‘Dear Evan Hansen’ star Ben Levi Ross talks living authentically and launching a national tour

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Since its world premiere in 2015 and its Broadway debut the following year, “Dear Evan Hansen” has captivated audiences with its contemporary and cautionary tale of a high school student waving through a window and yearning to be found.

The megahit musical—which features a book by Tony Award winner Steven Levenson, direction by Tony Award nominee Michael Greif (“Rent”) and a score by Grammy, Tony and Academy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman”)—quickly became a household name. In 2017, it was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won six, including Best Musical. The following year, its original Broadway cast recording won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

The show’s success lies in the fact that it’s a story for everyone, 21-year-old performer Ben Levi Ross says, and it’s a story he knows well. Prior to launching the first “Dear Evan Hansen” national tour as its titular lead, the openly LGBTQ performer understudied Evan Hansen and two other roles on Broadway.

He’s also dating Taylor Trensch, who wrapped his year-long Broadway run as the same character in January, and with whom he co-starred in a viral video rendition of the show’s “Only Us” as the charming Evan Hansens. The duo also led a cross-company version of “You Will Be Found,” introducing the internet to their respective companies last December.

The celebrated hit makes its way to Florida next month, stopping first at The Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa April 9-14 and then at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando April 16-21. Watermark caught up with Levi Ross ahead of the tour’s local stops to talk about living authentically and leaving Broadway to launch the first “Dear Evan Hansen” tour.

WATERMARK: How do you connect with the character of Evan?

BEN LEVI ROSS: “Dear Evan Hansen” follows the story of a young boy who feels that he isn’t seen in the world and doesn’t have anyone to connect with. He has the opportunity to get everything he’s ever wanted but it comes at a cost; it asks those big questions about how much is worth it when it comes to wanting everything you’ve never had.
I think everyone to some degree has felt lonely in their lives, whether it’s on a daily basis or it just comes in little spurts. For me, one of the biggest things that I’ve connected with on this show is the way that social media plays a role in it, and how people are perceived very differently across social media platforms. We’re only seeing the best side of our peers and the people that we connect with on a daily basis, when really everyone is going through the same thing and everyone is feeling very disconnected. I think those big themes are the things that I really connect with and that I love about the show.

Social media has been a huge part of the show’s marketing strategy. What was it like filming “You Will Be Found” with the Broadway cast?

That was really fun and a great idea that our producer Stacey Mindich had. I think the world became so familiar with that first Broadway company and now with the fact that they have launched the national tour and they are opening the Toronto and London companies in the fall, it was a really great way of introducing that this family’s going to keep growing and there are going to be new faces. The story’s going to remain one of the most important musical theater stories of the 21st century, I think.

How did it feel to film “Only Us” with your boyfriend?

That was super special. The response to that video was truly overwhelming, for not only the show but for me and Taylor specifically. The comments and the messages that we received from young, queer kids across the country who just felt like they were represented in the video was amazing.

I’m only 21, but even when I was in middle school and I was fawning over people on Broadway and was a little theater fan, I don’t think I ever would have seen a video like this being created. So it really goes to show what a special company this is and how they can recognize the power they have in representing their actors in that way.

Evan Hansen is a demanding and emotional role. What’s it been like as a couple to experience playing it together?

We try and honestly keep it as separate as possible. He’s finished his run in the show but I was his understudy for a little bit, which was fun. (Laughs.) I respect his take on this role so immensely, and I think vice versa, so it’s been the most interesting start to a relationship. Having mutual respect for each other’s work is one of the most important things.

How did starting on Broadway prepare you to launch and lead the tour?

I think it gave me an intimacy with the script in a way that a lot of people would never get, just because I was covering three roles on Broadway. There are only eight roles in the show, so having to know three of those tracks in the first place gives you an intimacy with the script and with the text.

So when I came into the rehearsal room on the first day of the national tour rehearsals, obviously I was already off book, but I already had thought about the show from three very different perspectives. I think that gave me a really interesting way of seeing how Evan handles those relationships, because it gave mean empathy for the other two roles I was no longer covering that I don’t think I would have had if I had never performed those roles in the first place.

Obviously now the perspective is very much from Evan’s in my head because that’s the role that I’m doing every night, but I can sit back and say, “Oh, I definitely see where Jared is coming from here” or “I see how Connor fits into this.” I definitely see how the audience may empathize or relate with those other two roles as well.

Ben Levi Ross (center) and the company of the first North American tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

The show tackles anxiety, depression and suicide. How do you mentally prepare before your performances and how do you detox afterwards?

Especially on the road, since I don’t get to go to my own home after the shows and I’m usually going to a place I have to make my home for one to six weeks, it’s really about staying in contact with my friends and family. I also FaceTime Taylor after the show or just watch something funny to keep my spirits lightened. Taylor and I sometimes used to talk about how he didn’t realize how much the show was necessarily weighing down on him until he was done with his year-long run. He realized “Oh wow, maybe I was carrying around a little bit of that at the end,” just because you never leave the stage. So for three hours every night you’re just sort of locked into this material that’s very heavy and very difficult. It’s a hard thing for Evan and that sort of heaviness can end up weighing on someone.

It’s important to take care of yourself in every capacity of that sentiment—spiritually, emotionally, physically—and also the cast is so wonderful that I’m traveling with. We really have each other’s backs, so whenever someone is feeling like they need to have a little bit more fun on our time off I’ll go down the hall and knock on Maggie’s door who plays Zoe or call Jessica Phillips who plays my mom and we’ll just hang out for a little bit. I’m really lucky to have them.

What’s it been like introducing the show to audiences nationwide?

It’s really an incredible experience, because there are so many people who have been listening to this score for years and they have yet to see it. We’re the ones who are introducing it to them in their hometowns and that’s just so exciting. The fans are so passionate about the show and I’m very proud of the show that we’re traveling with. I think it’s a really great representation and fans are really in for a treat when they come and see it.

Why do you feel the show’s so timely and important?

I think the importance lies in that it really is for everyone. I think that the first thing that draws people to this show is the score because it’s such an incredible score. People know the songs, they know “Waving Through a Window,” they know “You Will Be Found,” they know these big songs, but I think there are also a lot of parents who know that their kids love the music but don’t realize how much the show is going to resonate with them when they bring them to see it. It really is a show for everyone and it so truthfully portrays everyone’s struggles.

(L-R) Ben Levi Ross, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll and Maggie McKenna in “Dear Evan Hansen.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

How so?

There are no caricatures on the stage. I think that’s why it’s such an important show. There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to talking about the struggles of mental health, there’s no beating around the bush when it comes to talking about suicide or talking about loneliness or anxiety. There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to being honest about the struggles of being a single mother, or feeling like you need to achieve all the time to be seen. I think all of these characters are such poignant figures that we all resonate with directly or know someone who is so similar to. It does all of that with verve, humor and passion.

You’ve shared your personal passions during the tour on social media, speaking out about equality and more—but you recently deleted your own accounts, right?

That’s just a moment for me. Actually, it’s honestly important to talk about because for me, at this point the show has had me garner a lot of followers and definitely much more attention toward my social media than before I was in the show. I needed to take a second and detox from it. For me it isn’t enough to delete the apps off of my phone. (Laughs.) I really need to stick to it if I’m going to do it and so Instagram you can deactivate your account and bring it back later. I’m realizing that sometimes it just feels a little bit overwhelming, literally for no reason in particular, but I think it’s important. It’s also interesting that I’m doing this show right now, and in this show it talks about the negative and positives of social media.

I think we are taking it into our hands and our power to say, “you know what? I’m feeling a little overwhelmed right now, I think I’m going to take a second and deactivate. But I’ll be back, I’m in control.” (Laughs.) These apps and these interfaces don’t control my life, but yes, definitely before and probably also after this, I will continue to be pretty bold, loud and unapologetic on my social media.

Why is that?

As an artist, that’s the type of art that I want to create. It’s also the type of people that I want to be surrounded by in the world of theater and art, people who are standing up for what they believe in and are not taking ignorance to heart. I’ve been out and open since I was 14 years old, I think it gives me the opportunity and responsibility to be myself and be present. From the messages that I’ve received, I recognize that there are a lot of kids out there who appreciate and definitely gain something from just seeing me or seeing Taylor out there, being successful in the world and in the world of theater.

If I can continue to do that it’s a very important thing for me. Hopefully I will continue to be that person for someone, or for many kids out there, but I’ll do it on my own terms and come back to social media when I’m not feeling a little crazy. (Laughs.)

Until then, what are you looking forward to about bringing the show to Florida?

I’m so excited to come to Florida. I just hope that everyone is excited to experience this show … even if you know nothing about it you’re going to leave feeling very fulfilled, like you got a real good dose of a special musical theater experience. I can’t wait.

“Dear Evan Hansen” plays at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa April 9-14 and at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando April 16-21. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit StrazCenter.org or DrPhillipsCenter.org.

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