Ben Platt, Amy Adams and Amandla Stenberg on ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ Social Media Toxicity — and the Best Broadway Songs for Karaoke
Five years and one pandemic lockdown after “Dear Evan Hansen” opened to acclaim on Broadway, the popular musical is finally ready to shine on the big screen.
Given the prolonged period of solitude during COVID-19, and the reality that we’re still living in plague times, the cast and director of the movie believes “Dear Evan Hansen” will take on more resonance with audiences.
“We’ve all been through this horrible ordeal, and it is ongoing. But [‘Dear Evan Hansen’] is something that talks directly to the isolation,” says the film’s director Stephen Chbosky.
Based on the Tony-winning musical, “Dear Evan Hansen” centers on an anxious high school student, whose therapist recommends he write affirming letters to himself to help alleviate his crippling social anxiety. The harmless exercise soon becomes a catalyst for tragedy when a bullying classmate named Connor Murphy steals one of Evan’s self-addressed notes and later dies by suicide. With Evan’s letter in his possession, Connor’s parents (portrayed by Amy Adams and Danny Pinto) mistakenly take it as a suicide note and assume the two boys were close friends. Evan does little to persuade the grieving family otherwise and becomes an internet celebrity after the (false) story of their friendship spreads online.
The subject matter is heavy but manages to incorporate moments of levity as Evan attempts to navigate the crisis at hand. Platt, whose casting as a 27-year-old playing a teenager has been the subject of social-media criticism, is the only original cast member to reprise his role onscreen. The film also features Julianne Moore as Evan’s mother, Kaitlyn Dever as Connor’s sister Zoe, Amandla Stenberg as Evan’s altruistic classmate Alana.
Ahead of its release in theaters this weekend, Platt, Adams and more spoke to Variety about issues both serious and silly, including the challenges of adapting the stage musical for the screen, the perils of social media and the best belt-worthy Broadway songs.
Ben Platt as Evan Hansen
Since you are playing Evan Hansen in “Dear Evan Hansen,” how often do you and Beanie Feldstein say to each other: “It’s the titular role!”?
It’s my favorite joke to throw in because, obviously, I’m a huge Beanie Feldstein-canon follower. We definitely have bonded over that joke.
What was it like being No. 1 on the call sheet?
It was a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility that I was really privileged and grateful to get to take on. This is a part that I know very intimately and that I feel very lucky I was given the opportunity to bring to fruition in the film. I know that’s not an opportunity that’s often afforded to theater actor, to get to be the one to immortalize it in that way. In terms of this particular film, there was a lot of live singing being asked of a lot of actors for whom this is a new experience. I really wanted to lead in terms of people feeling comfortable to go out on a vulnerable, emotional limb and throw myself out there as much as I could to make people feel fully safe and protected and comfortable doing the same. Because it was during COVID, we were all so grateful to get to hug and see each other’s faces and connect and have an emotional experience. We’d all been so isolated for so long. So to be the captain of that ship, I felt very lucky.
For Broadway, you followed a strict diet and workout regimen. Did you have the same preparation for the movie?
Very similar prep. It was a lot more about the “before” given the nature of a film shoot rather than the sustainability of continually performing eight times a week. The month leading up, I had a very particular regimen involving a Fitbit and a certain amount of miles and what I could and couldn’t eat. I just tried to get a little bit thinner and feel a little bit more like that shrouded, gangly teenager. I grew my hair out and let it get curly and obviously shaved the shit out of my face. [Laughs]
Was there a scene in particular that you were excited to see cinematically?
So many of them are satisfying in that way. One that sticks out is “For Forever” — the scene in the dining room where the Murphys invite Evan over for dinner. I think the intimacy of the way that scene moves into the song and the way that Evan starts to tell the story directly to Amy and Danny and Kaitlyn at the table, the textural difference is so imperceptible. The song feels like such an extension of the drama in a really satisfying and beautiful way. And I love the intimacy that the camera affords in terms of seeing the way that the story that Evan tells affects the family and also the way that it affects Evan.
Do you feel like you’ve changed since you left the part on Broadway?
Totally. I think, much like everybody in the last couple of years because of the world ending and then starting and then ending, I’ve evolved as a person. I’m not fully there… is anyone fully there? But I feel a little more comfortable in who I am and my skin, and I have a partner who loves me and that I love. I’m firmly planted on the ground in who I am as Ben and because of that, I was able to maintain a bit of a healthier separation between the character and me. For my own personal emotional health and mental health, I really appreciated viewing Evan as an entity that I could have empathy and sympathy for and love for rather than as me as my personal self.
How does the tone of “Dear Evan Hansen” compare to the upcoming movie musical you’ll be in, “Merrily We Roll Along”?
Well, we haven’t officially started “Merrily We Roll Along,” but if I were to predict — “Merrily We Roll Along” is also a beautiful, dramatic story. But I think there isn’t any other movie musical, “Merrily We Roll Along” included, that has quite the authenticity and grounded-ness that “Dear Evan Hansen” seems to achieve. It’s one of the only movie musicals I’ve ever seen where none of the musical numbers really fantasize or elevate in any way. There’s no light shift, there’s no theatrical sweeping, reality-changing moment. It really stays entirely grounded and it only becomes extensions of the communication between characters or relationships or narrative. I don’t know that there will ever be, or has ever been, a musical that’s quite as grounded in being a family drama.
The film grapples with the impact of social media. How does social media affect your life?
It’s evolving all the time. I’m learning as I get older how harmful it can be. It’s a beautiful place and I’m so grateful that it’s somewhere I can share my art and connect with people who are affected by the things I make and feel part of a larger community. The way that is expressed in the movie, there are beautiful things about it. But more and more, it’s becoming a place where individual bits of information or images or small things are really blown out of proportion or taken out of context. It can start a wildfire quite quickly because of how instantaneous and anonymous it is. I try to temper my relationship in the sense that I monitor how much validation or connection or really meaningful interaction am I relying on social media for any given point? Or, whenever possible, how can I extract that away and make that something that is real and concerns of the people that are in my life and know me 360 in person?
On a lighter note, what’s the best Broadway show tune for karaoke?
There’s so many. I really like “Summer Nights” [from “Grease”] because then it can be a duet with Sandy and you can get all of your friends to play the T-Birds and Pink Ladies. It can be a group moment. Also, there’s not as much pressure to, like, perform. Often when I do karaoke, especially if it’s a show tune, I feel this weird pressure to actually give a performance. Karaoke is supposed to be this fun, participatory thing. So that song really takes the pressure off.
What show tune should be retired from karaoke?
Ooh, I feel like we’ve heard “Memory” enough times in karaoke. I mean, I love “Memory” and I think it’s great in the context of “Cats,” but we’ve heard it. We’ve had a lot of covers of it, and I think we’re good.
Amy Adams and Danny Pinto as Cynthia Murphy and Larry Mora
Were you able to see “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway?
Amy Adams: I was late to the game, so I didn’t see it until 2019. I immediately was obsessed. I downloaded the album, shared it with my daughter and then brought her back three weeks later with my husband. I think they thought I was a little crazy, going twice in a month. I’m not typically this ambitious, but I immediately called my agent and said, “If they ever make a film of ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ I really would love to be a part of it.” It had such an effect on me and started so many important conversations. I thought would be really important to bring to the screen so more people could have access to Evan’s story.
Danny Pinto: I, embarrassingly, was not — I was aware of the musical, but I had not seen it. I regret, in a big way, having not seen it on stage. But there is a significant part of my experience that I’m grateful I didn’t have the influence of watching a fantastic actor play Larry and have to find my way through that performance in order to find my own. So, in a way, the innocence of approaching it from my perspective was a gift.
Amy, how did filming this movie musical compare making “Enchanted” ?
Adams: It’s very different, clearly. [Laughs] Watching this and watching other musicals, one of the things that was so beautiful about the way they approach the music is they never wanted it to feel like a performance. They always wanted it to feel like a conversation. I kept thinking of it as singing “in” as opposed to singing “out.” There’s an intimacy to the songs in this that’s quite different from any other musical that I’ve done or seen. It just helps you find your path into the characters and into their motivations in such a personal way.
Danny, your character changed slightly from the stage show, being the stepfather rather than their biological dad. How do you think that that impacted the story?
When Steven Chbosky, the director, and I talked about Larry Mora versus Larry Murphy, his take was that having Larry be a stepfather and Cynthia’s second husband gave the relationship, he used the term, “more edges.” It provided a symmetry to Larry filling an emotional gap, a hole, left by the children’s biological father in much the same way that Evan tries to fill that hole, that gap, that is left by Connor in the family. Not only that, but also shedding light on the fact that families aren’t always cookie cutter or perfect.
What was the hardest song to master?
Adams: When I look at the heavy lifting that Ben and Kaitlyn and so much of the cast did in this, I feel like… there’s two sides to it. I feel like, boy, if I mess this up, it’s going to be glaringly obvious because we’re singing with Ben Platt, who’s one of the best singers I’ve ever been in the company of. That does elevate the pressure you put on yourself. But personally, it wasn’t necessarily a lyric. It was really that intimate way of singing. It’s something I’ve never practiced before. I’m very practiced at singing heart. I do that at karaoke all the time. But singing quietly —
Pinto: I want to hear that. I want to hear you belt some heart.
Adams: Oh yeah. We’ll get to that later. But when you hear that… if I seem distracted, it’s because I honestly keep thinking about everyone singing in this movie. One thing they did want to capture was that singing was a way into the characters and into their motivations. I could talk about it forever. I’m going to hand it over to you. Sometimes it’s best for me to just burn out.
Pinto: Sometimes it’s difficult to talk about how great you are. The simplicity and specificity of thought and emotion that you brought to Cynthia in “Requiem,” I heard you do it a hundred times in rehearsal, thankfully, and then to watch it was profound. That’s what Stephen Chbosky was seeking — that specificity throughout the entire film. For me, probably the hardest song to learn was “To Break in a Glove.” And I know we didn’t shoot it and it was never part of the film and we were never intended to to film it, but I felt like I needed to learn it.
Adams: I’d like to hear that.
Pinto: Well, maybe one day, maybe if you sing heart, I might sing “To Break in a Glove.”
Adams: I sense a karaoke night.
What’s the best Broadway show tune to sing for karaoke?
Adams: It depends on the room, really. The one I have most fun singing is “Defying Gravity,” but you either have to sing Glinda or you’ve got to have a real good Glinda.
Can you hit Elphaba’s high note at the end?
Adams: It depends on the day. That’s always the goal. I love singing anything from Elphaba in “Wicked” because it’s a role my voice is not suited to, so it’s fun to do on my own.
Pinto: I like to sing duets. Maybe “Light My Candle” from “Rent”?
Amandla Stenberg as Alana Beck
Did you have to audition for the movie?
I got the script in my inbox. Stephen Chbosky wanted to have a meeting with me. I thought we were going to have a general meeting, and then I was going to audition. But Steven and I ended up having a two-hour conversation that spanned so many different things: our lives, our feelings about the world, our insecurities, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations. It was a conversation that I’ll never forget. And then at the end of the Zoom, Stephen was like, “You know what, kid? I want you to be in this movie.” I got off the Zoom and I jumped up and down and I screamed.
So there wasn’t any singing required to get the part?
No, I did not have to do that. I’m still pretty astounded they had so much faith in me.
When did you learn your part was going to be expanded from what’s in the stage musical?
I knew that Alana had been expanded and she was given a lot more breadth to understand who she is and what she’s going through too. I didn’t know necessarily that they were going to invite me into the process of collaboration, in terms of writing her original song. After I had been cast, Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul] reached out to me and said, “We want to write this with you. You’re the custodian of the character, and so you’re an important part of the songwriting process.”
Social media has a big presence in the movie. What is your personal relationship with social media?
It’s complicated… shifting all the time. I don’t know. I see social media as so many different things. It’s like a Rubik’s cube. It has so many different colors that shift and change. There are parts of social media that I’m really grateful for, like the ability to organize, share ideas, have conversations, find community, connect, be given information, be updated on the news cycle. And then, of course, I see the underbelly and detriment it can cause in terms of how people perceive themselves or even perceive others. Or the danger of living in a world so dictated by echo-chambers of thought. Or a world in which we base our understanding of information on such little seeds that then get blown up. That makes me really nervous. At this point, I don’t necessarily take social media too seriously. I try to use it in a way that I feel is responsible. And then sometimes I just shit-post. [Laughs] So it’s, like, a mixture at this point.
Do you think there are misconceptions about younger generations?
Yeah, I think there’s this perception that, because of the amount of phone use, older generations think Gen Z is not intelligent or self-aware. I actually think Gen Z, the generation four or five years below me, is way smarter than me. They have such a critical eye for bullshit. They have this really coy, intelligent nihilism and sarcasm that they use as a way of expressing their feelings and being honest about what they’re going through. I really respect. I also think that, yeah, they spend a lot of time on their phones. But a lot of what they’re doing on their phones is pretty cool.
Shifting gears here. What’s the best Broadway show tune to sing for karaoke?
I love to sing “Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago.” There’s a lot of different textures going on. You get to be, like, eight different characters and do different accents and then burst into a jazzy refrain in between.
Are there any musical theater songs that should be banned from karaoke?
Hmm. I don’t know. I would say that I don’t know if white people need to be singing “Dream Girls.” [Laughs]
Director Stephen Chbosky
With “Wonder” and “Perks of Being a Wallflower” and now “Dear Evan Hansen,” you often tackle stories about middle and high schoolers. What appeals to you about that time in adolescence?
You ask anybody: What are your favorite movies? What’s your favorite music? Most of the answers are going to be something they heard, saw or read before the age of 25. Those are the movies that moved me the most when I was young. I felt a real kindred spirit with that age range. I also love the purity of the age. When you have that first crush, it is everything. It always brings people back to a more innocent time. As people get older, they get a little harder edge.
The ending of the movie varies from the stage show. Why did you decide to change it?
I kept thinking about Evan at his 10-year high school reunion. As much as I think it’s lovely that Connor’s family did not “out” Evan in terms of what he did — I thought that was very noble of them — I thought about the practicality of him carrying that lie as long as he would have. Since the whole point of the story is to be yourself, no hiding, no lying, I thought, well, I want him to come clean. I thought that would be very liberating for the character. It would make his coming-of-age complete.
How has the high school experience changed since you were in high school?
It’s changed in a very nuanced way. I don’t think it’s as black and white as people think. First love is still first love. It’s just now, the way that of expressing yourself, the way of communicating, seems to have changed. Diaries used to be locked up and hidden in a drawer. Now, they’re kind of published, right? It’s really interesting. But fundamentally, what I think has not changed and will never change: as young people are finding their own identity and trying on different hats, there’s always going to be a public face and a private. There’s always going to be that hidden truth about yourself and the part of yourself you think is going to be accepted by society. That society is much bigger now because of social media.
As someone who had a hand in bringing “Rent” and “Beauty and the Beast” to the big screen, what’s the best Broadway show tune to sing for karaoke?
I would have to say, if you got the pipes, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the great song from “Dream Girls.” Or maybe “Hamilton,” if you can play all those parts. That opening song is brilliant. One time, on a Zoom, I tried to do a karaoke of every single voice from the original “We Are the World.” It almost killed my throat.
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