Ben Platt’s life in theater may soon include a Tony for ‘Dear Evan Hansen’
Despite a crowded field of stellar nominees, it’s not that surprising that Ben Platt, star of “Dear Evan Hansen,” is the favorite to win Best Actor in a musical when the Tony Awards are handed out on June 11.
He was practically born for the stage.
Consider his upbringing: His older brother, Jonah, has made it to Broadway and his father, Marc Platt, is a prolific Hollywood and Broadway producer. Family lore has it that musical theater CDs accompanied every Platt family car ride. Something from those “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon” soundtracks apparently took hold.
“At family get-togethers and simchas, we have been known to be called the ‘von Platt’ family,” said Julie Platt, a mother of three other children, referencing the singing von Trapp family from “The Sound of Music.” “Music is definitely an important and special part of our lives.”
The tagline of “Dear Evan Hansen” is “You will be found.” Through this much talked-about musical, Marc and Julie’s Platt’s fourth child hasn’t simply been found, he has arrived.
Ben Platt created the role of Evan, an awkward and isolated teenager who forges a connection with a grieving family based on a lie spread over social media. Directed by Michael Greif, who also helmed “Rent” and “Next to Normal,” “Dear Evan Hansen” features a score by the Oscar-winning “La La Land” team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The show’s nine Tony nominations include best musical.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, a friend of the Platts since their college days at the University of Pennsylvania 40 years ago, calls the family “the Jackson 5 of the Jewish world” but hastily adds “except with better values, and I would say they do more for the world.”
Marc Platt is an Oscar- and Tony Award-nominated producer of more than 40 films, including “Legally Blonde” and “La La Land,” and Broadway’s “Wicked,” “Three Days of Rain” and “If/Then.” (He also is nominated for a Tony this year as the producer of the play “Indecent.”) Julie Platt is one of the L.A. Jewish community’s most committed leaders and philanthropists, serving as chair of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and as a board member of Camp Ramah, among other organizations.
The foundation of Ben Platt’s Jewish identity was developed early. Like his siblings, Ben went to day school at Sinai and attended Camp Ramah. Values learned there are particularly helpful now, said Platt, who won rave reviews for playing the demanding role of Evan Hansen.
“It keeps me incredibly grounded during this time of insurmountable headiness, and provides a foundation of support and community that make this journey feel far more meaningful,” Platt, 23, said by email. “As a theater artist in particular, Judaism has cultivated a unique sense of empathy in me for which I am very grateful. Judaism encourages us to see beyond the surface to try to understand those who are different from us. This has afforded me the opportunity to better comprehend the character of Evan and the characters around him.”
Ben Platt has been with “Dear Evan Hansen” since its development more than three years ago, playing the role in productions at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theater and now Broadway.
In addition to its box-office success and critical accolades, “Dear Evan Hansen” is resonating with young audiences and opening up conversations between parents and children about such issues as suicide, bullying and the dangers of social media. The musical’s fans often approach Platt to share intimate stories of their own experiences.
“He’s very aware of the fact that he has no professional role in this,” Julie Platt said. “He never wants anybody to think that he is more than the person imparting this role. He tries to be as empathic as he can possibly be.”
“Evan Hansen” is light years away from the 6-year-old Ben Platt who acted in and directed backyard plays and portrayed the prince in “Cinderella” at the Adderley School for the Performing Arts. In 2002, when the producers of a three-performance summer production of “The Music Man” at the Hollywood Bowl needed a boy to play opposite Eric McCormack and Kristin Chenoweth, they called Adderley. The school recommended Platt, who got “The Music Man” gig and followed it up in subsequent Bowl engagements of “Mame,” “Camelot” and, fittingly, “The Sound of Music.” As an 11-year-old, Platt appeared at the Ahmanson Theatre as part of a national tour of Tony Kushner’s and Jeanine Tesori’s “Caroline, or Change” that also took him to San Francisco.
“He was singularly focused on the joy he felt singing and performing,” Julie Platt said. “After the first two musicals at the Hollywood Bowl, I think we were sort of onto the fact that maybe he was really going to get to do this. It’s hard to know that when you’re that young, but we sure knew this was the thing he loved more than anything in the world, and he seemed to have the blessing of being very good at it.”
Ben Platt frequently encounters aspiring actors seeking advice.
“I love getting to hear that [‘Dear Evan Hansen’] inspires them to keep doing what they love,” he said. “Being that I myself am still very young, I feel that the only advice of value I can really offer is to encourage these actors to avoid trying to fit into preconceived molds and to invest their time and energy in discovering what sets them apart and makes them unique and unmatchable.”
He continued to act in high school. Ted Walch, a longtime drama director at Harvard-Westlake who had known the Platt siblings, tabbed Ben for a role in a school production of “Gypsy” when he was 8. Seven years later, when Ben was a student at the school, he performed in several plays and musicals, including “Our Town,” “Pippin,” “City of Angels” and “Into the Woods.” He also was a member of the campus improvisation group, The Scene Monkeys, which had been started by his brother Jonah.
And although he already had notched several professional theater credits by the time he came to high school, Platt was not simply the drama kid.
“He was an exceedingly good student across the board,” Walch said. “He was a very complete kid in high school, and although his gifts in the theater were obvious to one and all, it was also equally obvious to his teachers that he was gifted in the classroom.”
His high school roles ranged from a fop in “The Servant of Two Masters” to a father in “Our Town” to the title role in the musical “Pippin.” Max Sheldon, an actor-writer and fellow Harvard-Westlake alum, recalls working out a complicated dance sequence with Platt during their senior-year production of “Pippin.” Sheldon, who had the more extensive dance background, played the Leading Player to Platt’s Pippin.
“Among the many things I admire about him is that he is just kind of fearless when he dives into things,” said Sheldon, who has stayed friends with Platt since graduation as both actors relocated to New York. “Most people who didn’t have any dance background would walk into a room having to learn a dance number and would be scared out of their minds, but Ben said, ‘No, let’s figure this out. What do we do?’ He and I took care of each other and kind of built this number together and played on his strengths and played on my strengths and decided what was going to work best for us.”
“It was a magical moment that you don’t get to experience often,” Sheldon continued, “especially with people who are as talented as Ben and as commanding of space onstage as he is.”
Platt briefly enrolled at Columbia University but took a gap year after being cast in the film “Pitch Perfect.” Before he could return to school, he appeared in the Chicago production of “The Book of Mormon.” He later made his Broadway debut in that musical, playing the misfit and “Star Trek”-loving missionary, Elder Cunningham.
The Harvard-Westlake drama students were a tight-knit group and have remained close since graduating. Many of them have seen “Evan Hansen” multiple times, and Walch noted with satisfaction that when Platt received his caricature at the famed New York theater-district restaurant Sardi’s, several of his high school friends were there to share the moment. While Platt has been with “Dear Evan Hansen,” another Harvard-Westlake classmate and close friend, Beanie Feldstein, is performing up the street in the Tony-nominated revival of “Hello, Dolly!” On two-show days, Platt and Feldstein often meet between performances.
The knowledge that her son has a network of friends close by is comforting to Julie Platt, who, along with Marc, goes to New York for regular visits. The family gathered there for a Passover seder, which fell on a Monday. Ben participated but used a whiteboard to help conserve his voice.
Evan Hansen is a lonely, troubled and hugely vulnerable character. Asked to evaluate what it is like to watch her son’s character experience that kind of darkness, Julie Platt said, “Agony would be a good word.”
“It’s very difficult to watch Ben go to that place, and I cannot say that has lightened,” she said. “I’ve probably seen it more than 15 times, and each time with an equal amount of joy and dread.”
Wolpe can relate. Having seen Platt perform several times in recent years, the rabbi found “Evan Hansen” satisfying but also difficult to watch.
“The degree of the transformation, the totality with which he inhabited that character was stunning, and I kept reminding myself, ‘It’s OK, because he really does have good parents,’ ” Wolpe said. “I felt so bad for him in the show, and I seriously sat there saying, ‘But it’s OK, because Julie and Marc are really his parents. It’s really OK.’ ”
The Tony Awards ceremony will be televised on CBS at 8 p.m. June 11.