Ben Platt, the Tony-winning original star of “Dear Evan Hansen,” is leaning backward over a piano and singing scales. His head’s cradled in one hand of his voice teacher, Liz Caplan, and she’s playing piano with the other. It looks awkward and uncomfortable for both actor and teacher, but something about the position opens up Platt’s sound as he vocalizes into a higher register. It’s like a magic trick.
“She has illustrated to me in so many ways how the body can tense, tighten and sabotage itself when the mind isn’t in the right place,” says Platt, who credits Caplan for his ability to sustain his physically and emotionally intense performance in “Dear Evan Hansen.” (He even thanked her in his acceptance speech at the Tony Awards.) “Her ability to pinpoint and correct that is one of the things that makes her a genius.”
Platt is far from the only devotee. If you’ve seen a show on Broadway or watched a musical film lately, chances are Caplan’s had a hand in it. She’s the vocal supervisor for “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Book of Mormon,” “Miss Saigon” and “Aladdin.” She worked with Dan Stevens and Emma Watson on “Beauty and the Beast,” and she’s the vocal producer on “The Greatest Showman,” the Hugh Jackman-led P.T. Barnum movie that arrived in theaters this past Dec. 20. She also consulted with Pixar on its animated hit “Coco.”
Caplan’s unconventional approach and signature mix of physical, vocal and spiritual techniques have earned her a swarm of A-list students like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles and John Mulaney. Those who swear by her methods have a devotion reminiscent of a family or a cult. “She’s the master of what I’ll call ‘Inside-Out Yoga,’” says Stephen Colbert. “She reaches right down your throat, past your lungs, and just grabs you by the spine. She loosens what’s too tight, and she tightens what’s too loose.”
Jackman began working with her at the urging of “Showman” songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (also the songwriters of “Dear Evan Hansen”), because the performer needed to adopt a pop sound versus a traditional musical theater approach for the film. “Prior to Liz, I felt I needed to produce a sound, a shape, and really push it,” Jackman says. “With Liz, I found what my true voice is and to enjoy it, accept it and get myself vocally to my full potential.”
The petite, blond Caplan begins many of her sentences with “I can’t believe it.” The walls of her Chelsea voice studio are covered with signed posters, notes and emails from her famous students singing her praises.
“I’m still a fangirl of my whole career,” she says. “My goal is to make sure that everyone can do their work without fear or stress or feeling like whatever they’re doing becomes bigger than they are. It’s physical. It’s psychological, and then, ultimately, it’s vocal. The vocal comes out of getting everything open and seeing what’s there.”
Her voice lessons are intimate experiences. It’s part physical therapy, part yoga class, part counseling. During Platt’s session, she runs around the room — in heels — positioning him, massaging his vocal cords, even leading him through seated exercises. Her energy is impressive for someone who has been working for four decades. “I’m on my toes, and I never can phone it in,” she says.
Caplan always wanted to be a vocal teacher. Her parents would drive her to friends’ houses in high school so she could work with them on songs from the school musical, and she studied voice and theater in college. After she moved to New York City and began performing in piano bars, people would come up to ask about her technique. She gained clients that way, and after about four years, she devoted herself full-time to coaching.
In the corner of her studio, a music stand holds two books: a volume on human anatomy and Kristin Linklater’s “Freeing the Natural Voice.” Over the course of her career, Caplan has apprenticed with acupuncturists, dance therapists and other specialists to develop her holistic approach. “On my weekends, I’m reading anatomy and physiology books,” she says.
When she works on a project, she makes sure the songs are going to be sustainable for the actors to sing day in and day out. For the Broadway-bound stage-musical adaptation of “Frozen,” she worked intimately with Caissie Levy, who plays Elsa, to ensure the actress can sing “Let It Go” eight times a week. “My job is to fight the good fight in a very diplomatic way, to make sure that people are not going to get hurt,” Caplan says. “It’s not a film. You’re not singing it, and then you don’t have to sing it again.”
“She’s the master of what I’ll call ‘Inside-Out Yoga.’ She reaches right down your throat, past your lungs, and just grabs you by the spine.”
Levy says Caplan gets very specific when breaking down a number. “With ‘Let It Go,’ we spent lots of time working on where to place certain vowels and how to chew up the consonants so I stay on the ‘front foot’ of the song, rather than let it get back-phrased and reflective,” Levy explains. Her costume weighs about 15 pounds, which creates another physical challenge when singing. “Liz and I work on my physicality and posture in order to keep the vocals free, relaxed and resonant, especially as the song climbs higher and higher.”
Neil Patrick Harris began working with Caplan when he hosted the Tonys and continued with her for his Tony-winning performance in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” for which Caplan was the vocal supervisor. “I’ve worked with vocal coaches on and off for many years, but the one thing that I adore about Liz is her positivity,” says Harris. “She’s a bright light of positivity, and that’s something you don’t find often in her profession.”
Caplan believes anyone can learn to sing. “If you can hear pitch, if you hear sirens, and you hear the movement of sound, you can replicate the sound,” she says. She doesn’t work with aspiring actors anymore, but she has trained a few associates in her technique. She also has an app for singers, and she’s working on a book. She’s at a point in her career where she doesn’t have to hustle, but the hustle never stops.
“I keep thinking every experience has been the ultimate career highlight,” she says. “I never feel like I want to take anything for granted for one second.”