally in New York on Broadway until I was, like, I think 11 or 12, when I saw "Thoroughly Modern Millie" with Sutton Foster and Gavin Creel.
Up until that point, I had just been seeing, you know, tours at the Pantages, you know, which are similar quality and, you know, the Ahmanson Theatre and the things that were, you know, available to us as kids in LA. But certainly, once I was old enough to have kind of autonomy and a desire to see, my parents, of course, were very supportive of me being able to be exposed to whatever art we could, most especially for me, obviously, musical theater. So, yes, I am blessed to have seen a lot of great Broadway pieces over the years.
GROSS: And did you get to go backstage and meet people?
PLATT: Yes. Well, I - when I went to "Thoroughly Modern Millie," I went backstage, and I met Gavin Creel who - I was - you know, was an idol of mine and remains an idol of mine. He's just one of the greatest theater voices ever, I think, and sort of definitely a huge influence into the way that I sing, particularly musical theater. And so I think I had sort of a dual realization. I was like, A, I really want to be this guy and have this life and show people around backstage and do a musical all the time. And, you know, B, I think I am in love with him, and I'm probably gay. So it was a nice...
PLATT: It was a nice kind of a double - two birds, one stone. And then, of course, fast-forward to 2017, and we won our Tonys together in the same year, which is a very special kind of full-circle closure kind of a thing.
GROSS: What did he win it for?
PLATT: He won for playing Cornelius in "Hello, Dolly!" alongside, once again, Beanie Feldstein.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Oh, (laughter) I love that you and Beanie Feldstein went to prom together. And for people who don't know her by name, she was the best friend in the movie "Lady Bird." And right now, as we record this, she's playing Monica Lewinsky in the FX series "Impeachment."
PLATT: Yes, indeed. She's about to be Fanny Brice on Broadway as well. She'll be the first, since Barbra, to do "Funny Girl" on Broadway next season.
GROSS: Oh, wow, that's so great.
PLATT: Yeah, which is truly wild (laughter).
GROSS: And you're going to be together in a film adaptation by Richard Linklater of a great Stephen Sondheim musical called "Merrily We Roll Along." We'll talk about that later (laughter).
PLATT: Great (laughter).
GROSS: You know, I neglected to mention - when mentioning some of your father's credits, I neglected to mention the most obvious one, which is that he's one of the producers of the film adaptation of "Dear Evan Hansen." What was it like to work with your father? I think it could be very inhibiting to work closely with a parent on a project. Not for everybody, but for some people, it certainly can be. And even, like, when you're on stage, if there's one person who you know who's in the audience and who you know very well, that could be - I think that could be really awkward because you think of the - you worry about what that individual who you know and who knows you so well thinks of you onstage (laughter).
PLATT: Totally. I mean, I think - it's an interesting question 'cause obviously, yes, there is some discomfort in terms of how vulnerable and intimate of a performance this particular character demands. And obviously, you don't really want your parents around watching you do those things. But I think because of the specific situation that this was, which was kind of the first time that we've properly collaborated - you know, this is a project that I've been involved in for many years and that I think I, you know, sort of would have come to regardless.
And so of the same token, you know, as you mentioned, his specialty is adapting musical theater to film. And that's very much his wheelhouse. And so it finally felt like this kind of project that, you know, I - we would both be approaching from our respective lanes in a very kind of natural way. And also, it's the kind of performance that I already had kind of my feet on the ground, in terms of what I wanted to do. And I didn't necessarily need a ton of sort of external guidance in terms of what I - how I wanted the performance to play out. And so, you know, his role ended up being quite separate from me.
You know, I think the COVID of it all really added to that, in terms of the fact that I wasn't ever really able to regularly see anyone other than my cast. And so I wasn't, like, you know, getting to communicate as frequently with the writers as you might in another scenario or see their faces. And, you know, my father and I were not in the same zone. So we weren't allowed to be - close contact. So I never really saw his full face without a mask. And I - you know, we weren't really touching or hugging.
And so it was quite a separate experience. But I would say, you know, knowing how gifted he is at translating musical theater storytelling to the screen and knowing that there was that kind of an eye and that kind of a taste level in the - sort of hovering over the piece and sort of protecting the piece, I definitely felt a lot of security in that and a lot of trust so that I could go out on all of the kind of emotional limbs that I needed to go out on and, you know, just know that in a very special way that the piece and the performance would be taken care of.
GROSS: OK. Time for another short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Platt. He stars in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." He originated the role on Broadway and won a Tony in 2017 for his performance. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "22-M (OPUS 58)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ben Platt. He stars in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." He won a Tony in 2017 for his performance in the starring role of the original Broadway production. He also has a new album called "Reverie."
You have a great coming-out story. And what's great about it is how totally uneventful it was (laughter). So can I ask you to tell the story?
PLATT: Of course. Of course. So I was on a trip to Israel. I went to, as I mentioned, Jewish day school through eighth grade. So I was about 13 - 12 or 13. And I was on a field trip to Israel with my class. And I already have ideas of who I was. And I hadn't necessarily verbalized it to anyone. But I just - I wasn't so confused. I think I just needed an excuse to talk about it. So basically, there was a kid in my class who sort of publicly, on the bus, made a comment about how lucky I was to be gay because I got to hang out with all the girls. And they let me be their friend and hang out with them. And, you know, they would tell me all their secrets - blah, blah, blah, blah - which, ultimately, was true, you know? All my friends were girls. And they were the ones that I confided in and I connected to. And I don't think the comment was even meant in kind of a derogatory, bullying sort of way. I think it was just a true observation. And, you know, I - that's who I hang - hung out with. And, you know, they did let me into their fold.
And, anyway, the - our chaperone overheard this comment and took it as a kind of a bullying incident, which, you know, I'm sure on some level, it was - but was going to notify my parents about it and, you know, wanted to handle it properly. And I thought to myself in that moment, you know, let me get up ahead of this because I don't want the first conversation that we have about this subject to be based on this incident and not even come from me.
So when we got back to the hotel, I called my parents. And I got on the phone with my mom. And I said, you know, I have to talk to you about something. And I didn't really have any other words to get the conversation going because, again, I was, like, 12, 13. I don't know how you start that conversation. And I think my mom knew pretty instantly what I was calling about. And after letting me, you know, be silent for a little bit, she just said, you know, is this about your sexuality? And I said, yes. And she said, you know, first of all, you're very young. And you're allowed to, you know, change your mind a million times if you want. And - but also know that, like, this is not a huge surprise to us, you know?
PLATT: I had spent my whole childhood sort of dressed as Dorothy from "The Wizard Of Oz," so I don't think there was much surprise involved. And she told me that she had books that she'd been waiting to read that she now was going to read that I thought was very sweet - and, you know, just responded in the kind of weird but wonderfully accepting and loving way that any parent who is, you know, accepting and open but still, you know, talking about sexuality with their child would respond, in the sense that it's always going to be a little stilted and awkward, but so much kindness and love and openness - and then handed the phone to my father, who asked me, you know, are you being safe? And I was 12, so I didn't really know what that meant. And so I said, I don't think I'm quite at the stage where I know what that means, which I think he was very relieved by. And that was kind of it. And, you know, we didn't ever really have to talk about specifically that aspect of it again.
You know, I did feel comfortable talking about guys that I liked or was dating. Or, you know, my mom had lots of questions about, you know, would you still think you want kids someday and, you know, all the - you know, she's just more concerned with, you know, am I still going to have a Jewish family and, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah. But again, I think in terms of the scale of queer experiences, I was dealt an incredibly privileged and accepting and loving hand that I really try not to take for granted.
GROSS: I have to ask you about a project that you're doing now with Richard Linklater, the film director who, among other things, did "Boyhood." And in "Boyhood," it was shot over a period of years. And we watch everybody - we watch all the actors actually get older as their characters get older because real time has elapsed. It's - the same amount of time has elapsed in real life as it does in the film when we watch the boy grow up. And now you're doing that with "Merrily We Roll Along," which is a wonderful Stephen Sondheim musical that closed really quickly when it was first produced on Broadway, and now it has, like, a real following. It's been revived a bunch.
And so Linklater is making a film adaptation. And this is a show that takes place over - I don't know - about 18 or 20 years. And it starts in the present, and then it goes back in time as the scenes progress. So we start with the characters kind of in middle age, and then it goes all the way back to when they - the day they're graduating from high school with all these idealistic ideas of what the future will be. It seems like such a gamble starting a project that's going to film over 18 years. It's such a long commitment. I mean, what better thing to commit to than a Stephen Sondheim musical? But it's such an act of faith.
PLATT: Absolutely. I mean, I think it's a passion project with a capital P. It's - I think the idea, the conceit, is just such a uniquely effective idea. So many of us love "Merrily We Roll Along," and there have been a lot of great productions that have done so many beautiful things with it. But I think there's always that one level of disconnect of having to watch the same actors play the course of 18 or 20 years and wanting to really feel the pain of what that fallout was. And to see people go from their most jaded to their most naive is such a moving thing even when you're sort of playing at it on stage. So the idea of really watching in real time, you know, actors de-age and go back to their most sort of fresh-faced, naive selves - as you said, it's a leap of faith. It's going one sequence at a time.
The idea is to shoot, you know, one every couple years, and we're trying to do the first at the end of this year. As daunting as it is to board something that's theoretically going to be for 18 years and as unrealistic as that feels and sounds, I think it's too exciting and special of an opportunity not to at least try. And I think we'll take it one sequence at a time. And God willing, one day it'll come together. And if it doesn't, we'll have at least spent these, you know, few years making something special. And I certainly hope it does.
GROSS: It's such a long commitment. So you'll be in your, like, mid- or late 40s by the time the shooting wraps up. Is it forcing you to think about, who will I be then? What will my life be?
PLATT: I think about that anyway because, as I said, I spend a lot of time worrying about what's to come and what has happened already and not as much as I should being where I am. So, yes, I think it's made me think about, will this be the one kind of holdover at that stage in my life that I'm still doing, or will I still be working all the time? Or will I be, you know, God willing, still singing my own music and maybe just doing that and this is what I pop into? Or, you know, will I be on stage for the rest of my life, which would be wonderful, too, you know? Will I hopefully, God willing, be with Noah, and will we have children?
And I think I'd love to hopefully, theoretically, be at some point a bit more of a behind-the-scenes kind of a person. I'd love to continue to write and to hopefully maybe direct theater someday and, you know, get to do things that are creative, maybe even teach, you know, musical theater to young people just to stay connected to the art and to the thing that makes me the happiest even past the point of maybe feeling up to doing it myself. But for now, I'm grateful to be doing it myself.
GROSS: You're going to have to sing your character Charlie's showstopping number, "Franklin Shepard, Inc." It's a very kind of resentful song about how his former songwriting partner has become more about making money than about making art. And it's something you have to sing very, very fast. So are you practicing that already?
PLATT: Well, yes. I grew up listening to many show tunes in the car with my family, and one of our very frequent go-tos that my father loves and all of us love is "Franklin Shepard, Inc." We love to sing that song - that patter song together in the car. So it's very much ingrained in me.
I think before I even understood what all the elements are he's singing - you know, he sings, like, the buzzer from his office, and he sings his - as his secretary and he sings as his therapist and as his agent. And when I was too young to understand that, it was just a really fun kind of run-on sentence that it was fun to memorize. So now it's nice to reenter it as an adult. I mean, I won't theoretically be singing that song for about 10, 12 years, but the opportunity to put my mark on that kind of iconic number is one of the biggest draws to this role, for sure.
GROSS: And he's typing while he sings it. So the typing is part of the percussion.
PLATT: Yes. Typing and singing seems to be following me wherever I go, it seems.
GROSS: Oh, that's true. Yeah.
GROSS: I hadn't thought of that. Ben Platt, it's just been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming on our show.
PLATT: Thank you for having me. I really, really appreciate it.
GROSS: Ben Platt stars in the new film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Anita Hill. It's been 30 years since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings where she testified he'd sexually harassed her. We'll look back on the hearings and talk about how that experience changed her life and turned her into an activist for women's rights and against gender-based violence. She has a new book called "Believing." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG ORCHESTRA'S "OVERTURE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG ORCHESTRA'S "OVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.