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Ben Platt on Meeting Beyonce and Leaving ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

The lead role in Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen” not only earned Ben Platt a Tony Award, he now curates an Instagram account with more star sightings than the Met Gala. Since the musical became a smash hit last fall, celebrities like Julianne Moore, Morgan Freeman and Ralph Fiennes have come backstage night after night to pay their respects. But there’s A-list, and then there’s God.

On the afternoon he speaks to Variety, the 24-year-old Platt is reeling from an encounter with Beyoncé. Just the night before, Queen Bey came to see “Dear Evan Hansen” and sneaked a visit to his dressing room after the show. What did she have to say to him? “She called me an alien,” Platt says, beaming like it’s the biggest compliment he’s ever gotten.

“The one thing I usually say about her is that I don’t understand how she’s a human being, because she’s able to dance full out and sing with such skill and you never feel that she’s out of breath,” says Platt, who listens to her songs during SoulCycle. “It’s so perfect, she must be otherworldly. So for her to say that to me — I’m still sort of in denial that it happened.”

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Platt has become Broadway’s biggest breakout since “Hamilton” turned Lin-Manuel Miranda into a national treasure. His Tony-winning turn as Evan, an awkward teen who lets a lie spiral out of control, has moved him beyond the character-actor box (in films like “Pitch Perfect”) and into nerdy heartthrob territory. Fans clamor at the stage door to catch a glimpse, and he counts hundreds of thousands of groupies on social media.

Platt’s volcanically emotional performance, which he initially delivered eight times a week, has him singing and weeping simultaneously. His Tony capped off a year of critical praise and a spot on Time’s list of 2017’s most influential people.

But aside from the trophy on his mantle, Platt has spent the last year embracing an ascetic lifestyle that kept him healthy enough to play the demanding role of Evan. He slept eight to nine hours a night, exercised regularly (mostly SoulCycle; weight training could have a constrictive effect on his voice), took supplements like fish oil and bromelain and oregano, and saw a physical therapist (to counteract the effects of Evan’s hunched posture) and a voice teacher twice a week each. He wound down late at night with episodes of favorite TV comedies like “Parks and Recreation” and “The Mindy Project.”

“I think Ben was officially attached to the project the minute he opened his mouth.”
Stacey Mindich, “Dear Evan Hansen” Producer

With his final performance in “Dear Evan Hansen” slated for Nov. 19, he’s looking back over a wild ride of a year — and confronting an increasingly urgent question. What does he do for an encore?

In person, Platt’s much more at ease in his own skin than Evan, and has far better posture. But they share a jittery energy, which for Platt manifests in mile-a-minute speech, boundless enthusiasm and a quick, self-effacing sense of humor. “I’m generally pretty anxious, and it’s something I certainly have dealt with and had bouts of in the past,” he admits of the traits he shares with Evan. Then he follows up with a wisecrack: “And it’s something I always sort of have an underlying level of, given my Judaism.”

Born in Los Angeles as the fourth of five children, the actor is the son of Marc Platt, the successful producer of films (“La La Land,” “Bridge of Spies”) and musicals (“Wicked”), giving him an insider’s view of the industry at an early age. The elder Platt recalls his son reenacting Disney animated musicals in the backyard — and even performing an early version of “Wicked” before the show’s 2003 San Francisco debut, based on audio recordings of a table read. “I can’t remember a time in Ben’s life when I didn’t think, ‘This kid’s a performer,’” Marc Platt says.

Ben recalls watching “The Wizard of Oz” every day as a child and dressing up as Dorothy. “I had a blue jumper that was sort of close enough to what Dorothy was wearing, and I would carry around my giant Labrador retriever as Toto,” he says.

His earliest role came at age 6 in a school production of “Cinderella” — “I was the prince in a blue sequined vest” — and his first professional gig was at 8 in the Hollywood Bowl’s production of “The Music Man” (opposite Eric McCormack). After finishing high school at Harvard-Westlake, he deferred college for a year to film his dweeby supporting role in the first “Pitch Perfect,” and then spent just seven weeks at Columbia University before he landed the part of Elder Cunningham in “The Book of Mormon,” in which he starred in Chicago for one year and on Broadway for another.

He came to the attention of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriters of “Dear Evan Hansen,” when he auditioned for the 2012 Off Broadway premiere of their musical “Dogfight.” Platt was deemed too young for that production, but the songwriting duo pledged to keep in touch — and to Platt’s surprise, they did, asking him to play the lead in a 2014 reading of what was then called “Untitled PPL Project,” after Pasek, Paul and book writer Steven Levenson. Platt wasn’t allowed to read the script until he was in the rehearsal room.

Still, he wowed everyone, assuaging creators’ concerns that Evan, who makes a few morally questionable decisions over the course of the show, might not prove likable enough. “I think Ben was officially attached to the project the minute he opened his mouth,” says producer Stacey Mindich.

Once “Dear Evan Hansen” premiered at Arena Stage in D.C. in 2015, it started to become clear that younger audiences in particular connect with the heartfelt story about suicide, social media and teenage feelings of alienation. The fan base expanded during a well-received run at Off Broadway’s Second Stage in 2016, and it helped propel the show to Broadway, where, as a smaller-scale musical with
serious themes, it has become an unlikely sales powerhouse.

Ryan Pfluger for Variety

Given the highly personal response from audiences — and the touchy nature of the subject of teen suicide, as exemplified by the controversy that rose around Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” — Platt admits that when interacting with fans at the stage door, it’s a difficult line to walk between wanting to be supportive and not stepping into territory best navigated by a doctor. “But the show isn’t really about suicide,” he says. “It’s trying to be life-affirming, and show that there’s always a reason to stay moving and stay alive and stay on the lookout for people who will love you.”

It’s the same sentiment he encapsulated in his memorable acceptance speech at the Tony Awards, where he took a stand for oddballs everywhere. Surprisingly eloquent as the speech was, Platt didn’t write it out word for word. “I had bullet points on my computer over time that I accrued, even some from before this ever happened,” he explains. “Like, I’d have a sentiment about my father, and I’d think, ‘Maybe I’ll write that down.’ I’d done it for a couple years. I always hoped maybe this would happen, but I felt weird about actually writing a speech.”

Platt performed eight shows a week in “Evan Hansen” for months, but since early September he’s down to six performances, with his understudy Michael Lee Brown performing two matinees a week. Given the demands of the role, that division of labor will endure for Platt’s replacements (beginning with Noah Galvin, the “Real O’Neals” star who joins the cast Nov. 21), who’ll play six shows per week, with an alternate subbing in for two shows.

Until Galvin takes over, Platt’s focused on enjoying his final weeks in “Dear Evan Hansen,” filling his free time with spin classes and quiet gatherings with a close group of friends that includes Beanie Feldstein, currently on Broadway in “Hello, Dolly!,” and Molly Gordon (“Animal Kingdom”). Playing Evan doesn’t allow him the right hours for going out dancing, which he enjoys, or for dating. “I’ve tried to, but it’s difficult,” he says. “When this is over, that’ll be a focus. There’s time.”

Professionally, his next moves include an Oct. 5 guest appearance on “Will & Grace” (he plays a younger man who’s dating McCormack’s Will) and a record deal he recently signed with Atlantic. For the latter, it’s very early days, but he’s thinking about featuring new songs (possibly some with lyrics he’s written himself) that lean toward pop with a little bit of soul. “Maybe like a Shawn Mendes/Charlie Puth meets Ray Charles,” he says. Plus something you can dance to. “I would love to have something on the radio, for sure.”

Looking ahead to his career as an actor, he sounds excited about the possibility of movies, although his “Dear Evan Hansen” collaborators hope he’ll continue to originate new musical theater roles. A couple of them see him directing someday. (“That’s always been in the back of my mind, so maybe,” he acknowledges.)

Before all that, he can offer to future Evans some of the insight he’s gleaned — for example: Don’t overplay your anxious, pitiable side in an effort to get the audience to like you, because that’s off-putting. Ultimately, his advice boils down to the mantra that seems likely to guide him, too, as he leaves Evan behind. “Just trust in your ability to be honest and to play it moment to moment,” he says, “and it’ll all be fine.”

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