Ben Platt is the beating heart of hit musical Dear Evan Hansen

Pitch Perfect movie actor plays an anxious teen whose public profile accidentally goes viral

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am

When audiences weep at the new musical Dear Evan Hansen, they shed their tears for Ben Platt. The Pitch Perfect movie actor plays an anxious teen whose public profile accidentally goes viral when a "friend" suffers a shocking tragedy.

This world premiere has turned out to be a hit at Washington's Arena Stage, and there are several reasons for that. It's sensitive to its wrenching subject. It's visually savvy: imagery of social media often swarms the stage. The pop-Broadway score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is a warm pathway into the minds of the sympathetic characters; there are no real villains in the tale.

Central, though, is Platt as Evan Hansen, the pulse of the musical's raw, anxiously beating heart.

"He should not exist," Pasek says. "It's difficult to say if he's a better singer or actor. Our score is more pop than Broadway music, and the way he completely owns that style is so impressive."

The production ends its Arena Stage run today, but is poised to reappear at New York's Second Stage Theatre next spring.

"I'm 18 for the next two years, if anyone asks," says Platt, who turns 22 next month.

Platt's career is certainly coming of age. Movie audiences know him as the upbeat misfit Benji in the two Pitch Perfect movies, easygoing comedies about college a cappella singing groups. He's now on screen as a gay bartender who adores Meryl Streep's character in Ricki and the Flash.

"To have something on film where I'm looking at Meryl Streep and she's looking at me and we're talking to each other," Platt says, "that's all you can ask for."

Not that Platt is only now getting a brush with the big time. He's a Hollywood kid whose dad, Marc Platt, was once president of production at Universal Pictures; the senior Platt's producing credits include the movie Legally Blonde and the musical Wicked.

Platt followed his three older siblings in a musical theatre programme, where he fell in love with Oliver! and Annie. By the age of nine, Platt was appearing in annual musical concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. By 11, Platt was starring in an eight-month tour of the musical Caroline, or Change, the acclaimed musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori about a Jewish boy and his family's African-American housekeeper in 1963 Louisiana.

"I'd really only ever really been around white Jewish people my whole childhood," Platt says with a laugh. "So to be around those amazing black singers was really inspiring."

His parents were careful not to shove him into showbiz and they offered ice cream as bribes for young Ben to go to soccer practice. He was a good student at the private Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, but he chose Columbia University so he would have access to the New York stages.

Just before the autumn term in 2011, though, Platt landed his first movie role - Benji in Pitch Perfect - so he deferred his Columbia enrolment for a year. When he started school a year later, another big gig came - the role of Elder Cunningham in the Chicago production of Book of Mormon - so he left school after only two months.

He starred in Mormon for 10 months, then returned to New York for a year-long gig in the same part on Broadway.

This year has been almost entirely dedicated to Evan Hansen, except for the big Ang Lee movie he shot in Atlanta, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, based on the Ben Fountain novel.

"It was definitely a choice," he says. "I think if I had been interested in films, my dad would have been equally supportive. I certainly grew up going to sets and seeing him work, and I knew a certain amount about the film industry. I just never was quite in love with that process."

The Evan Hansen part has always been Platt's. Pasek and Paul loved him several years ago when he auditioned for their musical Dogfight. He was too young for that show, but the songwriters flagged him for this.

"The director and I talked about always making sure that the audience knows what Evan's intentions are and what's going on in his mind," Platt says. "If you feel like you don't understand him, that's when you start to not be on his side. That's the thing that's so beautiful about this writing: You feel like you really know this kid. And there's nothing quite like a musical to feel like you understand somebody inside and out."

The Washington Post