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Ben Platt on Why ‘The Politician’ Wouldn’t Have Worked Without Music

How do you humanize an overly ambitious and egomaniacal high schooler who jaunts around in a vintage convertible worth more than the average teacher’s salary? Make him sing.

That’s why Ryan Murphy cast Ben Platt and his perfect pipes in Netflix’s “The Politician” as Payton Hobart, a power-hungry, turtleneck-clad teen who sets his sights on becoming class president and later, the free world.

“Payton is a difficult character to root for,” Platt, best known for his Tony-winning performance in “Dear Evan Hansen,” told Variety. “Ryan knew it would be important to hear him sing and see his humanity. Ryan tried to be very judicious to not make it a musical world, it’s only when Peyton would in reality ever be singing.”

Over the course of the eight-episode campy drama, Platt belts out renditions of classics such as Joni Mitchell’s “River,” Billy Joel’s “Vienna” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Unworthy of Your Love.” The EP for “The Politician,” which dropped Tuesday and hit No. 1 on iTunes charts in less than 24 hours, includes the trio of hits performed in the show, as well as “Run Away,” an original song from Platt’s debut album, “Sing to Me Instead.”

Platt spoke with Variety about crafting musical moments in “The Politician,” working with his iconic co-stars Gwyneth Paltrow (who portrays his adoptive mother), Bette Midler and Judith Light (future political opponents) and his latest project, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of “Merrily We Roll Along,” which will be shot over the course of 20 years.

How did the playlist come together?

“River” was always part of the script because [David Corenswet’s] character is named is River and it lines up so well. “Run Away,” which is my own original song, was serendipitous because there was a scene written where River and Peyton would play something on the piano together, but it didn’t specify what it was. Aside from thinking it would work on a personal level, I knew if we used my own song we wouldn’t have to get it cleared by anyone besides me. Brad Falchuk, who was directing, really loved it.

“Unworthy of Your Love” I didn’t know about until halfway through shooting. Stephen Sondheim is very important to me so I was really happy we got to do that, particularly that I got to do it with Zoey [Deutch] because I don’t think people know what a great singer she is. For “Vienna,” a few weeks before we got the script for the finale, Ryan reached out to me and said, “I’m going to name the episode after a song Peyton is going to sing at the piano bar at Marie’s Crisis in New York.” He gave me three songs, I can’t remember what the other two were, but one was “Vienna” by Billy Joel. I jumped at it because I’ve always wanted to sing it and it really personifies Peyton and his ambition.

Which came first: the character named River or the decision to cover Joni Mitchell’s song?

I believe the character name because I know River Phoenix was Ryan’s inspiration for River. The song was just a stroke of Ryan Murphy’s genius — what a great match.

What’s the hardest part about mastering a Billy Joel song?

Playing it on the piano at the same time. The piano in the actual recording was a professional pianist, but I wanted to make sure it looked as real as possible when I was doing the scene. I learned it on the piano and accompanied myself in the room so it would match as well as it could. But learning a Billy Joel song is so easy because they are so well written and they worm their way into your mind right away.

Have you started working on the second season of “The Politician”?

We start shooting in 10 days. I don’t really know much, I’ve only seen the first episode but I know there’s a lot about the transit system, climate change, young voter turnout.

Are you prepared to spar on-screen with Bette Midler and Judith Light this season?

I’ve spent a lot of time with Judith, who is the most wonderful person. I think I’ll be a little more intimidated by Bette because she’s an icon in musical theater. I’m mostly just so thrilled to show up and rise to their level.

Are there any songs you’d like to cover in Season 2?

I don’t know to what extent, if any, will be [in the script] this time around. It all depends on situationally plot wise where we can fit it. I’ve only read one episode and so far, it’s not a musical situation. But I can’t imagine we won’t find at least one place to do it.

What’s the biggest perk about being on set with Gwyneth Paltrow?

We never have to do many takes because a) she’s brilliant and she never needs more than a few and b) she simply doesn’t have time so whenever Gwyneth was there, everyone is on their toes and working at their most efficient level.

How is working in a professional setting with Beanie Feldstein on “Merrily We Roll Along”?

It’s a dream come true. It’s how we would spend our time if we were just messing around and singing in the car. The fact that we’re able to do it on a soundstage with cameras is ridiculous.

You recently wrote an excellent Yom Kippur-themed jingle. When is a Hanukkah album coming?

[Laughs] I’ve definitely thought a lot about that at some point in life because there are so many great Christmas albums and Christmas songs, and every Hanukkah song is minor and they’re all: “People tried to kill us in the past and they’re going to try to kill us again so let’s take a rest and have a holiday.” I’d like to do one a little cheerier, so maybe one day.

You’re only one award away from an EGOT. How are you going to get that Oscar?

I’m not sure yet. I’m not in any rush because everything has happened very quickly so far, which is great, but if anything I would welcome a little bit of patience and some slowing down. We’re talking about doing a “Dear Evan Hansen” film, I’m hoping to get involved in some non-musical films, so it’s anyone’s guess. It would be a nice cherry on top, but it’s certainly not a target at the moment.

Worst case, “Merrily We Roll Along” comes out in 20 years.

Exactly.

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