‘Dear Evan Hansen’ star Ben Levi Ross on the challenges of taking the lead in a Tony-winning Broadway show
The 21-year-old actor decided ‘less is more’ when it came to the famously challeging role
Ben Levi Ross wakes up most mornings saddled with an “emotional hangover”, an affliction he typically shakes through meditation and a good stretch. Physically, he recuperates with the help of a personal steamer, plus a soothing ginger and manuka honey beverage of his own making.
Then, after a few hours of resting in solitude, the 21-year-old steps back onstage as the title character in Dear Evan Hansen, taxing his mind and body with a 2½-hour binge of anxiety, panic, grief and guilt.
“It has been really hard,” Ross says. “Your body doesn’t know the difference, in terms of the emotional turmoil you’re experiencing on a night-to-night basis. And your outlook on the world may be a little bit affected by the experience that you had the night before.”
Dear Evan Hansen, the 2017 Tony winner for best musical, focuses on a high school senior with a broken arm who’s yearning for connection. Since September, Ross has shed his upbeat persona night after night while introducing audiences to the troubled teen on the show’s North American tour.
“He has this remarkable ability to step into this role and lose himself in the most beautiful and raw ways,” says Jessica Phillips, who plays Evan’s overworked single mother, Heidi. “He’s not thinking – he’s feeling.”
With a book by Steven Levenson (TV’s Fosse/Verdon) and a pop-rock-infused score from Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman, Aladdin), Dear Evan Hansen follows Ross’ character as he gets tangled in a well-meaning lie following a classmate’s suicide. The show poses challenging moral questions and, with the help of towering screens that illuminate the set with social media feeds, taps into the sense of loneliness that can still permeate in an age of hyperconnectivity.
Ross had just completed his first year at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when, while auditioning for a different play, he caught the eye of Dear Evan Hansen director Michael Greif. Ross booked a gig in the summer of 2017 as a Broadway understudy for three roles: Evan, plus the character’s classmates Jared and Connor. He spent the better part of a year waiting in the wings on Broadway, filling in sporadically, before stepping into the spotlight for the hit show’s first tour.
The role of Evan, originated in a Tony-winning performance from Ben Platt, is famously gruelling. The character carries imperfect posture and nervous tics while rarely leaving the stage, stretching his voice on 11 of the show’s 14 full-length musical numbers.
“When I heard Ben Platt talking about how hard the role was, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I bet it’s hard, but does he really have to sit quietly every day alone leading up to the show?’ ” Ross says. “And the answer is yes, you do. There’s literally no way to get through the week if you’re living your life like a normal person.”
And while four actors have now played the role full time on Broadway, Ross notes that “no one had toured as Evan Hansen – that was my own personal battle to fight.”
“His stamina has to be, I think, far beyond what any of the Evans did on Broadway,” Phillips says. “He has had to factor in the changing environments and the travelling and re-establishing a routine at every theatre.”
“I can definitely think back to things early on where I hate what I was doing,” Ross says. “I was leaving the stage every night and feeling completely wrecked from my head to my toes, in terms of all of the tension that I was carrying – I thought that’s who Evan was, I thought that’s how his anxiety was manifesting. That wasn’t sustainable, so I learned to just strip back.”
Although Ross never dissected the script with the Evan actors before him, preferring to learn by observing their performances, he has spoken to one of them about the toll: his boyfriend, Taylor Trensch, who left the Broadway company in January after a year in the lead role.
“He did say, the month after he finished the show, that he didn’t realise how much the darkness of the show was weighing down on him until he experienced life without it,” Ross says.
In September, Ross passed Evan’s arm cast and blue polo to Stephen Christopher Anthony, who had been performing matinees as the role’s alternate.
Ross won’t miss the baggage that comes with unpacking Evan’s complexities six times a week, but he already finds himself lamenting the end of his journey with a show that changed his life.
“As an artist, I have never been pushed to the limits that I’ve been pushed to over this past year, just physically and mentally,” Ross says. “I feel like it’s really prepared me to take on anything that comes my way after this.